Breathing. It is something we all do, day in and day out and it isn’t too often that we put much thought into it. But, your breath is highly influenced by your state of mind regardless of your awareness of it. Let’s say you are on a deadline at work, your breath is likely to become very shallow and quick as you focus intently on getting your work done. And, unfortunately, right along with that shallow breath your shoulders creep up around your ears and tension through your entire back, neck and shoulders soon follows. You head home that night with a lot of achiness, discomfort and likely a headache.
But, if you took just a few moments to turn away from your computer and deepen that breath you can release tension in the entire upper half of your body, slow your heart and calm your mind, ultimately allowing you to have more focus and clarity as you finish the project.
The breath really does have a profound impact on our entire physiology and taking time to learn more about how you breathe and how you can utilize different techniques gives you more power and control over your own body. In Pilates, like other mind-body exercises there is a focus on the breath. However, the Pilates breath can get confused with the yoga breath and there are some distinct differences. I find both techniques highly valuable and believe that the more time spent focusing on breath, in any capacity, the better. Here are a few things to keep in mind when focusing on the Pilates breath.
Breathe into the Back
In Pilates, we are asked to breathe more into the back for a few different reasons. For one, the exchange of gases in the lower lobes of the lungs is very efficient. Getting the breath all the way down into the lower lobes of the lungs encourages more oxygen into the blood. I know it seems obvious when I write it, but often we only breathe in the upper part of the chest and that immediately limits our oxygen intake. Secondly, we are working on engaging the entire abdominal wall and if we are constantly breathing into the belly, we are constantly releasing those abs and then having to re-engage them on the exhale. In Pilates, we are focusing on core stabilization, so the belly breath becomes counter-productive for many of the exercises. Certainly, the abs need to release to some degree to get a complete inhale, but if we just move the breath into the back more, we are able to sustain greater control over our core.
Breathe into the Sides of the Rib Cage
When the breath happens more in the front of the ribcage and high in the chest, it causes the ribs to open and ‘pop’ forward on the inhale. This is a frequent pattern with certain postures, particularly those with significant lordosis or low-back curvature. (like me) This pattern causes the rectus abdominus to be stretched and likely the obliques as well, which means we again have lost our core engagement and will need to re-engage our abs quickly on the exhale. But, if we work to focus on breathing into the sides of the ribs, it allows us to keep the front of the ribs down and allows us to sustain our core engagement through the inhale and the exhale. Ultimately, this breath pattern helps us restore optimal spinal alignment to support the lumbar spine more efficiently and to allow for better movement in the thoracic spine.
Inhale Through the Nose and Exhale Through a Pursed Lip.
One of the main goals of the Pilates breath is to encourage engagement of the transversus abdominis, or the deepest layer of our abdominal wall. One easy way to support that process is by how we breathe. By inhaling through the nose and then pushing the air out through a pursed lip, it becomes more automatic to engage the transversus during the exhale.
Now, I will be honest, because breathing is something we do every single second of the day, our habits are pretty well ingrained. When we are starting to change our technique for how we breathe it can sometimes feel awkward and frustrating. This is completely normal! Just hang in there, try and take a few minutes each day at the beginning and slowly try to incorporate this breath pattern into various activities where you need more core engagement. When you get frustrated, let it go for the day and come back to it another day.
Here is one exercise you can try right now to help you feel and understand the Pilates breath:
Breathing While Hugging Knees
One of the easiest positions to initially feel this breath pattern is in flexion. If you can, sit on the floor (if not sit on a pillow, cushion or stool to make it more comfortable) with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Round over your knees relaxing your head and neck over your legs. Place your arms down by your sides or if your shoulders allow, you can place your hands on your lower lungs on the back and sides to feel the breath pattern.
Now inhale through the nose feeling the expansion of the lungs with your hands and then exhale through a pursed lip to start to feel some engagement in the lower abdominal wall. Take several deep breaths here and allow yourself to relax into it. If it feels funny at first, don’t worry, it will get easier. If your hands are down by your sides, then visualize two balloons right at the bottom of your rib cage and imagine filling those balloons with air as you inhale. Then as you exhale, again push the air out through a pursed lip and gently feel the belly button pull towards your spine.
Take about 10 deep breaths here and feel how your body shifts during that time. What did you notice change in your body?
Next time you head to a Pilates class, or prepare to do some ab work, try to see if you can incorporate some of these breathing principles into your work and see what it does for you. Let me know how it goes!
If this article was helpful to you, and you think it would be helpful to someone else, please share! We could all use a little more focus on our breath!