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Feeling stressed out? Simply take deeper breaths

Your belly is literally the center of gravity of your body, far below the head and the turmoil of your thinking mind. For this reason we ‘befriend’ the belly right from the beginning as an ally in establishing calmness and awareness.

-Jon Kabat-Zinn

Try it. Right now—one long breath out. Now try again, this time release your belly and slow down the in breath. Fully experience the breath as it draws in through your nose and balloons into your tummy. Pause. Then try a long out breath—through the mouth. Experience the pool of calm at the bottom of the exhale.

Do you feel more relaxed? Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic response in the body, the part of the nervous system that regulates the body’s rest and digestive functions, and sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. But it takes practice. We’ll try this together in the video below.

Eckhart Tolle, German-born spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, was once asked at a conference which seminar he would select to be the most beneficial. While acknowledging that many of the courses on offer were very interesting and informative, Tolle declared the topic breathing to be the most beneficial. ‘Be aware of your breathing as often as you’re able,’ he said. ‘One conscious breath in and out. It will be the more transformative than attending all of these courses. And it’s free.’

In his wise and beautifully written book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope writes about the breath as being a ‘switching station’ between the physical body and energy body. Many of us do not breathe properly and in fact only use a fraction of our lung capacity. Cope reminds us that full diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the alpha waves associated with relaxation, whereas chest breathing, which can be shallow, has a negative impact on the physical body and the nervous system and causes tension to accumulate in the jaw, the mouth and between the shoulder blades. When the lungs and diaphragm are not restricted, writes Cope, we have full access to our internal emotional experience.

In today’s videoblog we will explore two approaches to breath: diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes called belly breathing), and Pilates ribcage breathing (also called lateral breathing).  You will be using both types of breathing in your exercise sessions with different end goals in mind.

In diaphragmatic breathing the goal is to allow the belly to expand on the in breath and to empty out on the out breath.  As babies we employed belly-breathing.  If you’ve ever watched babies sleeping you will see their bellies rise and fall naturally. I wonder when we lost this ability and became shallow breathers and chest lifters?

The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle between the chest and the abdominals, is the principal breathing muscle. It is designed to work like a pump: on the in breath it contracts and, because of the differing pressure outside and inside the body, air is drawn inside. On the out breath the diaphragm relaxes and the dome rises, discharging used air. If unrestricted, the diaphragm not only moves up and down but also billows outward. Deep abdominal breathing encourages release in the entire body and is well worth practising and using often.

The second type of breathing, Pilates ribcage breathing, is used when performing exercises, especially those that need stability and safety in the lower back. The goal is not to guide the breath into the belly (or the upper chest) but into the back lower rib cage. Pilates breathing is often called lateral breathing because the aim is to expand the rib cage sideways on the inhalation creating a full breath that makes maximum use of lung capacity. The exhalation is then used to gently draw in the abs (and other core muscles), to protect the low back, before you move into the exertion phase of an exercise. Some Pilates school call this action of connecting the core muscles, ‘bracing’ or ‘engaging’. How to activate the core with conscious control will be discussed again and again in future blogs. This may take a while to master, right now do not force or hold the breath.  Hopefully, one day, this action of ‘engaging your core’ will automatically occur.

In daily life we do not want to restrict the natural ballooning of the belly; we want the abdominals to gently rise and fall with breath. Chronic tight contraction of the abdominals pulls down on the lower ribs and interferes with the pumplike downward motion of the diaphragm. So as we attempt three-dimensional breathing, as in relaxation position or breathers embedded in the workouts, we do not want a chronic tight contraction of the abdominals.  However, when we initiate a movement, whether it’s lifting a weight (think of taking a heavy bag of groceries from the back of your car) or extending the spine to place an object on a high shelf we need to make sure that the deep abdominals are fully engaged to protect the low back.

Squeeze out the lungs as you would ring a wet towel dry.

-Joseph H. Pilates

Let’s get started. Perhaps you might feel that ‘just lying around and breathing’ can’t be that important and might be tempted to skip over this section. Don’t. You will miss out on one of the greatest benefits of doing Pilates exercises.

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: I highly recommend you watch the video two or three times before attempting an exercise.  Listen carefully for watchpoints. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort. If in doubt, avoid an exercise.

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