Pilates is renowned for its mind-body approach to fitness, and at the heart of this practice lies diaphragmatic breathing. In this article, we’ll delve into the importance of diaphragmatic breathing in Pilates and how it can elevate your practice.
The Essence of Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, often called deep or abdominal breathing, involves engaging the diaphragm to draw air deeply into the lungs. This differs from shallow chest breathing and plays a crucial role in Pilates.
Why Diaphragmatic Breathing Matters in Pilates
Core Activation: Diaphragmatic breathing naturally engages core muscles like the transverse abdominis, providing stability during Pilates movements.
Mind-Body Connection: It enhances mindfulness by focusing your attention on your body and movements, improving precision and preventing injuries.
Posture Perfection: Diaphragmatic breathing encourages proper posture, which is vital in Pilates.
Stress Relief: It triggers the relaxation response, reducing stress and promoting a focused, calm mind during your Pilates practice.
How to do it:
Focus on the inhale first. Place your hands on your ribs to feel the movement. Take a deep steady inhalation through the nose, allowing your ribcage and lungs to expand fully (try and keep chest quite still)
Now, for the exhale 💨 move one hand onto your stomach. Exhale completely and slowly through your mouth (like exhaling through a straw) and feel the abdominal wall draw in and pelvic floor draw up. This creates a feeling of pressure around your centre like a corset of muscles wrapping from the back to front.
This type of breathing 😮💨 helps engage your diaphragm and deep core muscles effectively, boosts oxygen intake for energy, and promotes relaxation.
I recently interviewed Pelin Baykal, a Powerlifting GB World Medallist on IG Live.
Pelin only took up Powerlifting in her 40s after going through a period of depression. we discussed the importance of strength training for women in peri and post menopause, the lessons she learned from competing and tips for us mere mortals to make strength training accessible in our workouts. You can watch the interview here and below are the key takeouts:
Train smart – Know your goal, make it realistic and stay consistent with your training rather than trying to do too much too soon. Ideally have an expert help create a programme and ensure good form from the start to keep you safe and build with patience over time.
The benefits of strength training go beyond building muscles. Lean muscle increases our metabolic basal rate – the rate at which we burn calories. This rate naturally slows as we get older so it’s important to give it a reboot with strength training. Plus adding resistance to our bones is what builds them. We lose both muscle mass and bone density as we age so strength training reverses this.
It’s hard to get bulky – lots of women worry about getting bulky if they do strength training yet it’s actually very hard to build lean muscle due to the number of variables involved such as genetics/nutrition/hormones etc.
Progressive load is the safest way to start and allow the body to adapt over time. Start with where you feel comfortable and safe ideally with your own body weight first then increase load progressively. ‘Load’ can include water bottles/tins/light weights/resistance bands etc and if you increase gradually over time you’ll avoid injury.
We need to ensure we have strong joints as well as strong muscles to keep our muscles safe as we load weights. Pilates/yoga etc are great cross-training techniques to keep the joints mobile, supple and strong.
We need to get to an 8 out of 10 level of fatigue for muscles to be loaded enough that they strengthen. We want lots of variety want to avoid the body plateauing. There are many variables we can use to achieve this beyond just lifting heavier weights such as:
Number of repetitions in a set
Number of sets
Length of rest between sets
Work against a timer
Vary the muscles used in each session vs sticking to one or two muscles
Challenge core and balance by destabilising the position eg lifting one leg in standing strength work
The mind is just as important as the body – if your head is busy and distracted 100kg can feel like 200kg. Competitive powerlifters have to learn to be in the moment, free from distraction, to make the weight feel lighter.
To build muscles we need to eat well, rest well and sleep well too
I’ve been wanting to go to the Happy Place festival for years and finally went this weekend at beautiful Chiswick House. The festival promises to be ‘a creative space for self-love and happiness’ which it absolutely is. Not too big to be overwhelming, but large enough to attract fantastic speakers, teachers and independent retailers, all in the health and well-being space.
My two favourite speakers were Jonny Wilkinson (hell yeah!) and Dr Nerina a sleep expert. I’ve shared my top take-outs below and highly recommend a visit to the festival.
Fearne Cotton in conversation with Jonny Wilkinson -2 key takeouts:
1) On handling stress – “If you respect the unknown there is no pressure”. In moments of high stress, be courageous enough to relax into the moment. Feel the panic and anxiety, then explore it with great curiosity. Know that something is about to unfold, allow it to happen with an open mind and without expectations or judgement for the outcome.
2) On handling problems – Mentally we try to think our way out of our problems, wrestling with our thoughts. Physically we become still, often sitting hunched over in survival mode, our breath becomes shorter our energy diminishes. To solve a problem try doing the opposite. “Stand tall, breathe deeply, move slowly and ideally walk in nature. Notice how your energy shifts, your thoughts change. If that problem still lingers, you’ll likely find a different solution or way of looking at it. Notice the nature of conversations you have on a walk – they’re usually positive, energetic, creative and full of big ideas”.
Dr Nerina – Nerina Ramlakhan – Physiologist, Sleep & Energy Expert
“Every choice you make, from the minute you wake up until the time you get into bed, informs how you are going to sleep. ‘Sleeping well’ is about living well. Or loving well. Because the more we love, the more we trust; we sleep when we feel safe. And when we feel safe we can let go of whatever is happening out there and we can sleep. We need to shift our nervous system into the parasympathetic rest and digest and that starts with what we do from the moment we wake up”.
