BY: Stephanie Ruopp
That might sound like a ridiculous question. Of course you know how to breathe, right?
Well, your body certainly knows how to draw in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide. That’s an involuntary action.
But the sort of breathing we’re talking about – the sort you practice in Pilates – goes a lot deeper than that.
So the fact is, you may not know how to breathe EFFECTIVELY.
Breath Is Life
When Joseph Pilates developed what we now call Pilates, he branded it “contrology.” He was seeking a way, through controlled physical fitness, to completely unify the body, mind, and spirit.
Based on that notion, he developed a series of principles as the foundation for this system that is ultimately a means towards achieving grace, balance, and fluidity.
One of those principles is breath.
Pilates once wrote that breathing was an integral part of any movement. And that it was an essential part of maximizing any form of exercise. He felt that learning to breathe correctly was the most important of all the principles.
That’s why most Pilates exercises are taught with specific breathing patterns.
Generally speaking, the rib cage closes and the spine flexes slightly during an exhale. So the exhale is used during movements when there is flexion and exertion. There is a simultaneous focus on keeping the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles engaged.
But an exhale is also effective when working to surrender into a deep stretch and allow the body to relax into it.
Meanwhile, the inhale is typically associated with extension and length. But it is also incorporated in rotation and twists since it allows for elongation of the spine. This protects the intervertebral discs.
Beyond these basic breathing techniques, there are more specific breathing exercises that are employed. In fact, there are various breathing theories and practices utilized in Pilates to achieve engagement and stabilization throughout the body. These may differ for various movements, as well as for individuals.
We’ll take a look at two of the most commonly used in Pilates.
Diaphragmatic Deep Breathing
Joseph Pilates believed that we should take advantage of every breath. He also believed that blood needed to be charged with oxygen and purged of any waste if it was to perform its job.
He felt it was vital to inhale as much as possible to oxygenate the blood. Then exhale completely to get rid of any stale air. This is the objective of diaphragmatic breath. And learning how to do it is one of the first steps in understanding the deeper dynamics of breath.
This breathing exercise is used in both yoga and Pilates. It’s also tremendously helpful in preparing for meditation. But honestly, it’s a great tool that can be used in any stressful situation to bring the body back to equanimity.
Situated just below the lungs, the diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that is crucial in all breathing. During an inhale, it contracts and flattens downward to create a vacuum that sucks in air. During an exhale, it returns to its original shape, thereby pushing air out of the body.
Using the diaphragm to take deep and cleansing breaths will activate blood circulation and invigorate muscles and cells.
This exercise can be done lying on your back or seated.
Simply rest one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your heart. Inhale through the nose and concentrate on sending the breath into the belly first. Feel the belly fill completely with breath. The hand resting on your abdomen will rise with it.
Then continue to carry the breath up into the chest, starting at the lower lobes of the lungs all the way to the top. Fill your lungs completely. Keep your side bodies long, your shoulders down and relaxed, and your spine in a neutral position. Throat remains open.
When you exhale out of your nose, think of your body as a vessel. Allow the breath to slowly pour out of that vessel like water – emptying from the top all the way to the bottom. There’s no force. It’s a natural release of breath.
Once you become more familiar with this breath, you can practice drawing the abdominals inward and upward during an exhale to gently drive air out of the body – as this engagement will come in handy during your Pilates sessions.
With lateral breathing, also known as lateral thoracic breathing or intercostal breathing, the breath is full and deep. But the low belly remains engaged the entire time.
This brings the breath into the ribcage and requires use of the thoracic and back muscles to breathe. It is called lateral breathing because rather than the up and down of diaphragmatic breathing, this breath expands the ribs laterally.
Lateral breathing may take a little more practice than diaphragmatic breath because it’s not as intuitive. (Just look at any infant sleeping and you will see they do diaphragmatic breath naturally.)
There are a few different methods you can try to perfect this breath.
The simplest is to place your hands on your ribs, allowing the middle fingers come together on the breast bone.
Inhale through the nose and exhale out the mouth. As you do so, focus on the middle fingers. They should pull apart when you inhale, then come together when you exhale. This allows you to focus on the width of your breath versus the height.
Another option would be to hold a towel around your ribs and cross it over at the front. When you inhale, the towel will expand. When you exhale, you can gently squeeze the towel to emphasis that lateral movement.
You could also try using a long exercise band wrapped around the lower rib cage and closed it in front of your chest. You will feel the exercise band expand and contract as you breathe.
In each of these options, you may want to exhale through slightly pursed lips. This can help to bring awareness to the contraction of the abdominal muscles.
Now You Know How to Breathe
Or at least you know to breathe more effectively. And especially when it comes to practicing Pilates.
If you’d like to learn more about breathing techniques and exercises, ask an experienced Pilates instructor to give you some pointers.
Or you could always head to a Pilates class and start experiencing the benefits for yourself. Contact us today to find out how Pilates can improve your life.