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Breathing and Exercise

The Many Benefits of Deep Breathing in Pilates Exercise

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Updated October 09, 2011

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Deep breathing is an essential part of Pilates exercise. And not just a big inhale, but also when you make a conscious effort to exhale fully, getting rid of every bit of stale air and allowing fresh, invigorating air to rush in. Joseph Pilates was adamant about deep breathing. Consider this quote from his book Return to Life Through Contrology: "Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying and dead germs as well as supplying an ideal haven for the multiplication of other harmful germs." Is that not scary?

Benefits of Deep Breathing

Beyond the frightful implications of not breathing fully, consider some of the many benefits of deep breathing. Oxygen is part of almost every chemical reaction in your body, so you need lots of it. If you want to burn calories, you need oxygen. In fact, if you want to have energy at all, you've got to have oxygen. Conversely, carbon dioxide is a waste product and deep breathing helps you get rid of it. Not only that, but deep breathing stimulates the internal organs, including the heart. When the heart gets going, thereby increasing circulation, you get fresh blood coursing through the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients to every cell, as well as removing waste products. Deep breathing is your easiest and most available internal cleansing mechanism.

No discussion of the benefits of conscious deep breathing would be complete without addressing the body/mind integrative aspect. This is particularly true in Pilates where the "complete coordination of body, mind and spirit" (Joseph Pilates, Return to Life) is the ideal that literally inspired the development of the practice. Breathing fully, with attention and intention, centers us. It clarifies and calms the mind, reduces stress, and paves the way for a greater, holistic experience. Working with the breath also brings a natural rhythm to movement that greatly enhances the efficacy and experience of a workout.

Exercises and Deep Breathing
In Pilates, the breath leads the movement and gives it power. All of Joseph Pilates classical mat exercise instructions are coordinated with the breath and most equipment exercises are taught with breath patterns as well. Generally, we exhale on the part of the exercise that requires the most exertion, taking advantage of the natural contraction of the abdominal muscles on the exhale. In Pilates exercises, the breath to help us lengthen and decompress the spine. The contraction of an exhale can be thought of as a gentle, lengthening squeeze of the trunk around the spine. Then, on the inhale, with the support of the extensor muscles, there is an overall expansion in length and width. One might imagine a cylinder getting longer and rounder.

Typically, when people think of deep breathing they fill up their upper chest. In Pilates, however, we want to use all of the breathing space we have available to us. We therefore consciously use two related but slightly different types of breathing:

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: This is deep-belly breathing where we bring the breath all the way into the body allowing the belly to expand with the inhale and deflate with the exhale. Diaphragmatic breathing is a "best practices" breath for life in general. Learn diaphragmatic breathing.

  • Lateral Breathing: Sometimes, in Pilates and other types of exercise, we do focused training with abdominal muscles in a way that makes it impossible to allow the belly to raise up with the inflow of air. Lateral breathing teaches us to expand our ribcage and back to allow for a full intake of air. Learn lateral breathing.

Now that you are reminded of the importance of the big, beautiful breath, use it! Don't be shy about breathing fully in Pilates class. That is what Joseph Pilates intended and is completely true to the work. In fact, breath is one of the Pilates principles -- a set of guiding principles for Pilates practice distilled from Joseph Pilates teachings.

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