Understanding Breath in Pilates

Understanding Breath in Pilates

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Breath is fundamental to life. It’s so fundamental in fact that we rarely think about our breathing, it’s something we just do. We don’t even realize it’s happening and yet without it we cease to function.

Pilates is a way for us to increase the health of our bodies and it’s logical that breath, as a fundamental aspect of our bodies, would be a big part of that. In his book, Return to Life Through Contrology, Joseph Pilates states “ . . . above all, learn how to breathe correctly.”

Breathing is a Core Principle of Pilates

There are six core principles of Pilates, including Concentration, Control, Centering, Flow, Precision and Breathing. These core principles aren’t just philosophy, they are meted out in the practice of Pilates, building upon and enhancing one another in the pursuit of optimal health.

Increasing the amount of oxygen coming into the body promotes circulation, which nourishes and revitalizes it. Pilates exercises are designed to naturally facilitate the kind of breathing that is conducive to increasing oxygen levels in the blood. Simply doing the exercises properly goes a long way even when air flow isn’t specifically the focus, which speaks to prominence of breathing in this style. Pilates movements are driven directly from the core of the body, precisely where breathing takes place. By centering the practice on breath, it naturally draws attention to the very part of the body that is intended to be the focus.

What is Lateral Breathing?

Lateral breathing is synonymous with Pilates, but what is it? Lateral breathing means directing the breath into the sides of the chest, expanding the ribcage out (laterally) to allow the maximum amount of air to come into the body.

It’s common for breathing to include shoulders rising on inhalation, which leads to incredibly shallow breaths that don’t facilitate optimum levels of oxygen being drawn into the bloodstream. A common method that’s used to combat that shallow breathing is “belly breathing,” a method in which the abdominal muscles pull forward, bulging out the belly and pulling down the diaphragm to expand the lungs. Again, this doesn’t allow the lungs to completely fill with oxygen.

In lateral breathing, the breath is pulled out into the lower sides of the ribcage as it expands to both sides, with the abdominal muscles staying tight in towards the spine. By engaging the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during breathing, practitioners are strengthening the core with every breath while still facilitating deep and full inhalations.

On the exhalation everything draws in tight and forcefully to push every bit of air back out of the body before the following inhalation. Thing of wringing out a wet towel when exhaling, squeezing out every drop possible. Forced exhalation is the key to full exhalation, which is what drives deep and nutritive inhalation.

For those who are new to Pilates, lateral breathing often represents a significant adjustment. Breathing is an entrenched habit, and one that takes practice to modify. A great benefit of pursuing that modification is that once it’s done the new method becomes just as much of a habit. After a while it doesn’t take concentration to laterally breathe, it just comes naturally.

This breathing technique is an integral part of the Pilates method, as using lateral breathing reinforces the same muscle engagements that drive the benefits that are so powerful and transformative. In and of itself, lateral breathing improves the tone of the muscles between the ribs, increasing their suppleness and facilitating a greater control and range of motion in this often neglected area of the body. It’s also important for long term health, as a consistent and high quality supply of oxygen to the brain is what facilitates its health and functionality.

Coordinating Breath with Movement

Pilates is of course not a practice in which we sit still. Movement is the thrust of what we’re doing. Coordinating breath with movement is a powerful way to enhance both, and is part of what makes Pilates so incredibly successful.

The basic method for incorporating breath with movement in Pilates involves three steps:

  1. Inhale when preparing to move
  2. Exhale strongly, centering to the spine during the movement
  3. Inhale at the end of the movement to recover

This cycle repeats itself with each movement of the workout, improving the exercises and enhancing their benefits. Breathing out during the movement promotes relaxation in the stretch and prevents muscles from becoming overly tense. That same exhalation reinforces core strength and stability during the most challenging part of the movement. Inhaling for recovery supplies the muscles with needed oxygen and keeps the body active in preparation for the next movement.

A key point is that holding the breath is one of the worst possible things that can happen during exercise. The inhale and exhale should freely flow back and forth without lingering pauses in-between. Holding the breath puts serious stress on the body, increasing strain on the heart and depriving the brain of oxygen. On the other side it’s important not to breathe too quickly, which causes hyperventilation and can lead to dizziness.

Practice really does make perfect in this case. Eventually the body will fall into a rhythm of easy but controlled inhaling and exhaling that complements the exercises.

Breathing for Mind-Body Connection

Breath is a powerful way to facilitate the mind-body connection that Pilates is all about. Because breath is one of the few bodily functions that is both voluntary and involuntary, it offers an opportunity to take control of an action that would otherwise just happen on its own. That kind of control keeps the mind awake and connected to the body in a way that exercise alone doesn’t do because it stretches our awareness of how much control we do have over our physical selves.

In fact most people aren’t even aware that they have the ability to control their breath in such a precise way and learning to master the breath is generally one of the first victories that comes after beginning a Pilates regimen. That integration with the body feels really wonderful, and makes it easy to see why breath has become foundational to Pilates.

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