Use Your Breath to Be a Better Massage Therapist, #1 of 5

*this is a series of connected blog posts about how to cultivate an awareness of your own breath, and your client’s breath, in order to give a more effective massage. 

this is the first post in the series.*


Breath: A Powerful—and Ignored—Tool


We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole 

that makes a wagon move.


We shape clay into a pot

but it is the emptiness inside 

that holds whatever we want.


We hammer wood for a house, 

but it is the inner space 

that makes it livable.


We work with being, 

but non-being is what we use.


— Lao-Tzu,Tao Te Ching[i]




We are people of the body. We are bodyworkers. This term contains both the beauty and the trap of our profession. First, we are fascinated by the body, by skin and fascia, by muscle and tendon; we pride ourselves on all that we can see with our eyes, and all that we can “see” with our hands. And second, we take the “worker” part of this label very seriously; many of us feel like we are not doing a good job unless we are exerting great effort to change or heal or fix our clients. 

From that devotion, too often, comes our downfall. Our focus on the body before us enables us to do much good, but that focus can also shackle us. Surely, each of us has gone down some version of the massage therapist rabbit hole. Where you become so focused on your client’s tight calves that you find yourself mashing his leg into the table, and getting more and more frustrated that the tissue is not responding the way you think it should; or you are so determined to fix that stubborn subscapularis that you don’t notice the client grimacing and holding her breath as you push and prod and dig your way underneath her shoulder blade. 

It is inevitable that our primary focus is on all that “being” that is lying on the table beneath our hands. But when we focus too much on trying to change all that muscle and fascia, we lose sight of something just as important: all that “non-being” that is beneath our hands, and that is changing every moment, all by itself. I don’t mean the ineffable spirit or soul of our clients. I mean something far more humble—an essential ingredient of every moment, for every one of us, an essential aspect of life that is both surprisingly palpable, and surprisingly ignored: our breath. 

We all know that breathing is important: we tell our kids to “take a deep breath” when they are upset; we talk about how we’re going to start meditating; we always intend to go to yoga more often than we do. But even as we recognize the value of breathing (and lament how we’re not doing enough of it, or not doing it the right way) we often miss the great opportunity of our profession: every time we begin a session, the breath is waiting for us. I believe that attending to the breath—both your own and your client’s—will make you a more effective, and more satisfied, therapist. And though they likely won’t be able to articulate exactly why, your clients will find their sessions more beneficial. The breath, quite simply, is the great connector—and often the missing link—in our work. In my next five blog posts, I’ll explore that missing link. I’ll discuss how we transform this unconscious, and often ignored, part of our lives into a powerful tool both to be more present and to give more effective bodywork.

Working with the breath as you massage is useful for many reasons, but the simplest is this: finding your body’s own natural breath—full, slow, effortless—offers many of the same benefits as a great massage. Finding that breath while you are getting a massage—and while you are giving a massage—only makes the work that much more wonderful.

A full breath is a visceral—and continual—manifestation of what we want to give the client (and, I believe, what we too often try to forceonto our clients): that state of effortless relaxation, those delicious moments where you can feel tightness and tension releasing. When we are aware of the client’s breath we can more effectively engage the client’s physical body; but perhaps more important, we can engage his or her autonomic nervous system. In particular, the breath that is full and easy deactivates the sympathetic nervous system—the “fight or flight” response that so many of us are unknowingly stuck in—and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, that rest and relax state that is key for our health and healing.

What is good for the client is good for us, as well. When we work with an awareness of our client’s breath, then we can’t help but be more aware of our own breath, and our own nervous system reaps the same benefits. By contrast, when we remain oblivious to the breath we limit what we are able to do with our clients, and we remain vulnerable to burnout. Let’s change that. 


*Stay tuned for the second post in this series, which will be published soon.

[This post is adapted from “Breath—Your Most Powerful Tool,” Massage & Bodywork, May/June 2016. With my thanks to the ever-marvelous Leslie Young, editor of Massage & Bodywork, for her enduring support.]


[i]Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988).

David LobenstineComment