Use Your Breath to Be a Better Massage Therapist, #5 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 fifth and final post in the series.*
Continuing the Breath
Our clients come to us for many different reasons—because they are stressed, because they are pregnant, because they are recovering from surgery—but all those reasons overlap in one fundamental way: our clients want to feel better in their bodies. A breath that is slow, full, and effortless is one of the greatest tools we have to feel better—and literally, to feel more embodied. By making the client more aware of this innate ability, you are helping her to feel better whenever she wants, both in this moment and in the rest of her life.
That perpetual applicability of the effortless breath is important, because the one thing we know with certainty is that the massage session will soon be over. Though it is gratifying when a client tells you that she wants to stay on your table forever, or that she wishes she could get a massage every day, such platitudes are hinder more than they help: they stroke our egos, but obscure the larger purpose of our therapeutic work. We don’t actually want our clients to require our touch in order to be satisfied in their bodies. Rather, we should want our massage work to prepare the client to re-enter the world of the standing, and to be able to navigate that world more easily. I believe that engaging the client’s breath, and making her conscious of the possibilities within that breath, is one of the most concrete and useful means we have to prepare her for the post-massage world. When the client walks out of the room and feels her breath full and easy—even as life’s stresses re-emerge, even with our hands no longer on her—she is encouraged. We have shown the client how powerful she can be by herself, beyond our help.
The beauty of massaging with the breath is that we can’t not breathe. Unlike the daily stretching routine that we never make time for, or our attempts at a new workout regimen, or the fitness tracker that we keep leaving at home, breathing is something we are already doing, all the time. Growing our awareness of it gives us the chance to live with a little less effort, to embody our bodies with a little more ease. The breath is our perpetual possibility. With every new exhalation we have the chance to become more aware. To notice exactly what we are doing right now, just at this moment, and just as important, to notice all that we don’t need to be doing right now.
OTHER PLACES TO BREATH—A Few More Ideas for You to Play With
Even though the respiration itself is only happening in our lungs, the ramifications of an effortless breath can be felt throughout the body. Below are a few additional, and more specific, ways that I use the breath in a session.
Front of the Hips
For the client with low back complaints, I find it helpful to grow his awareness of the front of the hips.
Try this prompt with the client lying face down, as you work on the posterior legs and the glutes.
“As I work on your right leg, I want you to notice the front of your right hip. Notice the place where the front of the hip touches the sheet. Like always, I want you to do nothing, force nothing, change nothing. With each exhalation, just imagine the front of the hip melting a little further into the sheet; through the sheet, into the table; through the table, down towards the floor.”
Oftentimes, even in just the first or second exhalation after the prompt I can feel a loosening—a deflating—particularly in the tissues of and around the glutes. What’s happening in this moment? The client is becoming aware of the tension they are carrying unconsciously, and that lengthened exhale is a vehicle for releasing that tension. Particularly for those areas—like the lower back—where tension and pain can feel ever-present, a lengthening and loosening of the muscles nearby has can help release that constantly clenched area. (The upper back is another spot that often feels unyielding to the client; here, encouraging a melting through the front of the chest and the backs of the arms can help the client find ease in that seemingly stuck area.)
Base of the Skull
Our suboccipital muscles are especially good at holding a slight contraction all the time, at working even when we don’t need them to. Try this prompt for those clients who always seem to be on high alert, who have a hard time letting their head relax into your hands when you are doing neck work in supine, or those clients who get a lot of headaches.
With the client in supine, sit at the head of the table, place the back of your palms against the table, and slide your fingertips along the posterior neck until you reach the base of the skull. Your fingertips should be pointing up towards the ceiling, with the client’s suboccipitals resting against the pads of the fingers, and with the client’s skull cradled in your palms. Then say something like:
“Each time you exhale, imagine the base of your skull melting ever so slightly into my fingertips. Like always, no need to force or change anything, just feel the head able to soften, little by little, just as its ready.”
As you say this, keep your fingers soft, and stationary, but tip your body forward and back ever so slightly, hinging at your hips, as if you are using a rocking chair. This subtle rocking movement—rather than trying to explicitly pull or stretch the neck—in combination with the spoken suggestion, helps to mitigate that instinct for these muscles to hold and guard, and can offer the client a particularly vivid revelation of how much their own body can let go.
Rubber Band Relief
Though I have focused primarily on the exhalation, as your client becomes more adept at feeling their breath (and you become more adept at offering suggestions for the breath) you can direct the inhalation as well. A conscious inhalation is particularly helpful for pain relief. Here is a visualization for that can be helpful for any area that feels uncomfortable; try something like the following as you work on or near the area:
“I want you to feel the discomfort here as specifically as possible. Think about how you would describe it. Achy and dull? Sharp and shooting? Tight and constricting? Now I want you to imagine a rubber band that is wide enough to cover that painful area; imagine it wrapping all the way around your body, from the spine, around the sides of the body, to the front of the front of the body. As always, follow that exhalation slowly down to empty. Then, as the body begins to inhale, imagine the rubber band being stretched in every direction—feel the front, the sides, the back of that painful area being inflated. Then, on the exhalation, feel that uncomfortable area melting back down to empty.”
You can encourage your client to maintain this rubber band image for as long as feels useful. I find this use of the inhalation to be a very simple, embodied manifestation of a central, and very powerful, tenet of meditation: even when our pain feels constant, or chronic, or we feel just plain stuck, if we pay close enough attention, we see that this discomfort—like all of life—is in fact always changing. Just as important, showing the client how they can use the breath to engage with their discomfort, rather than just trying to ignore it, can help the client feel more in control of the session itself, and gives the client a tool for when he is not on your table, for those inevitable moments in the rest of his life when the pain returns in one form or another.
[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.]