Many of us incorporate breathing instruction into our therapy, to a greater or lesser degree. In my personal experience, breath awareness enhances the quality of bodywork. I can sometimes feel the breath in distal parts of the body; and giving clients an instruction to "breathe into" the area I am working often stimulates the release we're seeking. I know through my personal experiences in yoga as well, that the breath is a powerful tool for focus and meditation.
At PMTI, we all learned that inhalation activates the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) and exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). We build on that understanding to learn various techniques and mechanisms by which the breathing has a very real effect on the body and mental state. Various studies have shown that controlled breathing calms the brain, lowers blood pressure, improves immune function, and affects the emotion and memory processing centers of the brain (1). Inhalation (the stress response) also stimulates areas of the brain that enhance emotional discrimination and memory (2). Exhalation slows the heart and cleanses the blood of toxic CO2 (3). Even more fascinating is the complexity of the interplay between inhalation and exhalation, which yields results seemingly greater than the sum of their parts. Rhythmic and nostril breathing can have profound effects on the brain's function and there are even indications that particular breathing and meditation practices can improve or prevent neurological disease such as Alzheimer's (4). Ancient traditions such as yoga have outlined many rhythmic breathing techniques that optimize the inhale-exhale exchange for different purposes (5). The yogic breathing technique of Nadi Shodhana, or Alternate Nostril Breathing, is particularly touted for its calming effects on the central nervous system. (Click the image to the right for an instructional video. See also 5.)
Much of the research into the breath-body-mind connection has been done in the context of yoga; as bodyworkers we are more familiar than most with the interconnection of our body systems, and with the connection between our various modalities. What creative ways can you think of to bring breath awareness into massage therapy? What practices have you already been including? Share your comments with us.
Below are some links (referenced above) to other authors on the power and science of breath, and how to improve breathing through massage and other techniques. Happy reading!
- Molly Farwell Gavin, Alumni Services Coordinator
(5-minute audio Breathing Meditation at the end of the article)