"Breathing is the first act of life, and the last." One of the most often quoted lines from Joseph Pilates book Pilates' Return to Life Through Contrology. During the second week of our "Great Start" program, our Pilates Principle is Breathing. Joseph Pilates had some very interesting and specific thoughts on Breathing. In Return to Life, he wrote "Lazy breathing converts the lungs, figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying, and dead germs as well as supplying an ideal haven for the multiplication of other harmful germs." How's that for a revolting image!? Rather than focusing on germs in my lungs (yuck!), I prefer to think about the importance of taking in fresh air & oxygen to supply the bloodstream, which in turn supplies the brain, muscles, and organs. Many of us are habitually shallow breathers, inhaling only into the tops of our lungs, up into our chest. Stress also causes us to breath shallowly, and to overuse muscles in our neck to breathe, instead of using our diaphragm and abdominals to breath deeply. Yoga tends to focus on "bellyathing", one technique for drawing in more air by expanding the abdomen. In Pilates, we use "lateral breathing", inhaling fully into the sides, back & upper lobes of your lungs, and then exhaling fully and completely, emptying every last bit of air out of your lungs by engaging your abdominals and your diaphragm. Exhaling out every last bit of air like you're wringing out a wet rag in turn allows the lungs to automatically refill completely with fresh air. More simply put, if you focus on complete exhalation, the inhale will take care of itself!
Breathing connects the movements and assists with Flow, which we'll get to later in this series. Correct Breathing is important throughout your workout. There are some exercises, however, where breathing is most important to focus on. On the mat, the Hundred, Spine Stretch Forward, and Mermaid are considered "Breathing" exercises. Likewise, the Hundred, Coordination, Down Stretch, Snake & Twist on the Reformer are Breathing exercises, as well as Chest Expansion on both the Reformer and the Tower. Some of the images we use to cue breathing are "tightening the drawstring at your belly button", "zipping up a tight pair of jeans", and "reaching up and over the porcupine on your lap", which cue to engage the deep abdominal muscles to actively exhale. Who knew that just breathing could be an abdominal workout all by itself?!
Pilates Breathing is a smooth controlled inhale & exhale. Imagine pouring water into a pitcher to fill it completely, then pouring it out again. Or imagine sipping air in through a straw and then blowing it out again. Visualize your lungs working like an accordion, or like the springs on the reformer. Breathe in and out through your nose to avoid building up tension in your throat & jaw. One exercise to practice controlling (there's that word again!) your Breathing is to sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your legs crossed. Inhale for a count of 4, and exhale for 4. On the next breath, inhale for a count of 5 and exhale for 5. Continue increasing the length of the inhale & exhale until you inhale for a count of 10 and exhale for a count of 10. Then take a few full deep breaths to finish. The trick to this exercise is to keep the breath flowing the entire time, never holding your breath. Much easier to say than to do!
Most importantly, don't obsess over the Breathing in your Pilates practice. Just keep Breathing and moving and with patience and practice it will bec