How Massage and Yoga Therapy Benefit Mental Health

Stefani Wilton HoytMassage Therapy, Psychotherapy, Yoga Therapy1 Comment

When you experience an emotion, negative or otherwise, what you experience is far more than just the emotion itself. There are neurological, chemical and physiological responses that can intensify the experience. In the case of anxiety, your breath might become shallow with a tangible tension that you experience in your abdomen or chest.

When it comes to mental health, yoga therapy tends to look at the physical body and emotional/mental body as two separate aspects that work together as a whole. By doing this, we can acknowledge that what happens in the body is not always in accordance with what is happening in the mind. In other words, you may have success in addressing the mental story and still feel the physiological aftershocks reverberating through your body. In the case of trauma, these ‘aftershocks’ can extend into days or weeks.

In its purest form, this is where massage therapy and yoga therapy are of benefit, in addressing these ‘aftershocks’ in the form of physical tension that we hold in our bodies. In a massage appointment, the therapist may work directly with the muscles using massage techniques to help you release held tension. The therapist can also address muscular tension that may be interfering with your body’s ability to breathe freely and can employ techniques such as craniosacral therapy to support your nervous system in shifting into a relaxed state.

With yoga therapy, you are empowered in discovering your individual holding patterns and are given specific tools for releasing these tensions on your own. To understand how this works, I like to think of the emotions in the terms of a storm. Like a storm that occurs in our external environment, an internal storm has certain precursors that are not dissimilar from the initial signs that we see in an actual storm, such as the trickling of rain, a change in temperature, or an increase of clouds. When we encounter a situation that we perceive to be threatening, our nervous system, to protect us, may elicit a series of responses that, if left unchecked, could become an emotional storm. Yoga therapy supports you in becoming aware of your individual cues in the form of tension, restricted breathing and stress response so that you can respond in the early stages with specific techniques for working with these patterns.

Do you clench your jaw? Does your blood pressure go up? Do you feel like your heart is racing? How does your breathing feel? Do you feel tension and if so, where do you feel it? Based on your answers, the yoga therapist will give you specific techniques to support you in learning how to address these responses.

Many people become aware of some form of restriction in their breathing. In the case of paradoxical breathing, where the abdomen is drawn in tightly on the inhale breath and quickly released on the exhale breath, many people feel like it is difficult for them to breathe, especially to inhale. This shortness of breath only adds to your stress. The sensation felt in the abdomen with this type of breathing can feel threatening, as though you are trapped in your own body.

How Yoga Therapy Helps Restricted Breathing

If you have restricted breathing, your yoga therapist will support you in repatterning the way that you breathe. You will be asked to position yourself in a posture that feels safe for you. This may mean lying on your back with your knees gently bent, or placing your knees under your chest in a supportive child’s pose. Gently using techniques to help you shift the positioning of your ribs, chest and neck, you will be guided in inviting ease and softening throughout the muscles that support respiration. In the case of paradoxical breathing, the yoga therapist helps you to re-educate the respiratory muscles so that they soften and expand on the inhale and relax on the exhale.

Try this Yoga Therapy Exercise for Paradoxical Breathing at Home

Find a posture that feels safe and secure for your body. Take some time to ensure that the room you are in is quiet and that you will be free of distraction for 3 – 5 minutes. Give yourself some time to settle into your pose. Let your body feel heavy. Allow yourself to feel the weight of your body supported by the floor. Do you feel tension anywhere in your body? ‘No’ is an acceptable answer. There is no pressure for a specific outcome and there is no right or wrong answer. If you observe something, just take note of it.

Become aware of your navel. As you inhale, gently roll your navel away from your spine. Feel the strength of your own body and how powerful it is. Use your strength to expand your navel away further from your spine. Feel the sensation of breathing fully into your body. If it feels comfortable for you, as you inhale, become aware of your diaphragm, a muscle positioned above your navel and between your ribs. If it feels accessible to you, press down with your diaphragm on your inhale breath. This stimulates your vagus nerve, one of your most important cranial nerves and will trigger an important relaxation response in your body.

Continue with this breath, allowing your exhales to be soft and easy. Perhaps allowing your body to sink a little deeper, almost melting into your pose with each exhale.

How Massage Therapy Helps Restricted Breathing

Massage therapy supports you in releasing tension in those areas of your body that you have difficulty accessing yourself. In addition to supporting your nervous system in shifting from a sympathetic state (stressed) to a parasympathetic state (relaxed), massage therapy can support you in inviting more ease into your body and gently allowing your breath to move into ‘tight’ areas. Massage therapy is also supportive in restoring the breath through direct massage of muscles that support respiration. When incorporated with craniosacral therapy, the deep state of relaxation that ensues can allow you to ‘let go’ more fully than you were able to do on your own. And often, with gentle abdominal massage, we can tangibly soothe areas where you may be feeling anxiety.

Massage and yoga therapy offer many more benefits that I hope to explore with you in future articles. In my next post, I will be talking about how we can use massage and yoga therapy to change the way we hold our bodies and how this re-patterning affects our mental health. You can expect me to share a few try at home techniques that many of my clients have found to be helpful.

Stefani is the lead practitioner at Serenity Now Wellness. She is a Registered Massage Therapist and Certified Yoga Therapist with a passion for supporting individuals through anxiety, depression and stress. Stefani specializes in women’s health and specifically works with women through infertility, pregnancy and the post-partum period.

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