From my experience of over 30 years of clinical practice as a holistic health practitioner and teacher, I highly recommend massage practitioners breathe consciously.
We are structurally designed by nature to breathe toward the biggest volume of our lungs where the space for air is the widest. Because of the shape of our rib cage, the position of our diaphragm, and the presence of our heart between our lungs occupying an important space in the frontal part of our chest, we do not have that much room for air volume inside the upper frontal part of our rib cage. The back and bottom of our lungs, located inside the lower dorsal part of our rib cage, offer a much greater breathing capacity.
Also, the lungs are shaped like two purses, with the superior lobes being significantly smaller than the inferior lobes. Accordingly, the ribs are shorter on top of the rib cage, much longer in the middle, and at the base of the rib cage they float.
This offers more space and a greater amplitude of movement for the pumping action of the diaphragm on all the internal organs: on our heart and arteries in the center, our spleen, our pancreas and stomach in our left, our liver in our right, and our kidneys in the lower back of our rib cage.
It is also useful to remember that our large intestine hangs from our diaphragm through the phrenico-colic ligaments at both sides of our rib cage, giving an accordion-like movement with each breath, which is responsible for a better intestinal transit. Our diaphragm is the main engine operating our metabolism.
When breathing toward our lower back and the lateral aspects of our rib cage, we allow our whole chest to open, alternating internal and external intercostal muscles. This helps our chest to open and close evenly like an umbrella would, lifting the ribs and sternum like so many bucket handles, stretching the whole surface of the diaphragm downward, admitting more oxygen. As a result, this allows for a slower and calmer breath.
Yet, unless we are very calm or asleep, it is very uncommon to breathe that way. The state of fatigue, nervousness or anxiety locks the lateral and posterior aspects of our rib cage while drawing the frontal part of our diaphragm upward. This squeezes our heart, contributing to tension of the solar plexus, shoulders and neck, characteristic of the stress response. This is a very common pattern of tension.
Everything that is not physical and not visible—such as our thoughts and the bioenergy running through our bodies—is beyond physical; it is metaphysical. The bioenergy running through our bodies is beyond physical; it is metaphysical. According to Taoist wisdom transmitted to classical Chinese medicine, the way we breathe perfectly reflects the unique ways of our individual emotional state.
Our breath establishes the inner bridges of consciousness at the physical and mental levels.
Wherever we breathe, we feel. Wherever we do not breathe, we numb out.
This very convenient situation allows for unfelt muscular contractions, partial anesthesia and emotional denial. This is what gives us a personal and unique postural attitude, a character and a personality. In short, our psychological profile is imprinted on our diaphragm and the shape it gives our body while breathing. We breathe in reaction to the way we are made to feel at any given moment
Or, more precisely, we breathe according to the way we don’t want to feel by avoiding the zones in our bodies that are holding emotional charges that are unpleasant. Breathing there can awaken unwanted memories and stir up bad feelings.
Furthermore, besides the distribution of oxygen throughout our bodies, breathing also carries our bioenergy, the energies and information responsible for life. This is what we call chi, a Chinese word we use for lack of a proper English word that can carry the full spectrum of its significance.
Full-Body Breathing and Power Breath
There are two types of breathing practices I teach my students: full-body breathing and power breath. These practices come from the Bone Marrow Nei Kung of Taoist tradition. They are used in martial arts and in traditional dances.
Full-body breathing consists of directing our breath toward our back by allowing our ribs in our back to lift while dropping our sternum and letting it float freely, gently following the natural ups and downs of our breath. This form of breath liberates the frontal part of our diaphragm and takes the pressure away from our heart while stimulating the metabolism in all our internal organs. Freeing our heart space allows for better control of our emotions, clears up our mind, and lifts our spirit while helping us stay calm and at ease.
Power breath follows the Asian martial arts model to provide mental calm and physical power beyond muscular capacity, while recycling used-up energy by grounding. It also raises protective energy, called wei-chi in Chinese, to avoid negative influences and contamination from giving treatments.
Practice full-body breathing and power breath a few minutes every day before working on your clients to ensure optimal healing sessions.
Full-Body Breathing Exercise
From a standing or sitting position:
• Hold your hands on your lower back and be aware of your breath there.
• Slightly bend forward, round your back and send your breath inside your hands.
• Gently squeeze the back and sides of your rib cage to give your breath a support to push against.
• As you keep breathing toward your back, be aware of the lifting of your ribs from your spine to your sternum and progressively amplify your air volume.
• Once you feel movement of breath in your lower rib cage, straighten up and be aware of the weight of your sternum. Let it float.
• Keep your hands on your lower back and be aware if there is more movement and more opening of one side of your rib cage than the other.
While touching during a session, energy and information are continually running back and forth between the givers and the receivers of a massage. Also, energy flows from high pressure to low pressure. It is most important for the givers that their energy be higher in quality and power than the receivers of treatments so the energy flows more easily from givers toward receivers rather than the reverse. For that purpose, we use power breath.
Power Breath: Breathing During Sustained Action
From a standing position:
• Hold your hands on your lower back and be aware of your full-body breathing.
• Let your body weight sink as you inhale and push your feet into the ground as you exhale.
• Keep breathing that way throughout your entire power breath practice.
• Be aware of the weight of your bones and let them drop toward Earth.
• Keep your mind on your bones and feel them breathing and pumping blood and calcium to all your relaxed muscles.
• Walk around for a few minutes with your attention focused on your bones breathing.
About the Author
Gilles Marin is the founder and director of the Chi Nei Tsang Institute and TaoTouch in Northern California. Gilles has studied and practiced massage therapy since 1976. Born in the south of France, he received his degree in Philosophy of Education and then studied with Aikido Master Andre Noquet. Marin moved to the U.S. in 1980.