Breathing is such a critical part of life that people have written books about it, and some bodyworkers specialize solely in teaching people to breathe more fully and easily. But I’m just going to focus on a few aspects of breathing and how it plays a role in my massage work so far.
If you’ve ever received a massage from me or someone else, your therapist may have asked you to breathe at certain times or maybe they even spent a good portion of the massage working with your breathing. Here’s a few reasons why:
Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing means that you are engaging your diaphragm as you breathe and expanding your abdomen as you inhale. So many muscles are employed to help you inhale and exhale, some more than others. A common issue for people is that they start breathing higher up in their chest, raising and lowering their shoulders. Pretend you have just been running away from a tiger—you are panting quickly, your breath is shallow and high in your body—this is an exaggerated example of the type of breathing I mean. This often happens because people feel stressed or anxious. A slouched-over posture (see the String) can also contribute since it decreases the available space for the lungs to expand. When we breathe like this, we are communicating to our body, “I’m running away from a tiger!” We turn on the “fight/flight” mode of our nervous system, and this affects our entire body.
This is why a good response to a stressful moment is to take some deep, slow breaths. Inhaling fully so that your belly pushes out and exhaling when and as long as feels appropriate will communicate a different message to your body, signaling for the “rest/digest” part of the nervous system. This is the mode you want to be in most of the time since it’s when the body can most effectively take care of itself and get things done, like healing.
Have you ever heard of the phrase, “use it or lose it?” Connections in the brain are made stronger the more they are used, and if not used at all they eventually disintegrate. This holds true for triggering the sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system or the parasympathetic (rest/digest) nervous system. The more you tell your body, “I’m running from a tiger!” the more easily your body will switch on the parts of the body that handle high stress situations. And similarly, the more deep, abdominal breathing you practice, the more you can strengthen the connections in your body’s brain that allow for the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. This is also one reason regular massage is beneficial—repeated stimulation of the rest/digest side of the body.
An abdominal breathing exercise:
Not sure you are doing abdominal breathing? Want to tell your body that you’re not running away from a tiger? Try this:
Lay on your back and put something mildly heavy on your belly, like a book, small sack of rice, or a cat (not something so heavy it will make it difficult to breathe). You can also put a hand on your chest. Breathe in and out—is the book moving up and down? If not, feel free to push it up with your abdominal muscles as you inhale, and let it drop down as you exhale. Use the hand on your chest to make sure most of the movement is down at your belly. Your shoulders should not be moving up and down, but neither should you try to hold them in a fixed position. Let your body do what feels easiest, freest.
There are other reasons why I or other therapists may cue a deep breath, but I’ll go into that another time. For now, think about what you are telling your body—do you need to be prepared to run from a tiger? Or are you able to take this moment to rest, recuperate, heal, grow?