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The Importance of Breath

Updated: Jul 21, 2023



Delve deeper into Breathwork with our 2-hour BREATHE WELL Workshop - Saturday 9 September!


If you are a regular at Featherstone, you already know breath is a very important part of our Pilates classes. Breath is a wonderful tool and one of Joseph Pilates 3 guiding principles. Breath practice at the beginning of a mat class helps our readiness to participate and enables us to become present on the mat. Breath cued during the session is designed to enhance mobility and /or stability in different exercises, centering and encourage a mindful movement practice. Breath used at the end of class can enhance a sense of relaxation and enable you to assess the effects of the exercises on your body.


It’s incredible to realise our brain balances our physiology through breath. Maybe conduct your own experiment. While sitting quietly for a couple of minutes in a chair with your back supported, feel your pulse or heart rate (easiest positions include at the thumb side of your wrist or at the side of the throat next to your ‘Adam's apple’). Take a normal breath in. When you are ready to exhale, just take a breath out. Do you notice anything different about your pulse rate during the inhalation vs the exhalation? If you don’t, that’s fine. Generally, the inhale is tied in with a slight increase in heart rate as the inhale is linked to your sympathetic or fight/flight arm of the autonomic nervous system (heard the expression “a quick intake of breath” when shocked or surprised?) whilst the longer often slower exhale to the parasympathetic or rest/digest branch (with another telling expression, “breathing a sigh of relief” when the crisis is over).


Breathing is an essential part of life. Just because we breathe 24 hours a day doesn’t mean we do it well. How we breath influences how we function. We breath in oxygen which is fundamental, and we breathe out CO2. How much CO2 left after an exhale determines our breath rate and PH levels influencing lots of systems. O2 and CO2 levels are both important and influenced by breath. A slow nasal exhale is a way to control the remaining CO2 which in turn regulates your inhale and keeps you in your sympathetic or fight/flight nervous system.


Back to Pilates, I love to give 4 easy cues during breath practice in the beginning of class to help prioritise the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system.


1. NASAL BREATHING

The first is to breathe through your nose if you can. Our noses are beautifully designed for breathing, with the nasal cavity cleansing, warming and humidifying the air before it’s inhaled into the lungs, where the real work of breathing occurs. Interestingly, nitric oxide is produced in our sinuses and nasal cavity. This wonderful chemical has vasodilatory (opens the blood vessels) and bronchodilator (opens the airways) effects in the respiratory system as well as antiviral, antifungal and antimicrobial effects and none of this occurs when you breathe through your mouth. It can take time to get familiar we nasal breathing. Just return to nasal breathing if you note you are mouth breathing.


Start with short periods of nasal breathing if it is a challenge.


2. SLOW RATE OF BREATH

The second and easy one to do and notice is to slow down your rate of breathing. Faster breathing signals to the body there is something to be concerned about and targets the fight/flight response. Think about something that created stress for you. Can you remember if you felt breathless, or had difficulty taking a normal breath? Interestingly, it is a common response from others to say ‘just breathe’ in attempts to calm you down!


Try nasal breathing in for the count of 3, out for the count of 4.


3. BELLY BREATHING

Direct the breath into the belly - this enhances the recruitment of the diaphragm, our well-designed breathing muscle which attaches to the inside of the lower rib cage and the lumbar vertebrae. As we inhale, the dome shape of the diaphragm extends downwards, causing the abdominal contents to move and if you relax the belly (sometimes harder for those with a regular Pilates practice), the belly will gently expand. Try this by placing your hands on your belly and observe what happens when you direct the breath here as you inhale. Soften the muscles enough to allow your hands to rise with the inhale. As you exhale, feel the sink as the diaphragm contracts back to its starting position. Allow a few rounds and aim to observe the natural rise and fall rather than forcing it.


Use belly breathing in supported postures to encourage calm, relaxation and pain management.


Try nasal breathing with belly breathing in for the count of 3, out for the count of 4.


4. DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING

Still the belly gently and draw the breath into the sides and backs of the ribs. Keep your mid back soft, observe the stilling of your hands and movement of your ribs. Aim to move from the lower ribs up as your breath deepens. Fill from the bases up.

This encourages efficient use of the diaphragm with reduced accessory muscles plus automatic activation of the core cylinder allowing bracing/overactive muscles to ease.


On an inhale the diaphragm shortens and travels downwards; the lungs expand and the pelvic floor lowers to make space for the organs; the rib cage elevates a little; the deep abdominal muscle (transversus abdominus) widens. When you breathe out, the diaphragm lengthens up in a dome; the rib cage depresses and retracts; the deep abdominal muscle shortens; the pelvic floor rises.


Use diaphragmatic breathing for day to day breathing and during Pilates, yoga and low to mid level of exertion exercise.


Try nasal breathing with diaphragmatic breathing in for the count of 3, out for the count of 4.




Don’t get me wrong - both arms of the autonomic nervous system have their very important roles, and in an ideal situation the body is very clever at striking the right balance. If we need to react quickly, be very focussed, stay at high levels of alert, jump out of the path of an oncoming car or run from that tiger that everyone keeps talking about, the sympathetic or fight/flight system is your defence, and our physiology switches this on to get the job done. On the other hand, the parasympathetic or rest/digest path helps us recover from the sympathetic state, and our physiology comes back to baseline levels so we can relax, think clearly, sleep and recover. The problem is these days life is busy, we are a society of overthinkers and over doers, and somehow being busy has become a badge of honour. We have to practice coming down off the constant high of life’s stresses (and the resulting potential unhealthy changes to our physiology). Breath is an easily accessible and free way to do this.


Breath awareness and practice is varied and takes worthwhile time to cultivate. The bonus you can do it anywhere, anytime for 10 seconds or more for it to be beneficial. Explore with these tips, come to a class to experience breath with an instructor or book a private appointment with Michelle or Sarah to delve in deeper.



References

Breath The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor 2020

Polestar Pilates Australia Polestar Pilates Principles by Brent Anderson 2021


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