Joseph Pilates is renowned the world over for inventing a movement discipline that strengthens the body and improves wellbeing from the core. His obsession with correct breathing permeates the fabric of his art and forms the basis for all Pilates disciplines available today.
In 1945 he wrote “Return to Life Through Contrology” and through this relatively short book, passes on the wisdom and exercises he’s learned and perfected over 43 years. Not only does he talk about the benefits of Contrology (as he called it then, now known as Pilates), he spoke about the necessity of balance in rest and in sleep – nodding to the regal cat who maintains strength and agility from a balance of stretch, rest and exercise.
He tells us to sleep in a cool, well ventilated room, with preferably little or no pillows, allowing the spine to rest in a natural state. He says to use a wooden brush with no handles to brush the entire body, forcing us to contort in order to reach every angle, assisting in improving flexibility. Ensuring the skin is scrubbed regularly so it can breathe is important. When indoors, we should wear shorts, allowing our skin to regulate and work efficiently without obstruction.
The list continues, however his most important teaching was about the breath:
“Breathing is the first act of life, and the last. Our very life depends on it.”
Increasing oxygen intake into our bodies boosts our immune system and improves out ability to naturally fight disease. In a recent breakthrough, scientists discovered that the lack of oxygen is what triggers cancer tumours to metastasise.
Joseph Pilates and his first generation student, Ron Fletcher, focus on the breath as the starting point to every exercise. Usually we don’t take full advantage of the inhale and exhale, and instead our breath is shallow. This can be due to the stress of our fast-paced lives, and results in lack of exchange of carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen into our system. If we don’t expel the waste and bring in new supply — our body is unable to work at an optimal level. It also means our diaphragm isn’t working properly. If our diaphragm is not contracting and relaxing to its full capacity, it doesn’t adequately massage the three openings within it. These openings are for:
- The oesophagus and vagus nerve; which controls the digestive system. The vagus nerve in particular controls the Parasympathetic Nervous System, commonly known as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It’s what triggers our body to relax and rest.
- The aorta; the main artery that transports blood from the heart, ensuring sufficient oxygenated blood flow around the body, bringing energy to our organs and muscles.
- The inferior vena cava; that transports blood back to the heart in order to refresh the blood with oxygen and release toxins.
Digestive issues, stress, tiredness, lack of energy etc. are some of the symptoms that occur when the above channels are not massaged by a fully working diaphragm.
What these teachers ask us to do is inhale fully through our nose, expanding our ribs in all four directions — to work our diaphragm to its full capacity and the intercostal muscles (the muscles that allow our ribs to expand to inhale air) in a balanced proportion — and exhale all the air out through pursed lips as if we are wringing the last drops of water from a wet towel. This form of exhale creates a vacuum in our lungs allowing the next inhale to naturally welcome in new air.
Breathing to our fullest capability oxygenates the muscles, allowing us to do more with our bodies, impvoring health and increasing strength and flexibility. More importantly, it helps to flush out toxins that build up in our muscles, causing tension, aches and pains.
If we breathe properly, expanding our ribs in all four directions, it releases tension in the shoulders, as it helps to bring the shoulder girdle back into alignment with the ribs.
If we breathe properly, our diaphragm works more effectively, which in turn massages the three openings in the diaphragm correctly, which results in improvement in blood flow, improvement in digestive flow and stimulation of the vagus nerve, returning us to our natural state of ‘rest and digest’.
Improving our health need not be complicated or expensive. Often the simple answers are the correct ones and by incorporating conscious breathing into our every day life, our body and mind will benefit in more ways than we realise.