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Pilates and Breath

“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.” — Joseph Pilates

In most of our waking moments, we are not aware of our breath. It is automatic, natural and not premeditated. Joseph Pilates, is correct, of course our life depends on our breath, despite our general awareness. Pilates believed so much in the power and importance of breathing that it became one of the tenants of his eponymous method. He strongly felt, proper breathing was at the core of good health.

Strong, big inhalations and equally long, deep exhalations are “the equivalent of an internal shower”, according to Pilates. Pilates believed that the stagnant air lingering in the lungs from small inhales and inadequate exhales did not serve the body. A long big exhale, however, created space for an equally large inhale which would provide fresh oxygen to the blood. The influx of air will also stretch tight muscles, while the oxygen is delivered to the cells of the entire body, through the bloodstream. Healthy cells equalled a healthy body. The breath refreshes the entire system, and hence the “internal shower”. With movement the heart is pumping the blood quicker, and the effects are magnified as the fresh oxygen is rapidly distributed.

How does it work? On an inhale the ribcage expands, air comes in up and out from the spine. The diaphragm contracts and moves downward, putting pressure on the belly which causes it to press out, this is diaphragmatic or belly breathing. On an exhale the ribcage narrows and drops due to gravity. The diaphragm rises, decreasing air circumference and this pushes the air out. The movement is like a pump: air in and out. The breath is dynamic engaging the four layers of the abdominal muscles and the intercostal muscles to pull the ribs wide and lift them on the inhale and to bring the ribs back toward the spine and down on the exhale.

A flexible rule to remember is that the exhale preceding determines the quality of the inhale that will follow.

When we practice Pilates, the breath becomes bodily awareness, health and movement itself. When performed correctly in Pilates the breath and the movement become one and the same, intrinsically linked.

In your own practice, pay attention to the breath, notice if it gets stuck in any particular spots; if you breathe shallowly, or fully and deeply. Play with the breath and send it to different quadrants of the lungs, let it be big and energizing at times, let it be quick and vigorous at others. Above all let the inhales and the exhales flow, becoming one with the movement in Pilates and in the rest of your life.

— Kari Skaflen

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