”Above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” ~ Joseph Pilates
According to James Nestor, the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, 90% of the human population is breathing incorrectly. Non-optimal breathing can result in a variety of health issues and negatively affects any athlete’s performance, including an equestrian’s. Unsurprisingly, the way a rider breathes can even have an impact on the horse, affecting how the horse breathes and reacts to environmental stimuli.
Good breathing helps to regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body, which leads to mental clarity, reduces stress, and improves sleep and immune response. For athletes, improved breathing patterns maximize performance, increase focus and reduce anxiety before a competition.
Joe Pilates, who opened his first studio in 1927 in New York, believed in the principles of “correct breathing” and incorporated them into every aspect of his method. He even developed an apparatus called the “Breath-a-cizer” to help his clients increase their lung capacity.
The following Pilates exercises are designed to help you begin learning how to breathe correctly.
Exercise #1: Supine Rib cage Breathing
Place a mat on the floor. Lie down on your back with your feet flat on the mat a fist-width apart. Focus on your breath. Gently inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, breathing as soundlessly as possible.
Next, place your hands on your rib cage. As you inhale, feel your rib cage expand out into your hands. As you exhale, let your rib cage contract and feel your hands get closer to each other. Continue to breathe, expanding your rib cage further with every inhale. As you exhale, try to “soften” and “sink” your spine and chest into the mat. Imagine the air filling the back, sides, and front of your rib cage, as if you were filling a balloon.
Exercise #2: Standing Rib cage Breathing
Stand up, preferably in front of a mirror and wrap a towel around your ribs, crossing it in the front and holding it with your hands. Continue breathing into your rib cage as described in Exercise #1. Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 5 counts. As you inhale, loosen the towel, allowing your rib cage to expand. Then, gently guide your rib cage shut by cinching the towel tighter on the exhale.
You can experiment by changing the number of counts, taking 4 counts to inhale and 6 counts to exhale or even 3 to inhale and 7 to exhale. Prolonged exhales can have a calming effect on our nervous system. This is a breathing exercise that you can do to calm yourself–or even your horse!
Exercise #3: The Elevator
Once you feel comfortable with the first two exercises, you will be ready for the next exercise: The Elevator.
Lie back down on the mat as you would for Exercise #1, only this time, keep your arms at your sides. Begin with your rib cage breathing. This time, as you exhale, pull your belly button in towards your spine and upwards toward your sternum. This movement will activate your abdominals. Visualize an elevator that starts at your pelvis and ends at your sternum. In Pilates, this breathing cycle is the first step in activating the muscles of your center, or “powerhouse,” as Joe would call it. .
Continue your breathing cycle: inhale, ribs expand, center relaxes; exhale, ribs close, center engages. Again, try to take 5 counts per inhale and 5 counts per exhale. As you get more familiar with the rhythm of this exercise, slow the inhale and exhale phases. Maintain 5 counts per inhale and 5 per exhale, but do so in slow motion. The final step of this exercise is to work on the prolonged exhale phase described in Exercise #2. Again, try 4 counts for inhale and 6 counts for exhale or even 3 for inhale and 7 for exhale.
Have fun with these exercises and enjoy the positive results that you and your horse are going to get from them!
I will leave you with another quote from Joseph Pilates:
”Before any real benefit can be derived from physical exercises, one must first learn how to breathe properly. Our very life depends on it.” ~ Joseph Pilates
Note: While this exercise is relatively simple to execute it is recommended the exercise to be attempted for the first time with guidance from a certified Pilates instructor.