It all starts with the breath. If there’s one movement or process that unites and anchors all of us in the world, it is the breath. The human body unites us, but human bodies can be so different in their proclivities, proportions, tone, strength and nuance. The breath can be very different from person to person too. But we all take in air and let it out, whether tall, short, athletic, atrophied, newborn or on death’s door. Aware of it or not, if we are alive, we are breathing.
So what better way to begin to learn about our body, or THE body, than with the breath.
The first step to learning about the breath is to get a sense of your own. Focusing on the breath is an opportunity to learn about the body, this most personal apparatus of ours, this container of our thoughts and feelings. By becoming a spectator to our body’s natural breathing processes, we can cultivate better control of them. Just set a timer for one minute and try this:
Close your eyes and breathe. Notice the movements your body is making to breathe. Where do you feel movement? Go ahead, give it a try!
After that one minute I bet you already feel a stronger connection to your body, perhaps more relaxed, more present and less of a whole bunch of things you didn’t want to be, like tense, anxious, angry or scattered. Just connecting mind and body with the breath for one minute can accomplish that.
You can do this detective work, looking for movement in the body while breathing, in a variety of positions because gravity acting on our bones, muscles and organs will affect the movements that are occurring. If you are sitting, for instance, there will be more pressure, and likely less movement, on your low spine and pelvis. If you stand or if you are on all fours, your low back will have less pressure on it and can move more freely. If you lie on your back, there will be less movement in your back while you breathe and more movement in your abdomen, because gravity and the floor are working against it, and if you lie on your front, your front will feel those restrictions.
When you breathe in, your rib cage expands. There are muscles that attach to the ribs, skull and shoulder girdle that pull on your bones to make an “up and out” movement happen. The diaphragm forms the base of your thoracic cage or rib cage, and it contracts to pull air in. When we inhale, the ribs open and rise up in the direction of the skull, the diaphragm moves down, air moves into the nose or mouth, into the trachea and into the lungs. Although we feel movement throughout our torso when we breathe, we can only ever bring air into the lungs. We can also work to expand our rib cage or our abdomen to initiate this suction-type process for our inhale. When the inhalation process initiates from the ribs, we refer to it as thoracic or costal breathing. From the abdominals, we refer to it as abdominal breathing. Either way, healthy expansion and contraction of the muscles employed in our inhale, will improve how much air we can take in to our lungs.
When we exhale, the elasticity of the lungs is the primary force (1), and in tandem, the diaphragm relaxes and rises up to push air out, the ribs descend and narrow and the abdominal circumference narrows. Again, there are many muscles that draw bones toward each other to make these movements happen. Those muscles need to be healthy and strong to maximize the exhale. Getting air out of our bodies beyond our resting, natural breathing helps to clean out the lungs and oxygenate the blood. It also helps to build stamina - and for certain professions, for instance anything that requires aerobic capacity or public speaking or singing, the muscles of of the exhale will be employed to move beyond our natural exhale so we can get more air into our lungs with our inhale.
Base of Support
The breath apparatus and viscera need a healthy support system. The pelvis, both in bone and muscle, is meant to be that support system. The word pelvis means "basin" in Latin which is a lovely description for this bowl-like structure. And as the muscles of inspiration pull the ribs out and up (in the direction of the skull and arms), the muscles of expiration pull the ribs down and in (toward the pelvis and the spine). The pelvis acts as an attachment for the muscles to pull the ribs into exhalation. The muscles intrinsic to the pelvis manage its integrity and form, ideally, a firm base to contain the organs. So as all the movements are happening in the thoracic and abdominal region, nothing is going to spill out of the bottom of the bag, so to speak.
You are the Body’s Virtuoso!
Now it might seem like all of this is happening with the push of a button, or simply by thought, or automatically (which of course it can be), but all of these movements are a symphony of muscles, bones and organs performing their tasks. The symphony can push certain instruments forward or backward to alter the breathing. For instance, it can be more forceful, more sustained, or more subtle. But try taking a breath in without moving your ribs. It’s nearly impossible or at least extremely limited. Then hold your belly tight and toned and breathe in. Still doable but feel those ribs flare! Certain positions allow bigger inhales and others more complete exhales. As Pilates teachers, it’s helpful to understand inhales and exhales and deep breathing from an anatomical base so we can best coordinate a most ideal breath posture and effort.
Which exercises ask for a lift of the ribs? If I ask my client to backbend and exhale at the same time am I coordinating the natural movement of their body with the task I am asking of them? What happens to the breath when we curl into a small shape? What happens when we lift the arms over head? How important is it to work unilaterally? Or in the side plane? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves when we meet with our clients[,] whether it’s the first time, fiftieth time or five hundredth time. Our reasons for maximizing our clients’ ability to breathe more effectively go well beyond oxygenating the blood. Pilates can and does improve physical aspects of the breath, breathing muscles and organs. But equally as important, this ability to notice and practice alternate kinds of breathing can improve or change our clients’ emotional and mental states as well. If we give them this knowledge, they have the power to use it both inside the studio and outside in their daily lives.
This writing was inspired by the book, Anatomy of Breathing, by Blandine Calais-Germaine.