Bodywork Techniques to Help Restore Healthier Breathing Patterns

Posted By Dr. Jeannie Thomason on Apr 17, 2014 |

By Educational Partner: Megan Ayrault, LMP, L/SAMP of All About Animal Massage

In my previous article for this newsletter, you may have seen what I shared about pain as a habit or pattern, and the body’s natural tendency to stick with patterns, for better or worse. One of the strategies I mentioned in that article for changing unhelpful patterns, including pain patterns, was to use bodywork techniques to help restore healthier breathing patterns. In this article, I’ll share some specific suggestions of just how you can do this. I hope you’ll find some new insights, reminders of old information, and maybe some ideas for sharing with your clients and friends.

The way we physically breath is invariably restricted and altered, often severely, in response to pain. Even just the anticipation of pain can do this. (Ever notice your animal holding his or her breath when worried? Or the need to remind yourself to breath when you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair?)

Another major cause of restricted breathing patterns, with or without any pain involved, is lack of movement. Let’s look at the problem of shallow breathing in a little more detail, starting here with two lists….

Some Causes of Shallow Breathing Patterns

1. Pain

2. Reduced activity levels

3. Anxiety

4. Tension for any reason (So many of the body’s muscles have direct attachments on the ribs!)

5. Fascial (connective tissue) restrictions developed from chronic patterns over time

So why does it really matter how we breath anyway, as long as we’re getting enough oxygen to stay conscious? Here are some reasons that it matters….

Physiological Effects of Shallow Breathing

1. Decrease in oxygen intake (Need I say more about that? All cells need oxygen to function!)
2. Decrease in release of carbon dioxide and other waste products
3. #1 + #2 leads to increased acidity in the body/tissues
4. Decrease in movement of the rib heads in the joints they form with the vertebrae (spine)
5. Decreased hydration of the intervertebral cartilage/discs/tissues (because of the decrease in movement from #4, which should be happening, and promoting movement of fluids)
6. Decrease in pliability of the ribs and the rib cartilage (That is, the pliability of the bone and cartilage tissues themselves not just the mobility of the joints involved.)
7. Decrease in vibrational effects of the breath movements throughout body tissues (vibrations emanating from the movement of air itself, plus the activity of muscles, bones, cartilage, fascia, nerves….)
8. Changes in neural pathways and patterns, as they adapt to what now seems “normal” for breathing
9. Changes in emotional and mental states to match shallower breathing pattern (viscous cycle)

In the interest of keeping this short, I’m going to leave this list at that. If you have questions about anything in this article, please do feel free to email me. (See links at end for contact.)

So, are you feeling extra motivated to help your animals, and yourself, with deeper breathing patterns? Good! It’s so easy to forget, yet so important. Here are a couple of suggestions to get started, and to share with others.

1. Here’s a YouTube video, one of the first I ever made, on “Rib Work” on a horse. You can apply the same idea with dogs or other animals, although the body mechanics will be a little different of course.

2. Another option is to use finger pad pressure along each side of the spine… many possibilities, but I’ll suggest two main approaches that are both very helpful.

A. You can find the hollows between the ribs and apply acupressure there. You’ll be following along part of the Bladder Meridian if you do this, also known as the Master Meridian. “Applying acupressure” can mean simply connecting gently and being still, feeling for any sensations of energy movement or shift. Or it can be compressing/massaging into the soft tissues at that spot. Those are both good approaches to start with. Stay on each spot between 30 seconds to 1-2 minutes and see how your animal responds.

B. Your finger pads can also find the ribs themselves, the firmer, boney feel, rather than the softer feel of “falling” between the ribs. Give a gentle nudge onto the rib, maybe adding a slight “roll” of it toward the animal’s head. Feel for a little “spring.” Or perhaps you feel it resist your nudge? Don’t push it, just offer the nudge, the opportunity to “spring” slightly, and move on to the next rib. You can repeat passes multiple times, or just go along each side once. You can do all the ribs (that you can feel) along one side and then the other, or you can work right/left as you move along the back. And yes, you can also move either back to front (towards the head), or the opposite. Experiment, and find what your animal responds best to, or what feels right to you.

See photo just below for a general idea of the location off to each side of the spine (Will be greater distance with horses.) You can also see the visual idea of keeping a slight curve in your fingers, which is better for your fingers, and gives a better feel to the receiver as well. One more thing, note that you can use two fingers together, or even overlap both hands, to support the joints of your fingers.


3. Here’s one more approach for you to play with, one I’ve been especially enjoying the past few years. Palpate gently to locate your animal’s sternum, which is right in the middle of the chest along the mid-line. This is where the cartilage parts of the ribs join to form the front of the ribcage. The top of the sternum will be more or less between the right and left points of shoulder. The “bottom” of the sternum will be about between the two elbows. You’ll probably find a hollow spot there. But don’t worry about the exact location, as long as you have finger pads from one hand at center of chest between the shoulders, and finger pads from the other hand center chest/belly between the elbows. Just hold those points, and think about supporting the sternum, cradling it even. Again, aim for between 30 sec and 1-2 minutes.

Caution: with horses, be aware that many may be sensitive about this! You may need to have either a handler or have your horse tied to keep yourself safe from a bite. The hand at the end of the sternum between the elbows is also in range of a kick. Reactivity to this technique is very likely related to some dysfunction/unhappiness with the ribcage somewhere, and they may well be helped greatly by working with (or toward) this or similar techniques. But your safety is very important, always. Just as important, is respecting the horse’s needs. You may be able to persist and support them through some initial resistance, OR they may truly not be ready for this yet. Other approaches can be used to help them with the same issues, until they’re able to handle this one better.

4. Finally, ANY techniques that your animal finds relaxing is going to be helpful for deeper breathing due to how the whole system responds when in relaxation mode!

I hope you have fun exploring some of these techniques and ideas! My books and online classes include additional techniques, some also directly for the ribs/breathing, others that can be applied to them. Though really, I think it’s about time I make a whole class on this topic! 🙂

To find more resources on massage and bodywork for animals, please visit

To get an ACAN discount for on-line CE classes, videos and books, contact Megan Ayrault,

Megan Ayrault, LMP, L/SAMP, is a licensed bodyworker for animals and people, and author of books on equine and canine massage (The Horse Lover’s Guide to Massage and The Dog Lover’s Guide to Massage). She is also the founder of, which offers an array of on-line classes, videos, ebooks and more for all animal lovers. Megan’s specialties include Myofascial Release and Shiatsu/Acupressure, and generally a focus on working with connective tissue (fascia) in ways that balance both structure and energy flow for greater health and comfort.

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