Breathing is necessary for life and is not consciously something we have to control. In fact, it’s a good thing that it happens automatically, freeing our minds to do other things! But some of us learn to breathe in different ways and we may not be properly coordinating our muscle movement to optimize our fullest breath. So we’ll take some time to discuss how breathing is important for overall health and posture.
So what’s happening automatically?
The primary muscle we focus on in respiration is the diaphragm. Picture it as a hot air balloon pressing up into the ribcage, connected at the back to the spine and at the front to the xiphoid-processes, and laterally from rib 5 to 12.
The two essential phases of breathing we all know are inhalation and exhalation. During inhalation the rib cage expands, the diaphragm contracts down, and the lungs volume increases! During exhalation of the rib cage contracts, the chest deflates and the lung volume decreases as the diaphragm relaxes and domes up into its resting position.
Why is breathing important?
If my breathing is happening naturally, why do I need to change anything?
Each of us is a specimen of well-coordinated systems that seek to balance an asymmetrical body. You can stand up, walk, breathe, digest, think, and talk all at the same time because all the different systems in your body are working together! Which is amazing!
Because all these systems relate to each other, we are looking at whole-body muscle development to support the balance of these systems. There is a correlation between our respiratory and musculoskeletal systems. That is to say, the way we breathe and the muscles recruited to breathe are unique! Just as some of us are left-brained vs right-brained, or have better hand-eye coordination, we don’t all recruit the muscles with equal awareness. So in order to build positive overall health, let’s look at the systems and how they work together.
To optimize correct posture, especially as we move into physical activity and exercise, we need to strengthen the awareness and engagement of the muscles recruited to breathe.
How does breathing relate to posture?
There are different areas of our body from which we can naturally, or very unnaturally, breathe: our belly (or diaphragmatic breathing), rib cage expanding (or lateral breathing), or shallow chest breathing. All of these types of breathing facilitate inhales and exhales, but sometimes the rhythm of the muscles that are supposed to work together can get off.
One example of this rhythm getting off would be if your rib cage expands when your abdominals contract during exhalation. Or your belly distends instead of contracts during exhalation. A very common one, especially for women, is urinary stress incontinence. All of them are examples of how our respiratory system got out of sync with the muscular system. So it is important to practice and build breathing consciousness to improve posture.
How does Pilates help?
Breathing is the first Pilates movement principle. Practiced in class, it can help focus our mind’s eye on a specific area of the body to bring a deeper awareness to the exercise. This is part of the whole-body movement and why breathing becomes important for overall health and good posture.
Breathwork in Pilates seeks to align the cranium, rib-cage, and pelvis. It cues a synchronized abdominal and chest wall expansion as you inhale. And it focuses on the drawing in-and-up of the transversus abdominis and pelvic floor to lengthen the spine as you exhale.
In this proper coordination of muscle contractions, the ribs loosen up and help release the mid-back. It teaches increased lung capacity! It aligns your head, torso, and pelvis, which contributes to that feeling of lightness you experience post-Pilates class. And the abdominal support activated during exhalation extends beyond respiration to stabilize your spine which is essential in order to build up to whole-body movement safely.
By identifying the different areas from which we can breathe, we can practice building our capacity and ability to breathe. This is especially significant when movement and certain exercises limit our traditional, singular directional inhalations. But most profound, the in-studio practice can help retrain the body to optimize breathing in our daily lives!
Breathing is important for overall health and improves posture! That’s why breathing is the first Pilates movement principle. Expand the experience of exercising and the power of movement by practicing mindful breathwork. When optimized, it is the fundamental Pilates principle we practice outside of the studio in our daily lives. Through proper coordination, breathing continues to build correct posture, mindfulness, and overall health and well being.
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