Lesson 3: The use of excessive force for breath work (among other things)
So, back in the beginning of my Pilates journey 10 years ago, I learned these breaths- the ocean breath, the blast breath, and the percussion breath. I also learned about the idea of lateral breathing- where you focus on expanding the breath into the back and sides as well as the front of the body. This is absolutely still an important concept for pilates work. The breath can help you mobilize your spine and provide stability when you move. However, the blast breath in particular has fallen out of favour in the pilates community, and now that I understand why, I agree. The reason for this is the use of excessive force when breathing can actually cause impairment in the natural mechanisms we have when we breathe. The “squeezing” air out idea does not serve to strengthen us in the way I used to think. The way I have come to think about breathing is the idea of an integrated system. You basically have a cylinder in your torso, if you will- with a top, a bottom, and walls all around. You have some muscles that are major players in this mechanism and lots of other ones that simply assist. Two of the major players are the diaphragm up top, the pelvic floor down below (actually several muscles grouped together). When you force one of these to work overtime by using a lot of force, it actually weakens the function of the system. How, you say? Because it starts to be tight too often and can’t relax anymore. For example, you can have an overtight pelvic floor from doing tons and tons of kegels, and it’s not going to help you, instead it’s going to continue to impair your function. As we draw air into our lungs, the diaphragm at the top flattens down and the pelvic floor does the same- to fit the air into that cylinder. As we breathe out the diaphragm lifts up again and the pelvic floor follows, because the air is leaving the space. Make sense? So, forcing the diaphragm to work overtime by squeezing the air out of the lungs when you exhale is working against how it moves naturally. It can also make the pelvic floor have to work that much harder to compensate for the extra pressure. Wherever the weak point is in your abdominal cylinder- the top, bottom, front or back- will be where you have pain or problems. So it’s actually all about finding a balance in all the spots, rather than focusing on one area in particular all the time. It’s about an integrated system.
The more I studied and observed last year, the more I realized that excessive force is not helpful in any situation, not just breathing. The old school attitude of “strengthen your core!” is not something I believe in anymore. I feel like that concept was drummed into the world at large because people were told for years that they needed a flat stomach to be considered attractive. I certainly have a squishy stomach myself, and, guess what? I don’t need to get rid of it to be strong and functional. I also personally don’t think my extra fluff makes me unattractive, nor am I terribly concerned with the opinions of others on the subject. But that’s a whole other blog post! Yes, your abdominals need to be strong to help you move well, to keep your body functional. But it’s just a part of the whole system, how your entire body works together. I am looking at the big picture, not just “strengthening your core.” I wrote in Part 1 about how it’s all about spinal mobility, and that is tightly wound together with this concept- that all the muscles in your torso need to be balanced and working together, without strain and tension. Extra gripping and tension in your body impairs normal function, it doesn’t matter where it is. I even wrote a blog about this years ago, only I was focused on the idea of developing “flow.” Same thing, just expanded now as I put together all the bits and pieces of knowledge from my years of teaching and my recent course.
I will finish with another rather amusing quote from Joseph Pilates (he called his exercise method “contrology”):
“Contrology,” he said, “was conceived to limber and stretch muscles and ligaments so that your body will be as supple as that of a cat, not muscular like a brewery-truck horse or professional weightlifter you so much admire at the circus”.
Moving with flow and ease in all ways helps achieve that supple and strong body he speaks of. Who wouldn’t want to move like a cat? LOL.
Thanks for reading, and as always, please feel free to shoot me a message if you want to chat about all things pilates.