Joseph Pilates said, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last… above all, learn how to breathe correctly. “ Pilates had asthma as a child, and so it seems in his passion for health and wellness, he established Breathing as one, or perhaps the foundation of all principles in his Method. This quote from his book, Return to Life Through Contrology indicates how resolute he was that people learn how to control and connect to their breathing:
“Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and 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.”
Yikes! This might sound overly dramatic, but the reality is that habitually poor breathing patterns are a real source of health issues. The good news is that you’re about to learn more on how to improve your inhalations and exhalations.
In the last blog, we took a look at the role of the ribcage in respiration. When we breathe a Pilates Breath, the technique calls for the ability to focus on moving air through the lower lobes of the lungs, thus Posterior-Lateral breathing
expanding the ribs toward the sides of the body – think toward the seams of your shirt, or the space beneath the armpits, while also
Sending the inhalation into the back of the body. Where do you breathe into your back? Take one arm and bend it at a right angle, and rest it behind you as if you were getting ready to scratch a back itch. That’s about the level where you would send the breath.
As Joseph Pilates notes, complete inhalation and exhalation invigorates the body. It can also set a rhythm for movement. But the ribcage is just part of the picture; many muscles in the body actually participate in breathing: The intercostal muscles between each rib, quadratus lumborum, and pelvic floor just to name a few. But it is the Diaphragm that serves as the primary muscle for this process.
The diaphragm is the large dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest and abdomen. It has attachments to the lumbar spine as well as the bottom of the ribcage. “The lungs are enclosed in the thoracic cavity by the rib cage on the front, back, and sides with the diaphragm forming the floor of the cavity.” (1)
So picture a syringe, a barrel (as the thoracic cavity) that is fully enclosed and sealed with the plunger completely pushed in toward the tip or needle-end. When you go for a blood-draw, the technician inserts the needle into your vein and slowly pulls the plunger back, creating a vacuum-like effect and making space for the blood to be drawn into the tube. If you think about your thoracic cavity being enclosed like the barrel of a syringe, and your diaphragm as the plunger, you can picture how this unique muscle system works.
On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward; as it does so the dome flattens out, broadening the rib space and drawing in fresh air. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and rises back to its dome shape and relative to that movement, the rib cage returns to the resting position, expelling the carbon dioxide waste. You could also think of it operating like an accordion or a bellows – widening to pull air in and narrowing to drive air out. Watch the diaphragm in action on youtube (1:14)
The Pilates Breath and Core Activation
In Pilates we’re concerned about stabilizing the pelvis and lower back. So when we do the posterior-lateral breathing, there are a few notable characteristics in this breath:
Inhale through the nose, and exhale through the mouth as if you’re blowing little dandelion seeds off the stem
When inhaling concentrate on the diaphragm and ribs expanding to the back and sides, so that the belly doesn’t puff out – thereby releasing the support of the abdominals.
On the exhale, contract the transverse abdominus, and the internal and external obliques as a force to assist the out breath. Imagine gently tightening a corset or wide belt around you as if to narrow the waist.
Joseph Pilates said passionately: “To breathe correctly you must completely inhale and exhale, always trying very hard to ‘squeeze’ every atom of impure air from your lungs in much the same manner that you would wring every drop of water from a wet cloth.”
It takes practice to master this foundational technique. But when you learn the Pilates Breath well, your core stays engaged, providing support for the spine, while simultaneously pumping oxygen supply throughout the system. Better oxygenation means improved energy and alertness. Breath is life – so keep it vital!