If you want results from massage therapy, don’t hold your breath

Since massage therapy is such a great way to relax, it often comes as a surprise that massage can be used for many other purposes. You have chronic headaches? Massage is one of the best ways to treat them. Back pain? You guessed it — massage can help. However, there’s one tiny detail that will make the difference between feeling results right away and potentially blocking them out altogether. It’s called breathing.

Because breathing is such an unconscious act, you may not have noticed a single breath you’ve taken all day today. That’s why it’s important to start thinking about how you’re breathing, not just during a massage, but in daily life.

Let’s try a short exercise

Narrow your focus down to how it feels to simply breathe normally. Notice how the air feels cool and refreshing as it passes through your nose down into your lungs. Feel the breath change to warm as you exhale. Do this for a minute or two. How do you feel? This little trick is the basis of most meditation. It calms the mind and body and gives you a little relief from the stresses of your day.

During a massage the effects of breathing are even more profound because the brain sends a signal to the muscles to relax. And increased oxygen brings much needed nutrients to the tired tissues. The reality is most of us tend to either breathe shallow or hold our breath altogether when the therapist finds those sore spots. It’s a natural reaction to feeling discomfort. However, it does not serve you in a positive way. You may feel like it helps you with the discomfort, but truthfully, all it does is hold the tension in place.

Our bodies have an amazing ability to quickly learn from or react to stimulus. When I apply trigger point therapy, which is using static pressure or focusing on collections of pain or muscle tension, breathing deeply or holding your breath will be the difference between getting a quick release and no release at all.

So, if you’re the type of person who likes massage to really pinpoint painful areas, make sure you breathe comfortably through it. If you hold your breath when sore spots are palpated, the pressure is too much and you should let your massage therapist know.

Now, let’s try another short exercise to show your true lung capacity

NOTE: Skip this part if you have any respiratory conditions or use oxygen.

While sitting comfortably with good posture, take a full breath in until you feel it’s as full as your lungs can get. Then hold for 3 seconds. Now take another breath in filling the leftover space… hold for 3 seconds. Take one more breath in, finding a little extra space for air, then exhale. Did you think you could take in any extra air after that first full breath? Were you surprised that you could find space for that last little breath? This example shows our true lung capacity and how we constantly underutilize that space. Now we don’t need to be breathing like this all the time, but it’s a good idea to perform this technique from time to time to exercise our lungs, just like we should be exercising our hearts, brains and bodies.

During a massage, check in with yourself on how you’re breathing and if you’ve gathered any tension in your face, arms, hands or feet. These subtle things can decrease the effectiveness of your massage. So, do yourself and your therapist a favor and just breathe — the results will follow.

Shawn Linn
Certified Massage Therapist
Lifestyle Health