Our life force starts with our first gasp of air and ends with our last breath. Breathing is one of the most important functions that we think about least. Unless we have asthma, a cold, or any other type of ailment that affects the breathing mechanisms, we take for granted the beauty of our respiratory system. There are exercises for the biceps, lats, quads, and most other external muscles. But, what about exercises for the lungs? Unless you have utilized the various breathing exercises used in yoga or meditation, you probably have not thought about how to exercise your respiratory system. By exercising your lungs with the Pilates breath, you will improve your respiratory system functions, relieve breathing ailments, and strengthen your abs.
Breathing is more than a matter of life and death. It contributes to the strength of our immunity, circulation, and detoxifies the body. In the article “Breathing Correctly Can Lead to Better Health,” John Messina tells us that most of us only use 20% of our lung capacity. This is a concern when you consider the importance of a properly functioning respiratory system. Breathing detoxifies the body more than any other system and plays a key role in the proper functioning of the immune system. When you utilize your lungs to their full capacity, you will help eliminate the stale air in your lungs and bring a rush of fresh air to the system. You will strengthen your lungs by the increased expansion while improving circulation.
As well as improving your lungs’ functioning, you will work your abs. The six pack abs may be desirable by society, but it is not as important as the deeper belly muscles. A muscle called the Transverse Abdominis is one of the keys to the Pilates breath. The Transverse, which wraps around from the front to the back, is the body’s natural corset. It helps stabilize our spine, compress our internal organs, respiratory functions, and maintain posture. In addition to the Transverse is the Internal and External Obliques. The Internal Obliques work with the Transverse as well as assist when inhaling. The External Obliques assists mainly during the exhalation process. The Internal and External Obliques twist and side bend the spine; however, at this time our focus is on the breathing aspect. Strong Transverse, Internal Oblique, and External Oblique may not give you those six pack abs, but it will give you flatter, longer, leaner abs. Unlocking the secrets to the Pilates breath will not only exercise your lungs but also strengthen your abs.
Think of your lungs as a vacuum creating suction upon releasing the old air. As you exhale, air filled with metabolic waste is released followed by an inhale with fresh, new air. However, improper breathing- indicated by shortened breath, slumped posture, and other poor habits- will create a cesspool of germs and stale air. When practicing the Pilates breath, you exhale all the air, creating a vacuum to draw in as much new fresh air as your lung capacity will allow. Your breath will be slower and deeper, which will relax the body and help release stress. Joseph Pilates says, “Squeeze’ every atom of air from your lungs until they are almost as free of air as is a vacuum.” By completely exhaling all the air in your lungs, you will automatically expand the lungs to draw more air on the inhale.
The Pilates breath is the perfect way to start exercising your lungs. Joseph Pilates designed exercises and equipment for every body part. He even designed an exercise performed on the Cadillac, one of the main pieces of Pilates equipment, named the Breathing to expand the chest and strengthen the breathing mechanisms. In some studios, you can find smaller pieces of equipment designed specifically to exercise the lungs such as the Pedi-Pole and Breath-a-Cizer. Even if you have access to the equipment or exercises, you may still struggle with the Pilates breath.
How can you master the Pilates breath? It is important to realize that the Pilates breath is just an exercise. It is not meant to replace your regular breath. It is important to be able to control and exercise the breathing components in a variety of ways, such as yoga or meditation techniques. For Pilates, the breath is the main exercise- the building block upon which the rest of the Pilates movements are founded. The Pilates breath and movements work hand in hand. The breath helps to guide the movements you perform, to feel the rhythm of the movement, and learn control of your body in the most fundamental way. Many times by focusing on your breath you can alleviate many of the challenges of an exercise. For example, many students will hold or shorten their breath while performing the movements, which makes the movement more difficult to perform. By focusing on the breath, the body will be more relaxed to move with greater ease while supported with the strength of the abs.
Before we start to master the breath, we need to learn what our current breathing pattern is. Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor or in a comfortable seated position. Place one hand on your upper belly and one on your lower belly. Breathe normally and tune into all the feelings. Are your breaths shallow or deep? Does the belly push out? Is most of the breath in the upper chest? Is there tension and where? Ideally, we would like for our breaths to be deep and expansive rather than quick and shallow. As well, you want to have a release in tension.
Now that you have tuned into your current breathing patterns, you can start to master the Pilates breath. The following is instruction on how to perform the Pilates breath. I recommend you practice your breathing exercises at least once a day. You can practice in the car, while you are walking, or before you go to sleep. In the beginning, it may be challenging to control your breathing and activate certain muscles. Continue to practice until you master the breath to a point of subconscious. Once you don’t have to think about the Pilates breath, you can focus more on other aspects of Pilates. It is not uncommon in the beginning to feel light-headed or dizzy. Return to your regular breath for a moment and then practice again. As well, you may feel sore in the ribs the next day as if they were bruised because you are expanding your ribs and stretching the Intercostals, or muscles between your ribs more than you have previously. Remember you are learning to exercise muscles that have rarely or never moved in this new way. It will take patience and practice to unlock the secret behind the Pilates breath.
EXERCISE: PILATES BREATH
Lay on your back with one hand on the upper belly and one hand on the lower belly. First, start with learning the exhale. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. You want to keep it relaxed and not forced. Make sure to open your throat rather than purse your lips. As you exhale, you want to feel the deep belly muscles contracting toward your spine in an upward motion. The belly will pull away from your hands rather than push into them. Check in that you are exhaling all the air out of your lungs. Continue to practice the exhale several times and compare how it feels to your regular breath. You should start to feel more relaxed as well as taking more air in on the inhale. Now that you have the exhale, you need to work on the inhale. In Pilates, the belly always stays pulled in. On your inhale, pull the belly muscles in and up stretching from the pelvic bone to up under the ribcage. You should feel the muscles contracting on the inhale as well as the exhale. The belly will never push into your hands on the inhale or exhale. Think of the belly working as a corset supporting the body.
Many times the shoulder will get tense when trying to pull the belly in and up. Make sure to keep them relaxed and make this a ribcage and belly motion. As well, you may find that you shorten your breath or the belly will push out three quarters of the way on the inhale. Rather than shorten the breath, focus on expanding your ribcage more. Your ribcage should expand in all four directions: out into the armpits, into the upper chest, and into the back. Try and figure out where you don’t expand well. Most of us tend to know how to expand in our upper chest, but lack expansion in the sides or back. Maybe you need to think about expanding wide into your armpits or breathing in between your shoulder blades. The more expansion you get into the ribcage the less likely the belly will push out. Your main goal is to control the expansion of your ribcage and the contraction of your belly.
Mastering the Pilates breath will strengthen your lungs and immune system, detoxify the body, relieve stress, and strengthen your abs. Just because breathing is an innate function, this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be exercised. Try the Pilates breath to see and feel the difference in your body. When you master the Pilates breath, give yourself a high five…You are a ROCKSTAR!
Nicki Noftz is the owner of Mindful Movement, LLC in Big Bend, WI. Mindful Movement is a wellness community offering Pilates, Yoga, and massage. Nicki teaches Pilates to empower the body, mind & spirit of her clients. Visit http://www.youtube.com/user/mindfulmovementllc for a video illustrating the Pilates breath or follow Nicki on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MindfulMovement.
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