“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.” Joseph Pilates
The breath is an integral part of The Pilates Method. Joseph Pilates talks about the beneficial effects of the breath on the organic, musculoskeletal and emotional health of individuals in his book ‘Return to Life Through Contrology.’ No surprise then that breathing is one of the fundamental principles of The Pilates Method and is the driving force behind each exercise.
The Importance of the Breath
Breathing is the essence of life, our very survival depends on it. The sense of vitality and energy we feel can be enhanced or compromised by the way in which we breathe. All of the systems of the human body – respiratory, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular and neurological systems, are affected by our ability to breathe properly.
The way we move, our posture, sleeping patterns, personalities, emotions, nutrition, even our clothing, affect and are affected by our breathing. The breath reflects our relationship not only with ourselves but with our environment. Respiration is common to all living things of course – humans, trees, animals or birds. We all “breathe” the same air. Here lies our commonality with the world around us.
Unfortunately many of us have forgotten what it’s like to breathe fully. To rediscover the full potential of our breath involves letting go of obstacles that we have put in the way of our breathing, whether consciously or unconsciously. Keleman in his book ‘Emotional Anatomy’ sees breathing as a “specialised form of pulsation” – waves of expansion and contraction that reflect the basic pulsation of the cells in all living tissues. The movement of body fluids and electrical impulses through the body feed into this tidal rhythm. This subtle ebb and flow creates and maintains the spaces in the body. When these spaces are compromised, they lose their functional integrity, resulting in fatigue and illness.
Joseph Pilates’ Philosophy of Breathing
According to Joseph Pilates, the importance of breathing lies in its relationship to the flow of blood round the body. The respiratory and circulatory processes help revitalise the cells in the body with oxygen and carry away waste, thereby treating the body to an “internal shower.”
Full inhalation and exhalation are a fundamental part of every Pilates exercise. Even though the majority of movements in each exercise occur on the exhale, the inhale is no less important. To inhale fully is to “squeeze out the lungs as you would wring out a wet towel.”
Joseph Pilates applied concentration, control and precision as much to the breathing as to the movements involved in performing the exercises. Each movement follows the start of the inhale or exhale. The breath leads the movement, not the other way round. Hence why the breath is considered to be the driving force, the engine, if you like, of the exercises.
The Pilates Method uses lateral or diaphragmatic breathing. This three-dimensional breath involves all sides of the ribs, the deep abdominals and the diaphragm. On inhalation, there is a gentle expansion of the ribs as the diaphragm draws down. This expansion keeps the belly and solar plexus unaffected, thus it remains flat rather than distended. Diaphragmatic breathing brings the air in deeply, massaging the heart and nourishing the internal organs. Just as Pilates said, “the organs of the body…receive the benefit of clean, fresh blood carried to them by the rejuvenated bloodstream.”
Breathing Problems and Pilates
Restrictive breathing patterns can be addressed very successfully through Pilates. Patterns such as reverse breathing, chest breathing, collapsed breathing and throat-holding – brought about as a result of stress, bad habits, illness, poor posture, injury etc – would all benefit from practising the lateral breath. The Pilates breath can also benefit asthmatics (as it did so successfully for Joseph Pilates, who himself suffered from asthma), as well as people with structural conditions like scoliosis, which can restrict the person’s ability to take a proper breath.