Massage Tutorial Video: Abdominal Massage, the Vagus Nerve, and Belly Breathing

New massage tutorial video! This one has an abdominal massage demonstration… but it’s really about interacting with the parasympathetic nervous system:

It’s pretty common to abandon abdominal massage after massage school. After all, we have to deal with chest draping, clients sometimes feel self-conscious about the area, and it’s rarely requested. All this is true, but there’s one type of client who I’ll always suggest ab work to: Those with major stress, and those who are there for the psychological benefits of massage.

You see, interacting with the belly, whether via kind contact or through diaphragmatic breathing, sends signals to the enteric nervous system (the portion of the peripheral nervous system innervating the gut). The body devotes a LOT of neurological resources to the digestive tract, receiving constant updates on every square inch of the colon, sending signals about the speed of peristalsis, deciding whether a sphincter should stay closed, etc.

As anyone with an anxiety disorder can tell you, stress and digestion are intimately intertwined. A really bad anxiety day can cause all sorts of gastrointestinal distress, and GI distress can make a bad day into a living hell. The communication between the brain and the gut goes both ways.

So, why not interact with the brain via the gut? Why ignore the immense amount of nervous tissue suffusing the abdominal cavity, just because it’s not embedded in skeletal muscle?

If it’s because of the undraping thing, just skip it. Work on the abdomen can easily be done through the sheet and blanket. Try applying soft hands just above and below the belly button. Ask your client to breathe easily, and allow your hands to move with the expansion. Stay there for at least a minute. Once they’ve acclimated to the contact, drag the skin to one side, creating fascial traction. Hold for another minute as they breathe. Repeat in the other direction, and move on. If you don’t think this is a powerful intervention, ask a loved one to try it on you. It’s good stuff.

If you’re concerned about the client’s modesty, or that they’ll be self-conscious, this is a job for open channels of communication. As I say in the video, explain why you’d like to make abdominal contact, and ask if you can undrape the area while keeping the chest covered. If they seem hesitant, ask about their concerns, and see if they’d like to try draped massage. I’ve found that I’m the one most nervous about working outside my comfort zone, and the vast majority of my clients are happy to experiment with new approaches. Once I include ab massage once, I often get requests for more in subsequent sessions.

So, what do you think about this, the most elusive type of massage? Do you work with the belly regularly? How about breathing exercises—is that something that you include in your practice? How would you suggest that a new massage therapist communicate about this stuff?

Thanks for watching, and thanks to my 76 wonderful Patreon patrons! If you’d like to support me through a monthly subscription, you can do so here: My goal is to have 500 patrons by the end of the year, and I plan to work hard to earn it.

Next week: A technique for working with both sides of the ilium… at the same time!

3 thoughts on “Massage Tutorial Video: Abdominal Massage, the Vagus Nerve, and Belly Breathing

  1. Oh my goodness, thank you so much for this Ian! I HAVE abandoned abdominal work and you have made me realize that it is so wrong to shy away from it. I work with cancer patients, survivors and their caretakers, many of them list anxiety, depression and the laundry list of meds that go with those issues on their intake forms. I know that I have had success in the past with abdominal massage for a few clients with chronic constipation, but never gave it a thought to even offer it to people on a regular basis. I guess because I have always felt that the abdominal area can carry feelings of vulnerability for many due to poor body image (interjection of my own hang ups..) I don’t really offer it as an option. Thank you for reminding me once again that I am guilty of sometimes only offering the type of massage that I would want to receive and that I need to check myself at the door when I am working with others.
    You are the best, and I thank you for being my constant teacher and inspiration. I always look to your posts when I feel that I need to refresh or re-imagine my massages to keep my clients satisfied.

  2. You have given us more food for thought with another superb tutorial. I shall be doing the breathing exercise with my clients, thus not being critical of their breathing methods, just helping. Thanks.

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