We all know that if we stopped breathing, we would stop living. We learn this truth early on in life. Have you ever asked yourself exactly why we breathe and the value of breathing? I started pondering this question when I began my yoga practice. Then I laid the question to rest until it popped back up when I started practicing Pilates.
Without getting too scientific, we breathe because our cells need to breathe and because we need to expel carbon dioxide. If the cells in our bodies stop doing their jobs, then our bodies will eventually stop working. We need our cells to do their work and cells need oxygen to do what they are designed to do, so we breathe. Carbon dioxide is the byproduct, or waste, that is created when cells do their jobs. We breathe to get rid of the carbon dioxide.
I think of this kind of breathing as the normal, or involuntary, way of breathing. It is just what we do.
Then I think about the breathing we do in yoga, ujjayi. This is the breathing pattern that sounds like the ocean. This breathing is a more controlled breathing in which you intentionally breathe deeply and slowly. The inhale begins through the nose and inflates the low belly. As the inhale continues, the breath begins to fill the bottom of the ribs and then to the top of the lungs. At the completion of the inhale is a pause, holding the breath still. Upon exhale, the breath is released from the bottom in reverse order: top of the lungs, bottom of the ribs, and then low belly. This style of breathing is deep and concentrated.
In a vinyasa yoga class, each movement is tied with a breath. You might hear the instructor guide in this way, “On the next inhale, jump back into your plank pose and then exhale through chaturanga. Inhale into updown and exhale into downward facing dog.” Each movement is cued by the breath. Even though vinyasa may feel like a fast flow, the actual design is for the movements to be in sync with the slow rhythmic ujjayi breath.
The Pilates practice also has a breathing pattern. It is called lateral breathing. This breathing technique is designed to keep the abdominal region engaged while taking deep breaths. If the abdomen is contracted, then the core is stable. A stable core is important for successful performance of the movements and for protecting the body.
In lateral breathing the focus is on expanding the rib cage laterally while maintaining the inward pull of the deep abdominal muscles during both the inhalation and the exhalation. It is quite normal to pull the belly in during an exhale and expand it during an inhale. In lateral breathing, however, you want to keep the belly pulled in and contracted while you inhale and exhale. During the inhale the breath you take in should expand the rib cage to the sides, not the belly outward, and during the exhale the belly stays engaged. When practicing Pilates, it is recommended that you exhale during the part of the movement when you need to feel most stable. The exhale is often more stable than the inhale, so exhale during the hardest part of the movement.