Amongst everything else, correct breathing tends to be the most difficult part of a beginner’s Pilates practice. People either struggle to connect their breathing with the movement, or try too hard until they feel dizzy, light headed or nauseous.
So what exactly is ‘pilates breathing’, and how is it different from the way we are normally used to breathing?
Since breathing is under autonomic control, not requiring conscious intent to execute, it is often ignored in our day to day lives. Despite the fact that breathing is vital for life, most of us are not actively aware of it, and very few of us breathe fully and efficiently. Apart from oxygenating our blood and expelling carbon dioxide from our bodies, breathing plays a very important part in the Pilates movement. It also encourages concentration, allowing us to achieve inner focus and unite mind body and spirit. It helps to create a rhythm for movement and can affect the quality of our posture and movement, which in turn can help us improve our general health and wellbeing. Joseph Pilates famously remarked that breathing is the first and last source of life, and we should at the very least learn how to breath correctly.
How should we breath then?
In Pilates, we breath in deeply and fully through the nose and breath out through the mouth, with our lips resembling the sucking of a ‘straw’. We also need to be aware of the diaphragm, a muscle critically essential to the act of breathing. Although we are not able to feel it, we can visualise this dome shaped muscle separating the thoracic cavity horizontally from the abdominal cavity.
First, we need to locate our lungs. They are situated towards the back of the rib cage. To focus on this area, sit on a big ball or a chair and wrap an elastic band around the lower part of your ribs, crossing it over in front. Hold the opposite ends of the band, but be careful not to pull it tight. Breath in through your nose. Feel that your rib cage expands to the side, or laterally like a balloon, swelling gradually with air. In this way your lungs will expand and widen, allowing more gas exchange to take place in the lower part of the lungs, thus making our breathing more efficient. Please don’t force this inhalation as you will only create tension. Also make sure that your shoulders are completely relaxed and soft. You should feel the band tightening slightly.
To ‘exhale’ means to expel the air that has been used. The deeper your exhalation, the greater will be your capacity to inhale fresh air. As you breath out through your mouth, feel the air being pushed gently and fully from the bottom of your lungs, exiting your body with a deep sigh. Using this way of breathing out fully, your diaphragm will rise maximally, making it easier to connect with and hollow your deep abdominal muscles. Please don’t puff your cheeks or purse your lips, as this will tense the neck and waste energy. Also, soften and relax your face and jaw. Talking generally, we breath in to prepare the body to move and breath out on the movement, connecting with the strong center.
The so-called lateral thoracic Pilates breathing is immensely beneficial in reducing stress, while simetaneously inducing a peaceful and relaxed state of mind. It makes the physiological process of gas exchange more effective and the movement more enjoyable and fluid.
Pilates is an exercise methodology which focuses on precision and fine improvements to existing movements, not on perfection and judgement. If in the beginning of your journey through Pilates you find the breathing overwhelming and unnatural for you, don’t despair! I always advise my clients to give it some time and be patient with themselves. If you don’t breath correctly from the first lesson, its not the end of the world. Some people require weeks and even months to get used to this novel style of breathing, as they have to gradually enhance their pre-existing concepts and breathing habits. Once you master the beautiful flow of Pilates breathing, you will be able to discover a whole new natural type of movement, and you’ll enjoy a rejuvenated mind. Good luck!