Breath is with us—within us—in every moment of our lives.
Breath work, or intentionally shifting our breath, has the potential to help us relax, heal physical and emotional pain, and even stop or reverse the aging process.
As a massage therapist, how you breathe and invite your clients to breathe—your example, your touch and your words—can have an enormous impact on your client’s health and well-being.
Additionally, breathing consciously while you are working on your clients can help you be more present and in tune with them and better able to take care of yourself during massage sessions.
There are many types of breath work, and each one elicits a different physical experience.
With breath work, we can shift one or more of the following four characteristics of breath: speed, volume, transition between inhale and exhale, and use of the body.
Usually, each type of breath work intentionally shifts one or more of these four characteristics.
For example, breath of fire is a fast breath pattern that focuses on the diaphragm contracting and releasing quickly; it is energizing. On the other hand, slow, diaphragmatic breathing is relaxing.
Conscious breathing, or being aware of your breath and actually experiencing the sensations in your body as you breathe in and out, brings awareness to the present moment.
It is an extraordinarily powerful and simple, yet difficult, practice.
Conscious breathing helps us become aware of and experience sensations in our body. As a massage therapist, if you practice conscious breathing, you will be better able to tend to your body while working on clients.
If you ask your clients to notice their breath, or become conscious of their breath, they may be better able to relax and tell you what they are experiencing in their body.
For many people, just the act of bringing awareness to the breath relaxes them.
In our fast-paced world, many of us are not paying attention to our bodies and certainly not our breath.
In our cities, the amount of oxygen in the air has decreased, so most of us receive less than optimal amounts of oxygen.
Unfortunately, oxygen deprivation may cause pain, illness and premature aging.
Conscious breathing is a simple act that can reverse an individual’s symptoms and move them toward greater health.
The characteristics of the most optimal breathing pattern include:
- Continuous breathing, without pauses.
- A six-second inhale and six-second exhale.
- Proper use of the diaphragm: The diaphragm contracts and flattens on the inhale and relaxes and pushes the air out on the exhale.
- Spinal movement: The spine moves easily through the whole breath cycle. (The inhale and exhale together create a breath cycle.)
In deep, relaxed states, the inhale and the exhale often last longer than six seconds.
I have found that when I allow my breath cycle to extend to 10 seconds in and 10 seconds out, or more, I’m able to relax the most.
Diaphragmatic breathing is sometimes called abdominal, belly or deep breathing.
When we properly use the diaphragm during the breath cycle, we are able to breathe deeper and fuller.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle—think of an upside-down bowl—that connects to the bottom of the ribs and the spine.
When it contracts on the inhale, it flattens out slightly, the lower ribs widen and the lungs expand.
When it relaxes on the exhale, the ribs come back in, the diaphragm returns to its fully curved shape and air is pushed out of the lungs.
This type of breathing is called belly breathing because on the inhale the organs below the diaphragm are pushed forward as the diaphragm presses down on them.
Diaphragmatic breathing is important for many reasons.
As it moves up and down, the diaphragm massages our abdominal organs and stimulates the vagus nerve, which passes through an opening in the diaphragm.
The vagus nerve controls the relaxation response.
When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it sends a signal for the body to produce a neurotransmitter that slows the heart rate, relaxes the muscles and can send waves of peaceful feelings through the body.
In addition, because we’re able to breathe into the lower and largest part of our lungs with diaphragmatic breathing, we’re able to bring in more oxygen and release more toxins.
Increased oxygen has been associated with triggering endorphins and improving overall health.
Keep It Going
Conscious, continuous breathing is a type of breath practice where the breather does not pause between the inhale and the exhale or between the exhale and the inhale.
Conscious, continuous breathing takes conscious breathing to the next level.
Often we hold our breath in order to not feel a particular emotion or to sort of check out of a situation that feels uncomfortable.
When we practice conscious, continuous breathing, feelings that have been unprocessed are able to come up to the surface to be healed and digested.
Integrative breath work is actually a healing modality that uses a particular breath pattern that increases the flow of oxygen and life force energy, or chi, within a shortened time frame.
