One of the quintessential Pilates Principles is Breathing. Seems like an obvious task, but amazingly a significant challenge for many, especially with the amount of focus asked of them in a typical Pilates session.
Joseph Pilates himself explains in his manifesto, Return to Life Through Contrology that to breathe properly we should “SQUEEZE EVERY ATOM OF AIR FROM YOUR LUNGS UNTIL THEY ARE ALMOST AS FREE OF AIR AS IS A VACUUM” (and yes, he wrote it in all caps).
Current science refutes this description, but the point still remains a fact that breathing really should be an active versus passive act, particularly in movement.
I recall, without much fondness, my early days practicing Pilates, and the effort and concentration it took to follow the cues of inhaling and exhaling as they were timed to every movement performed. The gasping and hissing around the room was almost deafening.
What I remember most clearly was that the pattern of the breath and its intensity seemed unnatural and uncomfortable, and after an hour of this, I found myself leaving with a much more mobile body as promised…and a pounding headache.
I have since learned both in my personal practice and as a Pilates Teacher that breathing is a very important aspect of movement. One that assists movement, clears the mind, and releases tension.
I will be perfectly honest that breathing is not the first principle that I teach my clients (*GASP*), partly because of my own personal experience as previously explained, but as it turns out, most people that have tried Pilates and quickly ceased their practice have a very similar story to my own.
I feel strongly that Pilates is an extremely important movement practice for every body, and so have vowed that I will never let my clients have that same experience on my watch.
They are there to MOVE afterall.
“Pilates Breathing” is described by some as a forceful breath intended to activate the Power House, also known as the deep core muscles. I first introduce the breath with my clients after a good amount of time spent reminding them simply to breathe while they acclimatize their bodies to the complex practice of Pilates. Once they have achieved some familiarity with the exercises, I then start to introduce the breath as a way to pace and assist the movement. Using a long slow exhale throughout the length of the movement in one direction, and an easy normal-sized inhale in the opposite direction.
If you have read my post from 2015 entitled “Clench it or Move it”, you will remember that I am not a fan of bracing or clenching of muscles. I apply this same thought when teaching the intention of the breath for movement. A forceful exhale does indeed activate the deep inner unit, but only to achieve stability of the spine through the act of intra-abdominal pressure. However, the TrAs are not movers (*GASP* again) therefore do not need to be forcefully activated through the breath for effective movement.
The alternative and perhaps unintended result for the layperson is that this forceful exhale triggers a bracing effect of the rectus abdominis and obliques, which again is not useful for free movement.
How then CAN the breath be effectively used for movement? So many ways, and here are just a couple of my favorites:
First, breathing can assist a direction of movement as touched on earlier. An inhale can effectively encourage the thoracic spine extension needed for Swan, a more twisty rotation in Saw, or it can simply help find length and reach in the body. An exhale creates the hollowing needed for spinal flexion in a Roll Up, or a strong stabilization of the trunk for Leg Pull Front Support (as an aside, all of these activate the TrAs too, but these contract subconsciously or involuntarily, they don’t need to be “turned on” to work).
Next, the breath can be used to make an effortful exercise significantly easier by transforming what may seem to the new Pilates practitioner like a single joint exercise into a fully integrated movement. Take Bicep Curl on the Reformer as an example. Without using a breathing cue, the movement feels very much like an arm exercise, and this can be quite effortful especially while holding an active C-Curve or spinal flexion. However, using the exhale on the bicep curl allows the Anterior Oblique System (Serratus Anterior, both layers of Obliques, and the Adductors) to assist this movement, resulting in a much more efficient and effortless execution.
Breathing is indeed an important principle of Pilates…and one that I have learned to love. Understanding and incorporating an intention for the breath cues that we teach and practice is even more important. The breath plays a very important role in all bodily systems, and deregulating the normal breath pattern can be very harmful. The body instinctively knows how to breathe, and sometimes we just have to help it along when our students’ focus is so intently on the movement that they forget to take a breathe altogether.
And take a breath…Ahhhhhhh.
Interested in learning more valuable and applicable skills to help your students move better? Click HERE to check out the Body Harmonics Primary Specialist Certificate programs. All Movement Professionals are welcome.
Holly Wallis, Certified Movement & Rehabilitation Specialist, PMA®-NCPT
Director of US Operations, Body Harmonics Pilates & Movement Institute
Studio Director, ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611
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