Breath training...with Pilates

Selena DeLeon

Sunday, November 04, 2018

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TODAY I performed a Pilates exercise on the Reformer called the Feet In Straps. I was propped onto my side, one foot in a long strap, which is connected to a pulley system, providing varying degrees of resistance loaded by springs and movement.

I caught myself daydreaming throughout the exercise and lost the pattern of breathing that I had started out with; the leg hung dead, the muscles lifeless, and I was slumped over my joints.

Treating the breathing as part of the movement, I took back the rhythm of inhaling deep into my belly, feeling the fullness and expansion in the abdomen and rib cage. On the return phase, I followed the breath with my fullest attention as it left my body naturally, exhaling without forcing it in any way, as I pushed into the resistance phase of the movement.

As I moved my straight leg around in a slow circular motion, I had to marvel at the muscular complexity of this one simple movement and decided to write about the ways in which I find that conscious breath training during Pilates pulls my attention from the outside in, delivering me into a heightened state of awareness and having a measurable effect on the intensity of the work being done.

In view of the benefits to breathing, Pilates as a mind-body fusion is one of the most healthful forms of movement because of this added element of breath training, sharpening focus, and connection of the physical and mental worlds. You are sharpening your mind and your body together.

Moving unconsciously vs consciously

The amazing part is that performing Pilates without the breathing awareness changes the outcome of the exercise totally — for one, because an unfocused mind loses the opportunity to engage the muscles to their fullest capacity. When conscious awareness is brought into the picture, the engagement of far more supporting muscles along the chain to facilitate a more rounded and robust movement is found and increases the energy applied to the work being done.

In the equation of time spent and work performed, this pays off for your results in multiples. The beauty of Pilates is that the slower you go, the deeper the work is and the harder it gets.

Lengthening and shortening of muscles over a prolonged period of time generates more work in controlling the movement, rather than if the movement was just thrown out quickly without thought or care. The addition of breath training to movement brings an element of concentration, graduation and fluidity, which facilitates greater ranges of movement when performed in sync with a progressive, steady inhalation and exhalation. Not to discount the benefits of increased levels of fat burning, brought about by greater levels of oxygen delivery to the muscles from fuller inhalation patterns.

Breathing techniques: Physical benefits

The best way to begin a Pilates session is to start by moving the rib cage through breathing techniques. Not only does this loosen up the elastic structure of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the vertebral column, allowing for more movement in the back, it also opens up the lungs and stretches the respiratory muscles.

These breathing exercises condition the body to breathe better and help you to move better. Pilates breathing techniques seek to bring attention to drawing breath into the fullest capacity of the lungs and taking more time to perform an inhalation, as well as drawing out the exhalation to twice the amount of time spent inhaling. Slow and steady wins the race with these. The more you practice, the deeper your understanding and connection gets.

Directing the breath downwards into the belly pulls the diaphragm downwards and activates the pelvic floor, strengthening those muscles which improve pelvic floor dysfunctions such as incontinence. It also alleviates the tension in the shoulders and neck as unconscious breathing patterns pull the breath upwards into the shoulders and neck, causing them to tense up in unhealthy repetitive ways. Try belly breathing for one minute and notice your shoulders relaxing to feel the difference. Again, slow and steady win the race here.

It is so easy to get lost in breathing because we are all so used to just having the breath happen to us. The trick is to stay focused on it as it happens without forcing it, and this is achieved only through intention and practice. It's not just oxygen in, CO2 out; there is a universe available in there that you get to tap into if you can just stay with the flow of it. It's always happening, so go ahead and try right now.

Selena DeLeon has been a personal and group fitness trainer for 16 years. She recently transitioned into the world of Pilates and has a studio in Kingston called Core Fitness, where she helps people to move and live better.

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