As we age, we may experience changes that affect our lungs, which can then limit the activities of daily life. These changes may be due to the late onset of asthma, or the development of chronic bronchitis or emphysema, both of which can, in turn, lead to the more serious chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Problems with our lungs can also occur as a result of heart disease. Many people are put off exercising because they believe it might worsen their condition, but research has found that exercise will benefit most sufferers. People with asthma, and other respiratory problems, tend to breathe more shallowly, using the upper chest. This is a less efficient way to breathe as it tends to draw air only into the upper areas of the lungs. Pilates is a safe way to begin exercising, and will teach you how to breathe more deeply and efficiently, taking the air down into the base and sides of your lungs. A slower and deeper breathing pattern can help by increasing lung capacity and, therefore, their overall efficiency. Another benefit is that it helps to mobilise the thoracic area of the back (the middle area of the spine around the ribcage). People with breathing problems tend to get stiffer in this region partly because they are not breathing as deeply as normal, and this shallow pattern of breathing involves less movement of the ribcage. It can then become harder to take a deeper breath, simply because the rib joints with the spine do not move as well and so are less able to expand the lung space and draw in more air.
Your breathing pattern
Learning to relax and breathe at a gentler but deeper rate, without forcing the air out, which is in line with the breathing patterns advocated in Pilates, can be very beneficial. Stay mindful of the impact on your breathing pattern while you do the exercises and do not exert yourself to the point of breathlessness. You should also ensure that you keep all the appropriate medications/inhalers close by. Our primary goals here are: to encourage a more relaxed, rhythmic and efficient way of breathing and to improve the mobility of your spine and ribs, so that more air is drawn in. Remember to think about good alignment before you try any breathing exercise, as efficient breathing relies on good posture. It is very difficult to breathe well if your ribs are compressed and your main breathing muscle – your diaphragm – is restricted. We want to focus on a deeper, more rhythmic way of breathing that encourages the diaphragm to move up and down more which, in turn, allows the thoracic cavity to expand properly. A full inhalation followed by a deep exhalation helps increase your capacity to inhale new fresh air.
Seated and standing breathing exercises
Here is a selection of breathing exercises in the seated or standing positions, in which you use your hands and awareness techniques to help improve your breathing.
Repeat each exercise as many times as necessary for your breathing to become calmer, fuller and more rhythmic. Sit tall on a chair. Blow air into an imaginary balloon and be aware of its expansion and contraction during your inhalation and exhalation.
Standing or sitting tall, blow out with a strong exhalation an imaginary candle placed 50cm (20 inches) away. You may subsequently increase the distance. Start in a seated position, sitting tall. Hold a very light sheet of paper in front of your mouth. Be aware of the movement of the paper as you breathe in and as you breathe out through your mouth, and observe the movement of the sheet during strong exhalation and inhalation.
Standing tall, breathe in as you take three steps forwards. Breathe out as you take three steps back. Then reverse the breathing. As you become accustomed to this pattern of breathing and walking, you can take four steps, five steps, etc. If you find it easier, increase the number of steps while breathing out and decrease the number of steps when you breathe in. From Piliates for Life © 2014 by Lynne Robinson & Carmela Trappa, published by Kyle Books