Featuring physician and co-founder of Breathe Pilates (@breathepilatessg) Deborah Wong
In my previous life, I was a physician who had to constantly check how my patients were breathing with a stethoscope. In my current life, I am a Pilates instructor who teaches her students how and when to breathe. Two very different lives that emphasize the same thing: how we breathe. Breathing is the commonality that binds us all, regardless of who we are and what we do. It is also the one thing that many of us do wrongly. I know, I know - the idea of not breathing properly seems a bit ridiculous. After all, shouldn’t it come as naturally as… breathing? You’d think that after a lifetime of doing it, we’d all be experts.
To check if you’re breathing correctly, place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen (just below your belly button) and inhale from your nose. The hand on your abdomen should rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale. The hand on your chest should rise slightly too, in concert with your abdomen. This is because our diaphragm tightens, flattens and moves downwards when we inhale, sucking air into our lungs. When the diaphragm moves downwards, it pushes our abdominal contents down, forcing the abdominal wall outwards. Some people feel the hand on their abdomen cave inwards when they breathe. This is known as vertical breathing or chest breathing. When you breathe vertically, your shoulders and torso stretch up vertically when you inhale and go back down when you exhale; repeating this movement overtime can strain your shoulders and neck, causing tension and tightness over time.
We are all born with the instinctive ability to breathe correctly until we lose it when we’re about five years old. The moment we start going to school, sitting at desks for long periods of time and moving less is the moment our breathing patterns start to change. When we spend prolonged periods of time sitting with bad posture like rounded shoulders and our heads perched forward, the muscles in our neck and chest tightens, which increases resistance when breathing and decreases diaphragm function, resulting in shallow chest breathing. Being part of a body image-obsessed culture that celebrates flat stomachs can also affect the way we breathe. Some people who feel self-conscious of their stomachs moving outwards may contract their stomach muscles and breathe vertically instead. Wearing tight clothing can also have the same effect on breathing patterns.
Breathing properly prevents unnecessary tightness in your chest and neck. It also massages the organs that run through your diaphragm like your vagus nerve, which elicits a relaxation response when it’s stimulated - this is the reason breathing is such a big part of meditation. And finally, when you breathe out correctly, you activate your core, which is why we tend to exhale during the part of the Pilates movement that requires the most effort. Proper exhalation generates the most support from the core, which can stabilise the spine during exercise. This breath pattern is also used in other sports like weightlifting. This is why breathing is one of the main principles of Pilates. It’s the first thing people learn when they come for a class. But breathing is something that everyone, not just Pilates practitioners, should know how to do. After all, breathing is a fundamental bodily function that literally keeps us alive. If it’s important enough that our bodies have to do it every second of every day, it’s important enough to do properly.