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Pranayama and Massage Therapy

Yoga on a surf board

I’ve been practicing massage therapy regularly for almost a decade and I practice a lot of different modalities on the general public. One thing that I’ve noticed is that some clients will often forget to breathe when the pressure gets intense, when a knot or a kink is being worked out, or when they are in general discomfort, pain, or a high level of stress. On these occasions I will remind a client to breathe, especially if I am doing a particular movement, such as active stretching when I need their participation. To me, these things are normal. Breath and movement go hand-in-hand. It sounds sarcastic, but if you stop breathing you die. I actually worry when a client’s face turns purple.

The other day, I had an older gentleman on my table and when I said something akin to, “and deep inhale through your nose, completely exhale out of your mouth–” he cut me off and screamed, “I’M BREATHING, DAMNIT!” It then occurred to me in that moment (as well as it has occurred to me in the past) that a lot of older generations think that their minds and bodies are not connected. He even added a commentary such as, “well, that was a completely new cue.” To which I replied, “breath?” He was entirely honest with me and apologized for swearing at me. He told me that no massage therapist has ever asked him to participate in the massage. He explained that nobody has ever taught him the importance of breath and what it can do to your parasympathetic nervous system. He was clearly in a state of fight or flight and didn’t even know it. He wanted to fight me on every movement, he wanted to flee when it felt unfamiliar. What he needed was to breathe through it and trust the process but that is hard to do when you are working with a stranger that isn’t speaking your language. I had to learn to speak his and he had to learn to speak mine. Once we got on the same page, communication happened, breath happened, movement happened, and the massage therapy session could actually begin.

I thought about this when I got home later that night and did some self-reflection. Did I ask the client to do too much work? Should I have asked him not to use his breath as a tool since he clearly wanted relaxation and to be undisturbed? Is it a weird cue to give? Did I make him feel bad/stupid? Did I sound like a crazy, dirty hippie that only believes in holistic healing?

I came to one conclusion. Breath is part of movement. Massage is made up of tiny isometric movements and our bodies are so fragile and so resilient at the same time that diaphragmatic breathing or utilizing Ujayii breathing can really make the difference between how you feel when you enter a clinic and how you feel by the time you leave. Not only have I noticed this primarily in older generations, but I am starting to work on minors again. I have clients that range from ages 15-75 that have never been taught once in their lives how to breathe. I’m working with millennials that flat out look at me like I’m stupid when I tell them, “your cells hold memories, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.” To me, this is mind-body connection, often found in techniques such as myofascial release. To an unfamiliar client, I just sound like I’m high on crack.

So how did I learn? I was lucky. My parents never sat me down and told me how to relax or show me nostril breathing techniques. I actually grew up a lot like older generations where “if you’re breathing and not bleeding, you’re fine.” So of course, I got a response like, “I’M BREATHING, DAMNIT!” Because if someone would’ve said this to me 15-years-ago, I may have had the same response. I learned in choir. I’ve been a singer my whole life so learning how to breathe from my diaphragm was 100% necessary as a child and as an adult. Later in life, I became a yoga teacher. It’s my job to instruct students, athletes, and the general public how to utilize their breath in different ways so that they are actually able to move their bodies to the absolute best of their abilities. At one point, I had a personal trainer’s license. I’m basically always on the go so movement and breath and massage have pretty much always been applicable to my life in one way or another.

It has been wired into my brain that you absolutely need to breathe in all life scenarios. Drowning in the ocean? Better take a deep breath before you come up for air. Jumping out of an airplane? Control your breath or you will never be able to land without panicking. Having an intense panic attack in a public place (or really any place)? Breathe. Can’t sleep at night? Breathe. Broke your ankle? Breathe.

To say, “without breath, there is no movement” would not be an exaggeration to me. I’ve taught classes of Vinyasa flow before in 100-degree weather and it is amazing what students can do with their bodies once they are taught how to breathe. We are all capable of so much more with just a little bit of guidance and instruction. So,I propose a challenge. How can we get our clients to utilize their breath both in the clinic and outside of the clinic in their daily lives? How can we educate them better? How do we teach them that once you are in control of your breath, you are in control of your movements, your emotions, your reactions…your life? I challenge massage therapists like-minded and otherwise to find ways to explain this to our clients: how breath, movement, and massage are all intertwined.

I also challenge you to tell a client to breathe if you notice their face is turning purple because it still legitimately scares me to this day.