The Power of the Breath: Part One
We breathe all day, every day, for a lifetime; but how much thought do you give to how you breathe?
Modern life has reduced breathing to a perfunctory exchange of air. We breathe shallow, high into the chest, too fast, restricted and distorted. The way we breathe every day (unsurprisingly) takes a very real toll on our health and wellbeing: tight bodies, tight chests, headaches, heart disease, poor concentration, general malaise, anxiety, the list goes on!
The correlation between the breath and quality of health (physical and mental) has been made for centuries, and modern medicine continues to support ancient wisdom that proper breathing equates to optimal health outcomes and resilience.
Classical Pilates method recognises that coordination of the breath with movement is not only fundamental to athletic performance, but also our health, consciousness and spirit/life force. The breath should be used as a constructive metabolic state to relax the body and mind, encourage concentration, and help us to move with precision and grace.
But what does it even mean to breathe properly?
Joseph Pilates said it best: “Squeeze every atom of air from your lungs until they are almost free of air as is a vacuum. Notice how your lungs automatically completely refill themselves with fresh air.”
Wring those lungs out! Are they empty? Now notice the fullness of your inhalation. How does it feel?
If we go by Joe’s advice and focus on the exhalation, our bodies will be automatically and fully replenished with fresh air that we can then apply in our next movement or exertion. Fortunately, in Pilates we have many exercises that help to train this exhalation reflex and improve lung capacity, for example: the hundred, double leg pull, any rotation exercise.
Coordinating breath and movement is a skill, and when mastered it is experienced seamlessly as one action: breathe as you move, move as you breathe, and translates into everyday life.
Breath-work accounts for around 50% of the Pilates Method. In a practical context, when the breath is applied in precise patterns you tap into something more: more stamina, greater concentration, and more precise engagement of powerhouse muscles.
You will notice PFI Instructors cueing specific ways of breathing, such as:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing: deep, belly breathing. We bring the breath all the way into the body allowing the belly to expand with the inhale and deflate with the exhale. (This breathing is a “best practice” for life in general!)
- Lateral Breathing: used in focused training of the core. Lateral breathing teaches us to expand our ribcage and back to allow for a full intake of air, without recruiting the belly (the belly stays flat).
Both approaches oxygenate the blood, and make you feel great, however, each differs in the way it supports certain movements.
Breath also governs rhythm in movement and has the power to transform your practice into a fluid and creative meditation. It’s also fundamental to that special, mind-body connection we all find so rewarding! The mindfulness and breath control aspect of Pilates produces a relaxation response, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, while increasing your sense of wellbeing.
The beauty of this discipline is that you can work hard, but relax, and if your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath and the movement.
Don’t be self-conscious about breathing fully in class: this is what Joseph Pilates intended. Now that you have been reminded of the importance of the big, beautiful breath: go use it!
(Breathing is such a huge topic, we can never cover it all in one post! So, stay tuned for more.)