There has been quite a lot of talk around the importance of breathing within the Pilates method. Many Pilates instructors have in recent years been advocating for the drop in the excessive focus people seem to put around breathing. This discussion has been really in the forefront in Brazil where myself and Nina completed our certification.
One of the reasons why instructors insist a high level of focus in breath is unnecessary is because when you go back to what Joseph Pilates wrote you don’t find any direct input around breath, apart from the common replayed quote “Breathing is the first act of life and the last” which you can find on his book Return To Life Through Contrology. Now, notice that what people advocate against at the moment is the focus on corresponding breathing exercises while practicing Contrology (do you remember this name from our blog about the history of Pilates?), in the book he goes on to explain the importance of breathing as part of the exercises, but the point people who defend these argument are making is that is not overly highlighted. They defend that the most important thing is that the student should breath, even if they do not coordinate movement to an specific breathing pattern at all times, apart from exercises like the Hundread, for instance.
Another reason people would be changing their beliefs around breath and movement coordination is because they believe that this teachings come about during the years people were confusing Core Muscles and Segmental Stabilization, when learning and practicing Pilates. Core muscles, in an incredibly simplified explanation, are composed of groups of muscle that work in synergy to stabilize, protect the organs from impact during exercise, manage internal pressures, promote better space and alignment between the vertebrae and assist on the distribution of effort among all the different muscle chains.
The Core consists mainly of the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques muscles, rectus abdominis, erector spinae and diaphragm. The Segmental Stabilization on the other hand focus not exclusively but mainly on the improvement of the action of the transversus abdominis and the abdominal wall muscles (including action of the pelvic floor as well) but is more concerned with, as the name says, stabilization resulting in an unnecessary stiffness of the trunk. The Segmental Stabilization theory was proposed by Paul Hodges and has been debunked as an acceptable movement and back pain relief theory.
That said many instructors have been qualifying the focus on breathing as a residual method left by Segmental Stabilization and say that it does not belong to the Classic Pilates approach. Here is where I disagree with these experts. I have never worked with Segmental Stabilization in my time as a Pilates instructor. The concept of Power House (or core) as I work has always followed the first description. And if you read Joe’s descriptions of his MAT exercises there is always a breathing suggestion attached. Apart from that there are a few other reasons why I choose to add such focus on breathing in all my classes.
The first one is posture. Breath relates directly to your spine posture. Now, again, since Joe developed his method (with the help of other instructors which we will come to know and love in time) a lot has changed and the use of “correct posture” as if there was only one has been dropped by many specialists. Nonetheless they seem to agree that there are natural patterns that the spine follows to promote a healthier movement power. The thoracic spine and the breathing structures (ribcage, diaphragm and lungs) are directly correlated, that means if you lack in mobility or you are not enjoying a more complete use of your breathing elements that will have a direct impact on the mobility and space in your thoracic spine, which will in turn affect your whole spine in a domino effect. After all the body works holistically, so if one part doesn’t work well it will affect the whole.
The second has to do with a didactic choice to use breath as a guide to help students sustain their concentration in what they are doing at all times by asking them to focus on specific breathing patters. This technique is very used as a meditation as a tool to help you go back to the present moment whenever the mind might start to wonder and I feel that works incredibly well with the Pilates students as well. Pilates is a body-mind philosophy. And that also allows for them to start developing their coordination as over time I add more and more information to keep them alert. The more I research about breath the more I believe working on it is essential. Off course as instructors we need to be understanding and attentive to our students to see what they can handle, and whenever a student is having too much trouble with the breath I advise them to just breath as it comes naturally to them. But I believe that understanding that movements have an affinity with specific breathing patterns can help unlock muscles and overall improve our motion potential overtime.