Massage and Breathing Exercises

Good for you

by Karen Wheeler with William Schnell on September 1, 2007 - 11:22am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 5

In 2003, I met William Schnell. He was working for a medical transportation company in addition to being a massage therapist.

We connected instantly and became close friends with a great ability to communicate. William became my massage therapist, and for three years we’ve worked together to develop some new techniques to enhance my breathing and circulation. Massage has helped me gain an overall better quality of life.

Over time I’ve had several massage therapists, but there’s a noticeable difference among them. Most therapists simply go through the motions. Then there are those who are very gifted and have the ability to “see” with their hands. They’re able to feel areas of discomfort and develop new methods to approach the problem areas.

By thinking outside the box, there are many ways to relieve discomfort and raise one’s quality of life. That’s what massage therapy does for me. I prefer massage therapy over regular physical therapy because there’s an aspect in massage that provides comfort and relaxation, in addition to helping areas of the body that need attention because of pain, stiffness, and other effects of neuromuscular disease.

I was born with spinal muscular atrophy in 1955. Although I never underwent spinal fusion surgery to straighten my spine, which back in the ‘70s was believed to promise a longer life, I’ve outlived many of those who did have the surgery.

One of the many consequences of not having spinal surgery is scoliosis, which occurs because my back muscles aren’t strong enough to hold my spine straight. With scoliosis, the spine is like a rope being dropped to the ground very slowly — wherever the rope bends is where the spine curves.

This spinal curvature restricts full expansion of the chest, leaving less space for the lungs to expand. I feel like my body is very heavy and is crushing me. Thus my breathing area is becoming more limited.

I’m unable to take a deep breath, and it’s sometimes impossible for me to take a full breath of air. Besides being uncomfortable, continued shallow breathing can lead to poor oxygen supply, which can in turn lead to respiratory disease, lethargy or heart disease. Deep breathing is also a quick, relaxing stress reducer.

William noticed that my ability to breathe became more restricted as time went on. He decided to try to manually reproduce the physical action needed to take a deep breath. He realized it could be beneficial to create some exercises that would mimic the actual motion of breathing. A simple action taken for granted by many can be easily duplicated with a little imagination.

We’ve created Assisted Breathing Exercises to help with this. Although they’re relatively easy to perform, the physical impact these exercises have on breathing is dramatic.

My back is like a landscape with hills and valleys. Working on problem areas like these is much more effective if the therapist can sense problems by touch. William and I have developed specific procedures to counteract the effects of gravity on my body. 

We came up with a three-pronged attack...

  1. Regular massage for circulation and the opening of the meridians (energy channels identified in traditional Chinese medicine)
  2. Constant resistance to the crushing phenomenon
  3. Lung stretches and compressions to enhance breathing.

Assisted breathing exercises

First, I lie on my back and breathe as deeply as I can. William asks me to exhale and then reaches around me -- like giving me a big hug. He gently lifts the center of my back on either side of the spine, causing my chest to come forward and my shoulders to arch back (as one would do when taking in a deep breath). At this time I breathe in as much as physically possible and hold it.

Focusing his mental intent on my lungs, William then encases my rib cage with his hands and slowly brings them to the front. While he’s doing this he gently squeezes, applying pressure and releasing until he reaches the front of the rib cage. This is done slowly enough to be effective yet quickly enough to be completed by the time I exhale. This action helps push air into the pockets of the lungs that I’m unable to fill on my own.

Afterwards we discuss the quality and percentage of the assisted breath and ways to improve it. This process is repeated until I feel I’m breathing again at 100 percent of my capacity.

Once I’m breathing at full capacity I maintain this level by doing daily breathing exercises. So far, Assisted Breathing Exercises have helped me sustain fuller lung capacity.

The author glides down Crawford's Blaze run

William Schnell lives in Las Vegas and attends the University of Nevada. He is a massage therapist and works with autistic children.

Karen Wheeler received her M.A. in Art from California State University–Fullerton in 1981. She belongs to two art groups in Southern Nevada and works primarily in watercolor. Her artwork can be seen at

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