Hold your breath … the good news on breathing
It’s the very first and the very last act of our lives. Breath is the energy of life.
But between the two, breathing receives almost no conscious attention.
Unless you’re an elite athlete, or a teacher or student of disciplines like Pilates or yoga, you will go through life with little or no instruction in the apparently simple act, but complex process, of breathing.
That said, natural therapists, spiritualists, and meditators have practised and extolled the benefits of regulated breathing for thousands of years. Why then has correct breathing not taken its place in the modern pantheon of modalities and remedies available to us all?
Synchronizing movement with the breath boosts lung capacity, enhances coordination, and enables a stronger mind body connection.
The oak and the reed
We often use an image from Aesop’s fable of the oak and the reed. It deals with the contrasting behavior of the oak, which trusts in its strength to withstand the storm and is blown over, and the reed that bends with the wind and survives.
The flexibility that measured breathing brings gives you the space to explore the full purpose and potential of your body, and to realise a full and meaningful life.
The paradox of breathing
Paradoxically, breathing falls between the two stools of your somatic and autonomous nervous systems. In other words, you can consciously control and regulate it, but it also functions on automatic when your brain and consciousness are otherwise engaged, or you’re asleep or unconscious.
Why then did Joseph Pilates lay such store by breathing that he once said: ‘Since we cannot live without breathing it is tragically deplorable to contemplate the millions and millions who have never mastered the art of correct breathing.’
He believed that poor or lazy breathing transformed the lungs into a ‘cemetery … of diseased, dying and dead germs’.
Subdivisions of the nervous system
To take his observation further, you also need to consider further subdivisions of the autonomous nervous system. These are known as the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.
As opposing or balancing systems, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear when a fight or flight or a sudden exertion signal is received. It responds instantly to the demand for elevated levels of cardio-vascular and cardio-pulmonary output.
Countering it, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over when the emergency or the need for increased heart and lung activity has passed. The parasympathetic system in particular can be regulated through taught and practised breathing techniques. The presence in Pilates of deep breathing methods based on this knowledge reinforces the interconnectedness of all our primary physical systems.
Types of breathing
In their landmark book, Pilates, Rael Isacowitz and Karen Clippinger describe three breathing methods:
Lateral, or intercostal, breathing
This method concentrates on the lateral expansion of the rib cage while sustaining a consistent inward pull of the deep abdominal muscles during both inhalation and exhalation.
Set breath patterns
Many Pilates exercises have a set breath pattern. You inhale in one phase of the movement, and exhale on another. This method influences muscle recruitment, and can underline the rhythm of a particular exercise.
Active breathing involves participants pushing out the breath forcefully to a specific count. The idea is to regulate contraction of the abdominals and internal intercostal muscles. The same beat is counted for the inhale to further activate the external intercostals.
Benefits of Pilates breathing
Without oxygen, most life forms, and even external energy forces and processes like fire and manufacturing, cannot survive or function. On the plus side, what are the benefits of regulated breathing?
Don’t forget that breathing is a bi-lateral process where you can voluntarily control your inhale and exhale. In doing so you can also regulate the volumes of oxygen, or energy-giving fuel you take in, and the levels of carbon dioxide, or toxic waste, you expel.
Better breathing can help with postural support, balance, and body alignment. This also includes:
- Boosted levels of oxygen, meaning more fuel and more energy
- More efficient expulsion of carbon dioxide, reducing toxicity and fatigue
- Heart stimulation, leading to increased oxygenated blood flow
- Organ enrichment and cleansing.
Improved breathing techniques using the Pilates method are also effective in boosting dynamic balance, strength and flexibility, reaction time, muscle coordination, injury and stress reduction and diminishing the propensity to fall.