Q: I sometimes catch myself holding my breath during a Pilates session. Do you have any advice on how to breathe properly?
Rael: Let me start by saying, “don’t hold your breath”! There are negative repercussions that arise from holding your breath, and it goes against the premise of the Pilates principles. In my experience people get too hung up on breath patterns. I view breath patterns as choreography for the breath. Just like we want people to be precise with the choreography of the movement, we ask them to be precise with the breath. Yet, in many instances’ the nuances of choreography come down to personal preference and taste as opposed to physiological importance. Often it would make little difference whether the feet are dorsi flexed or plantar flexed. We strive for the movement to be performed in a specific way for different reasons. It may be the classic version or be a style you enjoy, there may be a physiological rationale or it may come down to aesthetic appeal. Whatever the case, being precise disciplines the mind and the body. It teaches focus, awareness, concentration, control; these are all principles of Pilates.
At the same time it will prove very beneficial to change the breath pattern from time to time, just as it is valuable to change the choreography periodically to challenge the mind and the body. In this way we expand our movement vocabulary. I often equate movement to words and poetry. We accept that a large vocabulary is important and valuable in expressing oneself and in the art of writing. So it is with movement, ones movement vocabulary should not be limited but rather expansive. This is the premise of the concept of “cross training” – expanding the movement experience.
When someone says to me that he or she can do an exercise with a particular breath pattern but not with a different one, my answer is clear, “you do not yet know the exercise”, “it is not yet in your body”. When you have mastered a movement you should be able to change the breath pattern around without affecting the performance of the exercise, and alter the choreography without altering the fundamentals of the movement.
In terms of the type of breathing to utilize, in Pilates we use what is commonly called ”lateral breathing”. This capitalizes on the lateral expansion of the rib cage during inhalation and down plays the movement of the diaphragm. We do this in order to be able to maintain strong abdominal engagement not only during the exhalation, but also during inhalation.
Bottom line, although disciplining the breath both in terms of pattern and type of breathing is important, if it evokes tension it is counter-productive – remain calm and just be sure you are inhaling and exhaling!
This article first appeared in the July/2013 issue of Pilates Style Magazine. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at www.pilatesstyle.com.