Breathing is a fundamental function of every living being. Its primary purpose is gas exchange, but it also acts to nourish our organs and musculoskeletal system with the resulting expansion and de-expansion of our body. Though breathing is automatic, it is deeply important to be conscious of it—especially with our busy lifestyles!
We think about the breath a lot in Pilates. But when should a client (or you) inhale and exhale during Pilates exercises? The answer to this cannot be definitive or formalized within the choreography. Rather, it should be based on the biomechanics of breathing and the particulars of each client.
As we inhale, the diaphragm engages and domes down. The abdominal contents move down and out into the abdominal wall. The pelvic floor domes down. The ribs individually rotate and the rib cage expands. The spine lengthens. The body is oxygenated and the torso becomes more spacious.
As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and domes up inside the rib cage. The rib cage de-expands. The abdominal contents move up slightly inside the ribcage. The pelvic floor engages and domes up. The transversus abdominus (TVA) engages and compresses the abdominal contents, narrowing the waist. The multifidi engage.
All of these complex changes and muscular activities mean that the old adage of “exhale on the exertion” needs to be broken down and made more specific. We then also need to choose if we are using the breath to facilitate the movement, or to challenge the client. You need to consider your clients’ strengths and weaknesses. Where do they need more work? What movement limitations need improvement?
Let’s look at which movements are naturally facilitated by inhalation. As discussed, during inhalation the spine lengthens. This increased space between each vertebra facilitates spinal rotation. While exhalation does encourage oblique engagement, we should prioritize the health of our discs, increased range of motion, and initiation of rotation from deeper muscles such as the rotators that comes from inhalation. Therefore, we inhale during rotation.
As we inhale, the ribs rotate up in the front and move slightly down at the back. Also, the costal cartilage, the connection between the breastbone and the ribs, expands. These actions are the same actions that happen during ideal spinal extension. Therefore, we inhale on spinal extension. Because the opposite actions are true for exhalation and flexion, we exhale on spinal flexion. The movement of the ribs in and toward the sternum and the dropping and softening of the sternum that happens during exhalation are important actions for healthy flexion.
There are, however, valid biomechanical reasons to do the opposite of what I’ve dictated above. You may choose alternative breathing patterns for clients who need to focus on different movement concepts. For example, if you have a client who has healthy spinal rotation and you are working on a Reformer Rowing modification that emphasizes the latissimus dorsi and the obliques, then you could choose to exhale during rotation to encourage those engagements. Similarly, if your client has a tight and/or weak diaphragm, you may choose to have them inhale during flexion.
Exercises for core stability also offer opportunities for client-specific breathing patterns. The exhale facilitates engagement of all of the primary deep core muscles except the diaphragm. The diaphragm, on the other hand, engages on the inhale. The strength of the diaphragm as well as the resulting outward pressure on the spine and pelvis from the abdominal contents act to stabilize the spine. Therefore, exhale to deepen the engagement of the TVA, pelvic floor and multifidi (and some would include psoas); but if you are focusing on diaphragm strength, perform the exercise while emphasizing the inhalation. All of the core muscles mentioned above need conditioning. Therefore, you may choice either inhalation or exhalation during core stabilization, depending on your focus or your client’s weaknesses.
As long as you understand the anatomy and biomechanics of the breath, and the biomechanics of the exercises, there are many great learning moments available to you or your client in varying breath/movement combinations.
Please send me your questions! Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you’d like to learn EVEN MORE and become a Pilates instructor yourself, the next Erika Bloom Comprehensive Pilates Certificiation starts Feb 17th. Visit www.erikabloom.com to learn about the studio and click http://erikabloompilates.com/pilates-certification/ for a description of our full certification program.