Kind of like increasing the flow of water through a hose, if there are any clogs (or places in our body-mind-emotion system we have not let breath flow through), the increased flow will create what feels like pressure or a buildup of energy.
Through integrative breath work, we become aware of the places in our being that have been clogged or unconscious, and with the increased flow of oxygen and chi, we clear the clog.
Although we can do this type of breath work on our own, sometimes we open to early childhood, infancy or in utero experiences that can be challenging to know what to do with on our own.
Practicing this type of breath work with a trained facilitator is often helpful.
Disturbed Breathing Patterns
Unfortunately, most of us have some kind of disturbed breathing pattern.
Disturbances in breathing include shallow, or chest, breathing; constricted breathing; and holding the breath.
Often with shallow breathing, the diaphragm is either not engaged at all or is actually doing the opposite of what it should.
Instead of flattening on the inhale, during chest breathing the diaphragm rises and pushes on the lungs, decreasing lung capacity. Chest breathing is associated with the fight-or-flight response.
When that response is activated, for the short term, blood pressure rises, the muscles of the legs and arms are stimulated and the brain becomes hyper-alert.
Over time, when the stress response is continually activated, muscles atrophy, we have an inefficient use of energy, decreased capacity to think or learn, and many more side effects.
With constricted breathing, like shallow breathing, we have a reduced, or less than optimal, intake of oxygen.
Our spine is rigidly held and our muscles are tight and become inflexible.
Breath holding usually happens at the top of the inhale or the bottom of the exhale. It is a way of not dealing with what’s happening in this moment.
Often people who hold their breath at the top of the inhale are trying to control a situation. Those who hold it at the end of the exhale are often checking out of the situation.
However, neither controlling nor checking out is actually experiencing what’s happening.
Because emotional and physical pain can be processed when we experience them and often decrease in the light of consciousness and oxygen, when we hold our breath, we do not deal with the pain—instead, it gets stuck in our system to arise again at a later time.
First, before attempting to help your clients breathe deeper, I recommend you, as a massage therapist, take on a conscious breathing practice.
There are a few ways you can do this.
You can start right now by putting one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
Close your eyes and notice what parts of your body are moving as you breathe.
Then relax your hands and notice from the inside what’s moving as you breathe.
Take time every day to notice your breath. Then when you’re with a client, bring awareness to your breath.
Notice what happens in the session when you stay aware of your breath.
The next thing you can do is set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day for either conscious, continuous breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.
If you choose to practice slow, diaphragmatic breathing, I recommend you breathe in and out through your nose, bring awareness to your spine as you breathe and let it move freely during both the inhale and exhale.
If you want to use breath for your own psychospiritual healing, look for an integrative breath-work instructor or rebirthing practitioner in your area.
Breath work is one of the most powerful and potent healing modalities available to us.
I highly recommend doing it with a skilled practitioner.
Once you have practiced breath work and have experienced the benefits of increased breath awareness and relaxing, diaphragmatic breaths, I encourage you to talk with your clients about their breathing.
Educate them about breath disturbances and the benefits of more optimal breathing.
Coach them in being more aware of their breath during their session.
Don’t be surprised if they experience more emotions than usual; between touch and breath awareness, it’s possible for unconscious feelings to rise to the surface.
If this happens, I encourage you to continue to breathe fully—remember, no pauses—and invite your client to do the same
There is a tendency for most people to hold their breath when they start to experience feelings.
It is useful for each of us to break that habit.
Your Healing Journey
Breath work can change the world one person at a time.
It can bring increased healing, consciousness and aliveness to us individually and collectively.
As a massage therapist, you have a unique opportunity to improve your own relationship to your breath, allowing it to gently move you forward on your healing journey.
About the Author
Kathryn Yarborough is an integrative breath worker, dance-and-movement therapist and manifestation coach. She specializes in helping heart-based entrepreneurs birth their Divinely inspired work; attract clients; and grow a thriving business. She founded and directed the Center for Embodied Consciousness and now offers online meditation practices and workshops.