Learning How to Breathe (not as easy as you may think)

A major Pilates principle, Joseph encouraged his students to ”above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” But when we think about focusing on our breath, this is often the image that comes to mind...

What we often envision breathing exercises to look like.

What we often envision breathing exercises to look like.

But breath plays an integral role in all our movements and can truly facilitate or inhibit movement depending on use.

Let's start what happens when we are breathing. Anatomically, when you inhale the intercostal muscles between your ribs contract to lift and widen your ribcage (think of an umbrella opening). At the same time, the diaphragm separates your chest and abdominal cavity. Because of these two actions, extension of the spine is a natural feeling movement as we inhale. Cueing an inhale when performing exercises such as Swan Dive Preps or the extension in Double Leg Kick can really help to connect the core engagement to the movement. 

As you exhale, the transversus abdominis pulls the ribcage back down and it becomes significantly easier to draw the navel towards the spine and hollow out the abdominals. When flexing the spin (ab curl, stomach series), focusing on the exhale can help to perform the exercise correctly with proper abdominal recruitment.

Proper breathing can be used to facilitate movement, increase mobility, focus the mind and improve lung capacity. There are a few different techniques that you can choose to use depending on the goal.

Breathing Exercises

1.     Full Exhalation: This is a great place to start when teaching or learning how to breath correctly. Breath in normally. Exhale ALL air out to the point of coughing. Feel the abdominals engage starting with the deepest muscles first and moving outwards. Allow lungs to naturally refill with oxygen, trying to fill the bottom lobes first and not allowing the shoulders to lift. Notice that when you empty your lungs completely, your next inhalation happens automatically and is very deep.

2.     Belly (diaphragmatic) Breathing: Inhale into the abdomen (belly) while visualizing that you are filling up your torso with air from the very bottom of the pelvis. This is a relaxing breath that can be used at the beginning or end of class to centre your mind and let go of everyday stresses. It can also be used during activities such as meditation and when before falling asleep at night. It will also help to increase the capacity of the diaphragm. As you exhale, think about drawing the navel towards the spine to press the air out and create a natural contraction of the transverse abdominus and pelvic floor.

3.     Ribcage Breathing: This is the breath that we use most commonly throughout a fitilates class. It allows you to sustain the hollowing out of the abdominals, giving support to the core musculature. Inhale into the sides and back of the ribs without expanding the abdomen. It is also an invigorating breath that can be used to increase energy and stimulate the mind. 

4.     Single Lung Breathing: When performing exercises requiring lateral flexion (such as mermaid or side bend), single lung breathing can be helpful as this breath is used to increase expansion of the lungs in one side. It can also be helpful for clients with conditions such as thoracic scoliosis, focusing on the concave side, to increase mobility of the spine and rib cage. To assist in practicing this breath, place your hands on the lower part of the ribcage and aim your breath into one side of the lungs at a time. Note if one side is easier than the other.

5.     Sniffing Breath: This breath is perfect for movements and exercises that are percussive in nature such as Side Leg Kicks or Pushups. Inhale two or three small breaths through the nose as if taking small sips of air and exhale through pursed lips as though blowing through a straw. Focus on taking the abdominal scoop deeper with each exhalation and maintaining it on the inhalation.

Try a few of the different types of breathing in your next workout. Did you feel a difference? Which ones were easy for you? More difficult?