You are settled in on the massage table, tucked neatly under the sheet and blanket, a bolster under your ankles and music and lights adjusted for maximum relaxation. Your therapist stands near the table, gently lays her or his hands on your back and says: “Take a deep breath in . . .”
What? Why do they say this? And am I supposed to just hold my breath or what?
First, a confession — I don’t say this. I find it a bit strange, but I understand the reasoning behind it and why it works.
Many of us live our lives in a state of chronic sympathetic nervous system dominance — meaning we are always managing a certain level of stress. This causes our heart rate and blood pressure to increase and our breathing to become more shallow. Even if we are not in a state of chronic stress, we may experience stress flare-ups, and it is often these flare ups that send us to get a massage in the first place.
When your massage therapist prompts you to “take a deep breath in,” she or he is trying to jump start your relaxation response. Have you ever been so angry or frustrated that you felt you were going to explode? And in that moment, have you ever just counted to ten while slowing down your breathing? This is the response your massage therapist is going for. Even in less extreme emotional states, a slow, deep breath gets your body started on the process to deep relaxation.
Your intention when you come in for your massage is to enjoy and get the most out of the time, but often your outside stressors will not leave you alone. By focusing on taking a deep breath in, you give your mind something else to do besides run on its endless hamster wheel. Physiologically, it also slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. Getting you started on this process makes your massage therapist’s work more effective. When you take a deep breath in (and exhale), you are actively participating in creating the overall benefit of your massage.