A simple deep, slow breath unwinds the body, releasing and relaxing muscles and joints. It helps us physically and mentally balance the body and mind leading to good health and well-being.
Breathing to Relieve Pain and Tension
I would see at first hand how focused breathing could help instantly release tension when I practiced as a massage therapist. Clients would often come in with pain in their shoulders and neck. This was due to weak upper neck and back muscles, and overworked accessory breathing muscles at the front of their neck and chest. Some of the reasons for this include shallow breathing which was often stress-related, old injuries around the rib area that had left scar tissue and which meant the respiratory muscles were not moving fully, or maybe due to poor posture for example sitting hunched over a desk for many hours a day.
I would ask the client to help me release these muscles in the treatment by focusing their breath into that area. This worked very well and within minutes muscles would soften and become more flexible, often releasing other areas of the body too. Working into the upper area of the body with breathwork would also help with discomfort and pain in the lower back or hip, usually on the opposite side to the tension found higher up. The client would leave the treatment breathing more freely and easily with relaxed muscles and joints released using their own conscious, focused breath. The power of the breath!
With Pilates breathing throughout the classes you can release muscles and joints yourself by learning to fully activate muscles used in breathing. Often the diaphragm, one of the core muscles talked about in Pilates (the primary muscle used in inhalation) and the external intercostal muscles (particularly those in the lower part of the rib cage) donʼt move through their full range of movement. During inhalation (in-breath) the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles contract pulling the rib cage upwards and outwards to the side known as lateral thoracic breathing in Pilates. The diaphragm will descend lowering into your abdominal area and then it rises and relaxes on exhalation. Our aim in the Pilates classes is to inhale wide and full into our back and sides of ribs, our lungs will then expand and widen the walls of the rib cage. As you breathe in through your nose you can think of the lungs as balloons filling gradually with air.
In exhalation (out-breath) we expel air that has been used. The deeper your exhalation, the greater your capacity to inhale fresh air. As you breathe out you should feel the air gently being let go out through your mouth. A good visual for this is to think of the breath moving through an imaginary funnel towards your hips as you breathe out, or think of the lower ribs drawing downwards to the hips (check out the video). We want to breathe deeply and slowly but not forcefully as we donʼt want to create tension. With exhalation in class the superficial abdominal muscle, rectus abdominis (six pack), and transverse abdominis an inner core stabilising muscle that runs horizontally underneath the vertical rectus abdominis like a wide belt or corset are activated. These muscles will strengthen and tone through forceful exhalation as will the internal intercostals and the obliques at the side of the torso. Many muscles work just with inhalation and exhalation and with the Pilates exercises you learn to coordinate your movements with your breathing and work these muscles fully.
Benefits of Pilates Breathing
There are lots of benefits of Pilates breathing, not only are you strengthening many muscles and keeping them flexible and mobile but:
- Your posture will be better too,
- You will stand taller having created space (gapping) between the vertebrae of the spine,
- Abdominal muscles tone up,
- Your body alignment will be better,
- Movement will feel freer and easier.
You will also get more out of your physical activities that involve cardiovascular work. For example, with running and cycling your breathing improves due to the respiratory muscles working more efficiently and effectively. So if you are training for a marathon or an event, Pilates can help with performance. Focused, deep breathing can also help those who suffer from respiratory symptoms such as asthma, rhinitis, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
Feel-Good Feeling After a Pilates Class
Many times over the years people say after a Pilates class that they feel better within themselves and more relaxed after a busy often stressful day at work. I think the reason that the class members are feeling more relaxed is mainly due to the focused, deep breathing which is a natural relaxer during the class. They are present in the moment and aware of their breath and movement through the hourʼs class. The parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for stimulation of “rest and digest” activities promoting relaxation and recovery switches on, and there is more of a balance between it and the sympathetic nervous system stimulating activities associated with the “fight or flight” response which produces the hormone adrenaline. Often if we are always on the go, excessively busy and stressed, we will produce too much adrenaline on a regular basis. This imbalance can lead to mental and physical ill-health over time. We want to find the balance (homeostasis) between the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system and deep, focused breathing in class will help with this.
If stress and anxiety are reduced through deeper breathing this can lead to many positives;
- Better sleep,
- Clearer thought,
- Better decision making,
- A feeling of calmness,
- Being able to move through your day with more ease generally, both mentally and physically.
Please check out this short video on Pilates breathing.