This might not be as common a question as “When should I breathe?”, but it’s at least as important.
The first time a Pilates teacher asked me to breathe into a specific area of my body I was bewildered – did I really have a choice over this? Now I know that it’s common to many movement and meditation practices to direct breath to an area of the body.
Of course, when we breathe in, the air can only go into our lungs – we can’t truly breathe into our belly (as some yoga and meditation might encourage). To breathe into your belly means relaxing some muscles to allow the expansion of your lungs to spread into your abdomen. It’s worth mentioning that this is associated with encouraging a more relaxed state.
So the air always goes into our lungs, which sit within our ribcage, which is attached to our spine. If we pay attention to our breathing we can influence how the expansion and contraction of our lungs affects joints, muscles and connective tissue. If you’ve eaten spare ribs you will know that there is lots of muscle around our ribs, as well as some filmy connective tissue.
Stability and mobility
The way that you breathe will have an influence on both stability and mobility of your joints. Consciously directing your breath into the middle of your back during exercises like the Hundred will help you to maintain the stability of your spine.
Even more than the stability benefit, consciously breathing into our ribcage (thorax, if you like) in a 3-dimensional way has great mobility benefits. Our thoracic spines are typically the stiffest part of our spines, and to move our ribs relative to each other also encourages movement at the vertebral joints, where our ribs attach. Enhancing the mobility of our upper backs gives a boost to the stability in our lower backs, which might be considered the ‘holy grail’ of Pilates. Certainly it’s one of the things that makes Pilates so well recognised for the resolution of back pain.
The first and last act of life
Joseph Pilates famously stressed the importance of breath because of this. Breathing is a reflex that we cannot override (even though we might hold our breath for a short time). We’re always doing it, and perhaps we can develop the conscious control that allows us to use it to our advantage in Pilates classes and life in general.
As always, please ask your teacher if you have questions about any of the above.