By Cathy Ulrich
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2008.
Elaine was having trouble relaxing. And while I don’t command my clients to relax, I found her constant talking distracting. As the session continued, her body grew more tense, not because she was in pain, but because she was talking about all of the stressors in her life. I felt the frustration rising in my own awareness, unable to help her settle her body and create the changes she so badly needed to feel comfortable. Then I remembered a basic technique I had shared with many others during my years of practice.
I took a deep breath and asked her to do the same. Suddenly, her body relaxed and I finally felt her respond to the work. I encouraged her to send her breath into her arms as I worked there. I asked her to meet me with her breath while I worked on her back, her ribs, and her neck. As quiet filled the room, I felt her body soften under my touch. What had once taken much effort, now became easy. When the session was over, she sat up and for the first time said, “Wow, my body feels so different. It’s like everything’s working better. I can actually feel my feet on the ground.”
So, what shifted with that simple suggestion?
Come Into The Moment
Elaine was thinking about her problems, the stresses in her life—worries about the future, hurts from the past—instead of where she was at the moment. She was in a safe space, receiving gentle, supportive bodywork. And yet she couldn’t relax. By simply asking her to be mindful of her breath, she immediately felt her body and became present with me in that space.
Many meditation traditions use the breath to quiet the mind. With mindful breathing, we’re suddenly thrust into an awareness of our inner spaces and a feeling that we actually do live in a body. A wise friend once said: “The best way to learn to be present is to be where your body is.” And I would add, the best way to be where your body is, is to notice your breath.
Take a moment now and, without changing it, just notice your breath. Where are you breathing in your body? Your chest? Your abdomen? Or is your breath shallow into your throat?
Now, gently invite your breath to fill more of your chest. Notice your diaphragm as it descends into your abdomen, massaging your organs and increasing the air flow into your lungs. As you play with this little exercise, what was your mind doing? And how does your body feel?
One of the first things expectant mothers learn in natural childbirth classes is breathing techniques to help control labor pain. By consciously breathing during contractions, they learn to shift the feeling of pain to just sensation.
Elaine came to see me because she had chronic pain in her foot, knee, and hip. Often chronic pain sets up as a vicious cycle of muscle tightness, impaired blood flow, and more pain, even in areas distant from the original problem. When I asked Elaine to send her breath to the foot, she changed her feeling of pain to simply sensation and this opened a door that allowed me to change the holding pattern in her tissue.
Of course she couldn’t physically breathe into her foot, but the imagery of sending warm, healing breath into her foot from the inside while I worked on it from the outside changed her relationship to the pain.
You can try this simple technique yourself. As you tune into your breath, notice your body. Do you notice any place of discomfort or pain? As you breathe in, think of filling your lungs with healing oxygen. Now as you breathe out, imagine sending this warm, healing oxygen directly to the place that hurts. Continue gently breathing into the area for a few minutes. What does it feel like now?
When I worked with Elaine, I noticed that the more she talked about her stressful life, the shallower her breath became. She was breathing high in her chest in short, rapid breaths. Her mind had transported her back to her stressful life, even though she was in a place where she was supported and encouraged to take a break from that stress.
We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response—that inherent adrenaline rush that happens when we feel threatened. But humans have a remarkable ability. We can create the same adrenaline response simply by thinking about a challenging situation—even if we’re not physically threatened. One clear manifestation of the fight or flight response is rapid, shallow breathing. While stress can produce this breathing pattern, the good news is that we can consciously change the breathing pattern and reduce the stress. It works both ways.
As I asked Elaine to slow her breathing and take deeper breaths, the tension in her face softened. Her body relaxed on the table as if she were sinking into the padding. Her feet became warmer—a sure sign that her circulation had changed and that her nervous system had switched from fight or flight to the calming mode of rest and digest.
Try this for yourself. The next time you’re feeling stressed, stop for a moment and notice how you’re breathing. Is your breath high in your chest? Is it fast and shallow? Now, gently invite your breath to slow down. Start to pull breath into your lungs by letting your belly relax and expand as you inhale. Spend a few moments with yourself and your breath and look at the stressful situation again. Does it seem so bad now?
I recently received a massage as a gift. As I relaxed on the table, my massage therapist, Tara, started working on my back. I decided to practice mindful breathing—working with her as she gently freed the tight places in my shoulders and ribs.
We bodyworkers are sometimes the worst clients. We want to share notes, talk about our work, or try to compare our techniques with those whom we’re receiving. But this time, I simply let Tara’s work in. I breathed with her touch. When she let up to move her pressure, I inhaled. As she applied pressure, I exhaled, consciously allowing her work to smooth overworked muscles and melt tension.
It was the best massage I’ve ever received (and yes, Tara is an excellent therapist).
I’ve always felt that my work is a team effort. I’m the expert on the bodywork, my clients are the experts on their bodies. Sometimes it takes a while to educate people about that relationship. In our culture, the client/therapist relationship is often a check-your-body-at-the-door affair. But so much more can happen when the client works with the therapist—it seems like magic.
The next time you go for a massage, try these suggestions to achieve mindful breathing and enhance the benefits of your session:
*As you settle onto the table, even before your therapist enters the room, feel the weight of your body on the table. Allow yourself to be supported by the table and begin to notice your breath.
*Feel your breath moving of its own accord. Where is it most noticeable? Where could it express more? Invite your breath to move into the spaces that feel less full (without effort—just invite).
*When your therapist starts working, notice the pressure and rhythm. While maintaining a comfortable rhythm in your own breathing, notice when she lets up on her pressure and breathe in. When she applies pressure, breathe out.
*If your practitioner comes to a tender area, pay special attention to your breath. Work with the tenderness on the exhale, imagining that you’re breathing out the pain.
*As your therapist works on different areas, imagine your breath moving there to meet her. Send your breath wherever she is working. Let her work on the outside, you work on the inside.
*Notice the changes as the massage progresses. Notice your thought patterns. Notice your comfort level. Notice your stress (and how it melts) as you send breath to the various areas of your body.
*When your session is complete and you sit up, notice how your breath feels. What do you notice about your body, the room, the light?
Why not use the lifegiving force of breath to make your next massage an even more beneficial experience. Just breathe.