The Olympics provides a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to achieve incredible athletic feats. Most of the training techniques are beyond us mere mortals but many athletes use breathing techniques to gain a competitive edge either to create calm and focus or power and energy.
One of the BBC commentary team explained how horse riders have to avoid transferring pre-event stress to their horses as they can literally feel the tension in the rider’s body, and this will cause the horses muscles to tense in response. So apparently lots of riders’ hum to activate their diaphragm which stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest state) fast tracking the rider (and horse) to a state of calm.
On the opposite end of the spectrum the shot-putters, who are throwing the weight of a bowling ball over 23 feet in the air, need to generate strength and power in a matter of seconds. As they release the shotput, they use a loud grunt to create exactly the right amount of intraabdominal pressure around the torso to create the dynamic strength and stability needed for the load.
Creating a strong centre or core like this is fundamental to Pilates. Joseph Pilates called our core the ‘powerhouse’. All Pilates movements emanate from our powerhouse first before we add movement, this ensures we’re creating the right amount of tension and muscle control for a safe and effective Pilates practice.
The diaphragm is a key muscle in breathing due to its relationship to our respiratory organs – it moves out of the way for the lungs to expand, then applies pressure to the lungs to exhale. It also has attachments to the surrounding muscles and bones (including the spine), so by breathing diaphragmatically we effectively engage our core muscles, align our spine and gain the advantages of the nervous rider by calming our minds too.
To create intra-abdominal pressure for yourself start by standing tall and strong, collar bone wide, shoulders relaxed in neutral spine. Now breathe in slowly and sense your rib cage expand, exhale slowly but firmly through pursed lips or imagine blowing through a straw. Tune into the intrabdominal pressure you create around your centre. If you place your fingers just inside your hip bones, you should feel your abdominal wall contracting on the exhale. This is also a fundamental way to engage your pelvic floor but that’s a whole other subject! I often get asked – how much pressure should I create – as much as necessary for the activity but as little as possible.
You may also notice how this slow steady breathing and alignment of your body creates a sense of calm – you’re also benefitting from the diaphragm’s relationship to the vagus nerve just as the horse riders do – hence the mental and physical benefits of Pilates. Let me know how you get on.
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