This is my secret....in the sense that until now, I've only told people on a one-to-one basis during a massage. Now I'm finally writing it down.
Before I get to it: one point, and one pinch of salt.
One Point) Most clients I see do not breathe....much, hardly.
And no judgement. Sometimes my breathing is vague at best. I literally need every reminder I can get to breathe consciously, like having a career centered on it:)
When your practitioner asks you to breathe or even to relax for that matter, please don't hear judgement in it. Please hear it as a friendly reminder with the understanding a therapeutic session is just place to practice. No perfection required.
In a session, breath awareness is the first tier of therapeutic work. It activates mechanisms of physical, mental and emotional relaxation, states of peace and ease, and dare I say love, appreciation and gratitude?
One Pinch) Above what I share here, follow your own inner guidance about your body above all. I just offer some tried and tested stuff for muscle relaxation during a massage that I've found through working on thousands of people. Obi Wan-Kenobi says it best: "you must do what you feel is right of course."
What follows is the instruction I give my clients to focus their breath while receiving a massage. It is useful as a stand-alone technique when pain acts up.
Included in this story is how to approach and how to regard our areas of pain, areas of life that we don't breathe into. The breath that frees up tension also points toward inner states that unveil our capacity to co-exist with pain, and to detach our identity from it at deep psycological and physiological level....it is at these levels that our higher coordinating system knows exactly how to navigate, heal, grow, and thrive. We don't even have to learn anything new. Its there to emerge. We just need to undo a little hard-wiring. Breath by breath.
Please keep in mind that for lasting effects, a cultivation is necessary over time, even a little at a time. Every effort toward our well being accumuluates and eventually gives fruit.
On a personal note, I used to get mad at the suggestion of "just being with" my back pain. Super mad. Then at a meditation retreat I got cornered. Terrible back pain, no medication, no way to lean up against something or change position. It took some days before I could settle down into the experience without my banter keeping my attention. Then I had my first taste of what they were trying to teach me; to feel something without judging it. Without calling it bad, without calling it good: equanimity. In the following days as I mentally wrestled myself out of my usual pattern of reaction so that I could be still and just feel, I felt sensations of pain arise and peel away.
That's what happens, I learned. And I was breathing in a different way when it was disappearing; not on purpose, but as a result of being still internally. It was different because the deep layers of my mind had no where left to go. Finally, I could for a few moments in a row, stop pushing away the sensation I didn't want, and stop wishing for a sensation I didn't have.
With equanimity, I found a space; a new direction opens up. It opens in the breath. A spaciousness in which it feels like our neurons un-wire themselves.
This space or direction or state has always been there, it was just covered up by the noise of other life. This direction is one that integrates and holds every part of our being in the present moment. Its where health is.
Its possible to cultivate this space in a therapeutic session. Even trying a first time can achieve results. No promises! It can feel foreign at first and one may need a few tries.
1) The Inhale
You and I agree on the area of the body to focus the technique; usually a tender, painful, or even numb area of tissue. For an example, let's pretend I'm on a spot at the bottom of your neck, on a lateral edge of a bony portion of the spine. I'll call that general area the neck/upper back.
As I hold a comfortable amount of pressure there, you bring your entire focus to the neck/upper back, as if you could bring that one area into the full screen of your awareness. And give yourself a few moments to do that.
What is there? By qualifying (not judging bad or good) the type of sensation, we can bring more of our mental force to it. Do you feel something "achey," "sharp," "dull," tender," "pulsating," or "constant?" Can you also feel the entire area? Are there other sensations in the general area?
It can be very helpful to know that you are feeling messages from the central nervous system, translating signals from nerves. You are not feeling by the actual tissue. Two different things. You are not feeling "you." Its a message only, through almost a literal phone booth. Feeling or sensation is a message created by a function of systems, made up of countless layers and integration of complex processes that science is still trying to understand, "the science of pain." It is the mystery behind why people with normal MRI's report pain while people with MRI's reporting damage have no pain.
The inhale is harder, it takes a little work, courage, patience to bring ourselves to the full awareness of sensation, especially if its a sensation we've been living with for a long time.
Imagine your neck/upper back as a balloon that expands with your breath, as if that area had a special tube from your lung. Visualize and feel. Feel without bracing, feel without disassociating.
The inhale is about the work of taming our attention to go into the sensation, not away from it. Its work, right?
You are unlocking a deep mechanism in the brain that conditions us to compartmentalize pain, to keep focus elsewhere. This mechanism is meant to keep us productive and it works.
Its amazing how this mechanism allows us to survive trauma and carry on and continue to be productive at the cost of the actual healing work, which by necessity gets buried deep.
This self-preserving mechanism, meant for short term injuries, literally instructs our physiology to reflect a "cut-off" area: circulation can be limited or obstructed, cell metabolism slows, oxygen uptake diminishes and finally nerve messages to the brain can dull, or become "facilitated" which means it takes less stimulus, or none at all, to produce pain.
Unveiling a cut-off area is what is in effect when your therapist is on a spot that you never noticed was tender until they are on it. The touch is a boost on the nerve signal to the brain and the brain responds as if to say, "Oh there you are I've been looking for you. Dayum."
2) Next the exhale.
While the inhale has a nuance of intention and action, the exhale is a different animal.
Let that balloon of sensation fly off where it will. Work is over. Walk away. Big sigh at the end of the day.
Some of you will need encouragement to really let the rib cage collapse, and not stay rigid. Let it collapse. The whole thing.
This is a release. This is allowing. Allow the breath to fall out of your lungs as fast as it wants to go, like water pouring out. Please don't push out, or control any part of it as it comes out.
Surrender. You've already done the hardest work in the inhale.
The exhale is where the fullness of the sensation breaks over us, like a huge wave. There's nothing to do. Let the wave take you. It means we are completely vulnerable to feeling the sensation without armor. It takes courage. Let me tell you the ending though: between you and this sensation: you are stronger. No sensation can kill you (we are only talking about minor acute and chronic pain for this article).
By letting it co-exist with alongside good things in your life, that's it. That's the moment it doesn't control you. That's the first taste of liberation as the Buddha describes it in the Theravada. Pain loses power. You keep the power. The sensation has no mental energy of judgemnet or identification to bind to, so it dissipates. Sounds like a movie. It feels like it.
This breath can then start turning our habits and perceptions toward experiencing first hand the unmasked experience of sensation. Without the veil of mental activity, we are with the true nature of the moment. Its subtle, pure and profound.
It is the jedi moment. It takes courage and practice to allow oneself to stay with a feeling or sensation exactly the way it is, allowing it to co-exist amidst our well being. Accepting it for what it is in this moment: even if it doesn't change in this moment.
With more practice, one comes to know that sensations change eventually anyway. There's no actual benefit to resist or actively maintain the "story" about our pain. Our brains make stories about everything, but we don't have to cultivate or feed them, we can let them appear and disappear along with every other thought.
That's it, in a nutshell. In a session we can work with whatever comes up around it. A massage or Craniosacral session is a great opportunity to practice this unmasked and profound breath.
The Healing Time, by Pesha Gertler
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages that send me down
the wrong street again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misgivings
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart,
and I say holy,
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