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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Lucas


The Anatomy of Breathing

We all know how to breathe! But here is the nitty gritty of how it works. 

The physiology of breathing – the exchange of oxygen into the bloodstream and release of carbon dioxide outside of the body – is essential for all the systems in the body to work properly.

When we breathe, we are carefully coordinating the muscles of the trunk. The diaphragm, deepest abdominal muscles and pelvic floor are all working together. This anatomy of breathing positively impacts our musculoskeletal system and optimises the coordination and efficiency of all the systems in the body.

We inhale through our nose with the goal of expanding our torso three-dimensionally. We want the air to get all the way to the bottom of the lungs and expand the bottom ribs. We want to try to do this without lifting our shoulders or using neck muscles as we inhale.

Then, our deep core stabilisers, the transverse abdominis (TA), diaphragm, and pelvic floor will all expand. This gives our organs a little ‘breathing room’. During exercise other muscles can be recruited to help increase the expansion of the ribs to allow for greater air intake.

In normal breathing, exhalation is relatively passive and the breathing muscles’ tone helps encourage a full stimulation of the system. When we use a deep and purposeful exhalation, it contracts our abdominal muscles to press the diaphragm upward and force the air out of our lungs.

Most often, we aren’t conscious of the way our muscular system supports breathing. But in a Pilates class, we are purposefully stimulating the muscular system that supports the breath. We use coordinated breathing to build tone, organisation, and coordination. As we age, it becomes more important to keep the tone and coordination of these muscles, especially in our pelvic floor.

What Type of Breathing Should Be Done During Pilates?

Joseph Pilates said, “Above all, learn to breathe correctly.” 

When we first teach people how to be aware of their breath when they move, it often feels confusing. We start by teaching them to breathe using a diaphragmatic breathing technique.

We want to optimise a full three-dimensional inhalation without overusing any one set of muscles. This brings tone and awareness to the entire breathing unit in your trunk.

As is true in many aspects of Pilates, we quickly learn this is the way our bodies are meant to move. It becomes much easier with a little practice. Again and again, I see that clients don’t have to think about it after a couple of classes or sessions.

Some benefits of breathing this way are:

  • Improved focus

  • Increased control

  • Abdominal engagement

  • Higher energy levels

  • Better circulation

  • Tension relief

  • Lower blood pressure

When we breath in Pilates you will allow your breath to expand your lower ribs. 

The feeling of expansion will move down into your trunk on the inhale.

On the exhale, you’ll feel the closing of the ribs and connection of the abdominals.

In Pilates, we practice bringing focus on how we breathe to tone and coordinate the deep abdominal muscles, diaphragm and pelvic floor. You may notice the way your spine moves as you breathe. When you inhale, your spine extends. On exhale, you’ll feel some flexion in your spine.

Sometimes it’s confusing to hear ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ constantly while trying to move through a Pilates class or exercises. That is completely normal, moving and breathing at the same time is the goal.

In Pilates, we breathe to organically support the movement or exercise we’re doing. We use the inhale and exhale cues to pattern our breathing for abdominal engagement and spinal movement.

When we breathe well, we are nourishing every system of the body to operate optimally. You just might leave Pilates with more energy than when you came in!

What is Lateral Breathing?

In lateral breathing, the breath is focused into an outward expansion of our ribs while drawing our abdominal muscles inward. Unlike in diaphragmatic breathing where we release our abdominals on our inhale, in lateral breathing we keep them drawn tight during both inhalation and exhalation.

Lateral breathing helps stabilise our core and maintain deep abdominal support to our movements, particularly more advanced movements.

Is Pilates Breathing The Same As Yoga Breathing?

In yoga, your breathing typically follows the rhythm of your movement. You control your breathing and pair inhales and exhales with different elements of an asana (pose), or flowing between poses. 

In Pilates, your goal is to have your muscles engaged in your breathing at all times rather than matching your breath to each movement. Instead of taking breaths on a particular count as you do in yoga, you usually take deep breaths directed toward the sides of your ribs in a steady rhythm. Your breath should match the intensity of your exercise.

Benefits of Pilates Breathing

There are lots of benefits of Pilates breathing, not only are you strengthening many muscles and keeping them flexible and mobile but:

  • Your posture will be better too.

  • You will stand taller having created space between the vertebrae of the spine.

  • Abdominal muscles tone up.

  • Your body alignment will be better.

  • Movement will feel freer and easier.

You will also get more out of your physical activities that involve cardiovascular work. For example, with running and cycling your breathing improves due to the respiratory muscles working more efficiently and effectively. 

Focused, deep breathing can also help those who suffer from respiratory symptoms such as asthma, rhinitis, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Feel-Good Feeling After a Pilates or Yoga Class

Many times over the years people say after a class that they feel better within themselves and more relaxed. The reason that the class members are feeling more relaxed is mainly due to the focused, deep breathing which is a natural relaxer during the class. They are present in the moment and aware of their breath and movement through the hourʼs class. 

The parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for stimulation of “rest and digest” activities promoting relaxation and recovery switches on, and there is more of a balance between it and the sympathetic nervous system stimulating activities associated with the “fight or flight” response which produces the hormone adrenaline. 

Often if we are always on the go, excessively busy and stressed, we will produce too much adrenaline on a regular basis. This imbalance can lead to mental and physical ill-health over time. We want to find the balance (homeostasis) between the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system and deep, focused breathing in class will help with this.

If stress and anxiety are reduced through deeper breathing this can lead to many positives;

  • Better sleep.

  • Clearer thought.

  • Better decision making.

  • A feeling of calmness.

  • Being able to move through your day with more ease generally, both mentally and physically.

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