Today’s blog is from multi-talented PIH instructor, Jayne Gort.
Do you think about it? We all do it… about 25,000 times per day… usually quite automatically. But I actually think about it a lot.
As a lifelong flute player, I NEVER have enough breath and spend lots of time thinking about breathing. I plan every breath so that it makes sense with the phrase. I practice taking quick deep inhales to not run out of air and long tones to use the exhale more efficiently. I think about where I place my breath in my body to vary the sound and quality of tone that is produced. A breath high up in the rib cage or up in the sinuses will resonate differently than a breath that is deep in your pelvic floor. One sounds like a valley girl and the other like a metropolitan opera baritone. And if I am nervous, which I usually am, then I concentrate on getting a deep relaxed breath in my low back to release any tension.
And now, as a Pilates instructor, I think about breathing even more.
How you breathe can influence your mental and physical states. Breathing through your mouth or nose and the timing of the inhale and exhale all have health impacts. Believe it or not, breathing through your nose will give you a bigger inhale, and significant health benefits. Your nose is designed with hairs to filter out all of the germs, toxins, and yuck you are breathing in. James Nestor, the author of Breath did some elaborate experiments where he plugged his nose shut for weeks, then experimented with taping his mouth shut for the same amount of time measuring his heart rate, blood pressure, and vital signs to determine the effects. With mouth breathing, his heart rate, blood pressure, and occurrences of sleep apnea increased to abnormal and dangerous levels. His research found that mouth breathing creates fewer brain cells, can lead to a feeling of fogginess, and contribute to ADHD symptoms. When he switched to nose breathing, his vitals all improved back to normal.
Whether you take a long inhale or exhale can change the chemical makeup in your body, influencing how you feel. Breathing delivers oxygen to each cell and carries away the carbon dioxide waste, maintaining a balance between the two gases. Flute players expend lots of wind. The secret is to control the air and use it efficiently or we will hyperventilate and get quite lightheaded. Even just a little change in the balance will adjust the carbon dioxide levels and change the PH in the body. (Arnold Jacobs)
Try inhaling and exhaling quickly and deeply and see what happens. The quick exhale releases adrenaline, the fight or flight feeling of alertness, and brings more oxygen to your brain. A slower inhale and longer exhale will calm your parasympathetic nervous system and help relax tension and anxiety. Test it out on yourself – your heart rate naturally increases with each inhale and decreases with an exhale. Yogis experienced in various breathing practices can change their heart rate, body temperature, and experiences of pain. Breathing therapies have been used to treat emphysema and asthma, and in the 1940s Katharina Schroth created an institute to help scoliosis patients cure themselves through breathing.
Your lung capacity is given to you at birth and is based on your physical size. However, your posture can influence how deeply you breathe. Try inhaling with good posture or laying on your back. Then just twist your shoulders or round them slightly and feel the difference in your inhale. The bad news is that your lung capacity decreases as you age… bummer! Can you feel yourself taking shallower breaths, or forgetting to breathe during the day? But the good news is that you can work on keeping and maintaining your lung capacity by taking deep breaths and doing activities that force you to use your lungs (like Pilates). There are also lung exercises and meditation based on breathing.
Normal unconscious breathing uses only a fraction of your possible lung volume. Do you think you are taking a deep breath when you inhale? Try this – inhale as deeply as you can, and before you exhale take a couple of inhale sniffs and notice how much more breath you can hold in your lungs! Even heavy exercisers only use about 50% of your lung capacity.
Joseph Pilates was so focused on breathing he made it one of the core principles of Pilates. It’s why he began each session with the hundred exercise where you pump the air in and out of your lungs. “Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying, and dead germs.” Now isn’t that a pretty picture!
How do we breathe? Your breath is influenced by your diaphragm, a muscle you can’t really touch or control. When you take a normal breath, the diaphragm contracts on the inhale to make room for the lung expansion and relaxes back to its resting position on the exhale. And since your diaphragm is connected to so many organs, you give them a little massage every time you breathe.
When I’m teaching a class at PIH I am often asked, “should I be inhaling or exhaling on any particular movement?” The answer is…yes, please breathe!
Breathing IS a little different in Pilates or in playing the flute. The inhale is the lengthening, relaxing action, and the exhale engages your abdominals and becomes the work.
The general rule of thumb in class is that inhalation is when you lengthen and exhalation assists the physical effort. But depending on what you are trying to do with the exercise, I could make a case for either one. For example, lying on the reformer with your feet on the bar: try different breath patterns and see how you feel.
- Inhale as you straighten out and think length, and then exhale in and try to resist the springs (this corresponds with the rule of thumb above)
- or exhale out and make that your effort, and then inhale and grow taller against the shoulder pads as the carriage returns
- or adjust your breath pattern so you can inhale out and in, or exhale out and in
- or one inhale out and exhale on the in and the next out
There are so many variations! Use your breath to help you in the exercise for that particular day, how do you feel the most engaged?
Just breathe. Think about it and marvel at what your breath can do! Joseph Pilates says that “Breathing is our first act of life and our last. Our very life depends on it.”