Breath and Bodily Housecleaning

159764580_aad7e48b27_zPhoto by Flickr user Rodrigo Benavides (Creative Commons License)

From the moment you exit the womb and get slapped into reality, you are forced to breathe. You breathe when you’re awake and asleep, when you talk, walk, laugh, and cry. It is constant and flowing although sometimes an experience can take your breath away or make you scramble to catch it.

How you breathe is not just a mechanical process. It is a habit you establish in your body’s neurological system, and it is related as much to your physical state as it is to your mental and emotional state. Through the pulmonary system and the diaphragm, breathing helps to rid the body of toxins, exercise the internal muscles, facilitate support for the spine, relieve tension and center the mind.

In yoga, the breath is used to help train the mind and develop prana or spirit. Training the mind is also an integral part of Pilates, and attention to the breath while practicing can improve your focus and concentration, as well as create a sense of flow and rhythm to your movements. For me, the real magic of doing Pilates with ease is when I am fully connected with my breath. It makes me feel lighter and the exercise seem easier.

In contrast, when you practice Pilates without attending to the breath, the exercises feel only halfway done. Joseph Pilates understood this. “Before any real benefit can be derived from physical exercise, one must first learn how to breathe properly,” he once said. “This all important function requires individual instruction, not only by precept, but by example.”


So how do you properly breathe? In his book, Return to Life, Pilates wrote, “To breathe correctly, you must completely exhale and inhale, always trying very hard to ‘squeeze’ every atom of impure air from the lungs in much the same manner that you would wring every drop of water from a wet cloth.” You might ask, why this emphasis on the exhalation? If we take a look at the mechanics of breathing we see that the principle breathing muscle is the diaphragm [see illustration above]. It is located under the lungs and contracts downwardly to bring air into the body. It only relaxes to facilitate exhalation. In everyday living, if we are not relaxed in the ribcage area, our bodies will hold in some air. This stale air accumulates at the bottom of our lungs and can be an impediment to breathing efficiently. Moreover, pollution and bacteria can wind up in our lungs and settle into the lower lobes causing illness and disease. Exhaling completely improves the exchange of good air for bad air and keeps the lungs clean and fresh.

Hence, Pilates referred to his breathing techniques as “Bodily Housecleaning.” Remember that he created his system in the early 1900s when the masses were just getting used to living in large urban areas with, as yet, unregulated pollution from industry and vehicles filling the air. Diseases such as tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments were increasing in frequency as the science of medicine was struggling to keep up. Nowadays, industry is regulated and we don’t see as much visible black smoke coming from smokestacks and tailpipes. However, even though we don’t see plumes of thick, polluted air as much, invisible gases and other pollution are still there, making the need to breathe properly for good health just as great.

Exhaling to rid the body of bad air is one of the reasons Pilates focuses on this part of the breath cycle. Another reason is that the secondary breathing muscles, the ones responsible for helping the exhalation, are the abdominals. A full exhalation is necessary to facilitate full abdominal contraction. Even without flexing the trunk, when we deflate the torso, the ribcage and abdominal cavity can descend, releasing the surface abdominals and bringing into the play the transversus abdominus, a key core muscle that supports the abdominal wall.

It is clear that one can use awareness of the breath to help naturally release and lengthen muscles. Focusing on the breath where you consistently take complete inhalations and exhalations, without forcing it, helps achieve a sense of ease throughout your body. The best way to reach this natural, healthy breathing cycle is to improve your breath awareness.

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  • b. elliott July 9, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Fabulous explanations and exercises! I find the breathing one of the hardest things to master in sports and workouts. This will help me lots. Many thanks!