This article was originally published on July 18, 2016.
Our breath is our life force and yet so many of us have become accustomed to shallow breathing or not breathing at all when we exercise. It sounds ridiculous, but one of the most common mistakes people make when exercising is holding their breath. In Pilates, there is a suggested breathing pattern for most exercises. When I first started teaching I was surprised at how many clients could not take in a full breath to a movement. Being able to breathe deeply and with control is not only necessary in delivering blood and oxygen to our muscles, it is also related to our mental and emotional well being. Shallow chest breathing fires up our flight or flight instincts and creates anxiety. Deep, controlled breathing from the diaphragm creates a calming effect on our nervous system.
To know if you are breathing correctly, place one hand on your lower abdomen. When you inhale, your belly should rise as your diaphragm contracts, making more space in your lungs to take in air. As you exhale, your belly should fall as the diaphragm relaxes and helps to expel all the air out of your lungs. Breathing is normally automatic, but to change a pattern of shallow breathing, one must practice conscious breathing exercises. These 4 Pilates exercises will incorporate movement with controlled breathing to increase breath awareness and lung capacity.
Press Up– Lie on your stomach and place your hands on the floor by your ears. If you have a less flexible back you may walk your hands forward slightly above your head. Inhale slowly as you straighten your arms, lifting your upper body off the floor. Keep your hips down on the ground. Be careful not to crunch the lower back by elongating your spine and moving your hands forward if necessary. Slide your shoulder blades down your back so that your neck is also long. Exhale slowly as you lower your upper body back down on the ground. Coordinate these movements so that your breath starts and ends with each movement. Repeat 5-10 times.
Chest Expansion Kneeling– Kneel with your legs hip distance apart and your arms straight out in front of you. Inhale as you press your arms back behind you to open up your chest. Do not arch the back to get the arms farther back. Think of contracting your triceps instead. Hold your breath as you look to the right and then to the left. Open up your shoulders each time so that your opposing shoulder doesn’t creep forward as you turn your head to each side. Exhale as you slowly lift the arms back up to the starting position. Each time you do this, reverse your looks so you are starting from a different side each time. Do 3 times to each side.
Hundreds– This is a traditional Pilates warm up exercise that will really get your blood flowing and abdominals engaged. It’s also excellent for breath training. Lie on your back with your knees into your chest. Bring your head neck and shoulders off the ground trying to reach your forehead to your knees. Keep your arms by your side reaching long a few inches off the ground. You may start in this position or if you want to challenge your abdominals more, straighten your legs out to 45 degrees with the legs slightly turned out. The lower your legs are the more challenging it is, but be sure your lower back is not lifting off the ground. Once in position, start vigorously pumping your arms up and down to each count. Move your arms from your back so they remain straight and toned. Inhale for 5 counts and then exhale for 5 counts. Do this 10 times. Once you have mastered the hundreds, you may play with the breathing. For example, you can try inhaling for 3 counts and exhaling for 7 or vice versa.
Mermaid– While this is a great stretch for your quadratus lumborum, Joseph Pilates also created this exercise to expel stale air out of the lungs. The twisting of the torso in coordination with a long exhale helps to achieve that. Sit on your right hip with your knees bent and stacked to your left like a mermaid. You may stagger the legs instead if stacking the legs is too hard on your knees. Hold onto your ankles with your left hand to assist you in deepening your stretch. Inhale as you lift your right arm up and exhale as you arc that arm over to the left side. Place the right arm back down on the ground and inhale as you now lift your left arm up. Exhale slowly as you reach the left arm underneath your right armpit. Imagine you are wringing your torso out like a towel. To deepen this stretch, put your left hand on the floor and crawl your fingers as far back behind you as you can while continuing to exhale. Do this 3 times before repeating on the other side.
Even when you are not exercising, try to become more conscious of how you are breathing. Breath awareness and practice can be done anywhere at any time.
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