Dr Nerina shared “five non-negotiables” of good sleep, five things we can do to shift our nervous system:
1) Eat breakfast within half an hour of rising. “If you eat breakfast within half an hour, it is telling the hunter/gatherer physiology that you’re living in a safe environment”. (Dr Nerina mentioned intermittent fasting and simply asked the question – if you’re doing this, how’s your sleep?)
2) Don’t use caffeine in place of food. “Eat, then have your cup of tea or coffee. Ideally no caffeine after 4pm, especially if you’re a sensitive sleeper.”
3) Drink a litre to a litre-and-a-half of water. “Hydrate the brain, so that your sleep bio-chemistry works more effectively and efficiently,”
4) Be earlier to bed, three or four nights a week. “This doesn’t mean getting into bed at 9pm fast asleep. Get into bed and rest – journal/gratitiude practice/read a book”
5) Rest in an environment that is free of technology. “no phones, iPads, screens, tablets. Turn the clock away so you don’t check the time during the night and start doing maths – subtracting and panicking!” This is how we recalibrate our sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system for better rest. If you struggle to drift off and are lying there worrying or having negative thoughts, try these tips:
Power of Gratitude – place one hand on your belly/other on your heart – as you drift off to sleep say your thank yous for at least 30secs. We’re wired to remember the bad stuff but we tend to forget the good stuff so bathe yourself in positive thank you’s before bed.
Love (bore) yourself to sleep – rather than counting sheep, love yourself to sleep. Say the words to yourself quietly in your mind “I love my left foot, I love my toes of my left foot, I love my left ankle, I love my left lower leg, I love my left knee etc……” and if your mind drifts start again.
The latest research by This Girl Can, Sport England’s campaign to get women active, has shared that “2.4 million fewer women than men strongly agree that they find sport and exercise enjoyable and satisfying”
The research highlights a range of practical and emotional barriers preventing women from getting active including perceived expense, lack of ability, no time, lack of energy and fear of judgement.
The new “This Girl Can With You” phase of the campaign is aiming to close what they’re calling ‘the Enjoyment Gap’ by working with gyms and leisure facilities to dismantle the barriers that stop women and girls enjoying sport.
ukactive and This Girl Can have created a practical guide for gyms and leisure centres to support more women and girls to be active. The guide outlines 5 key actions:
Visibility and communications – Use communications to demonstrate a facility’s inclusivity
Online presence – Give practical advice to women and girls before attending and include the benefits of participating
First visit and sign up – create a welcoming environment, inductions and consider flexible pricing
Finding the right activity – offer different levels and modifications and timings are mindful of women’s commitments
Building trust – demonstrate a commitment to supporting personal safety
I don’t work in a gym or leisure centre setting but I still feel there’s an important role for us in the community class space to read the research and act against the findings to help more women access the numerous benefits that exercise unlocks.
This video is designed specifically for partners of women going through menopause, to help them understand what’s going on and what to do about it. I share 2 concepts :
‘D.R.E.S.S’ – the most impactful and practical lifestyle changes that help improve their partners experience of the menopause transition
‘Take a B.R.E.A.T.H’ – a guide for how to navigate conversations and interactions for positive outcomes (when it can feel like treading on eggshells!)
I’m joined in the video by Bob Johnson, one of my pilates students, radio presenter and bravest man in the world – who is asking on behalf of a friend – a number of questions to unravel the mystery of menopause and to discuss the concepts above. In short, if you have a wife or partner going through menopause this conversation is for you.
DRESS is my framework for the most effective and practical lifestyle changes to help improve symptoms and emotional well-being. It’s really helpful if the whole family embrace these changes and they’re great for everyone:
DIET – whole foods that are anti inflammatory and help support and nourish mind and body. The Mediterranean diet is a great place to start, read more here
REST & RECHARGE – support your partner in creating time for activities that help them to recharge their batteries and reduce stress.
EXERCISE – is a great stress buster and mood booster. Do activities together that are fun and active or help your partner to find time for hers.
SLEEP – help your partner get to bed at a reasonable time and don’t be offended if they need to sleep in a different room (or ask you to!)
STRESS – your partner is likely to be feeling more stressed due to reduced hormone levels and spikes of cortisol. All of the above will help to reduce stress but also be compassionate if they’re snappy, tearful or having mood swings – they’re experiencing a hormone rollercoaster!
2. Take a “B.R.E.A.T.H” is my tool for helping you have better quality interactions (and less friction) with your partner.
Brave – Be brave enough to ask questions about their experience – make her feel she’s not alone and you care (without judgement or a desire to fix it, just listen)
Research – do your research into menopause. It’s a joint responsibility to understand, she doesn’t have all the answers so navigate it together. Here are some great resources: Balance Menopause and Menopause Matters.
Embrace intimacy – your partner might need space to workout what’s going on, to think, to rest or even sleep. Having sex might fall to the bottom of the list. This can feel like rejection but be patient and embrace connecting beyond the physical by spending quality time together talking and having fun. If appropriate cuddles are great as are compliments!
Accept changes – this transition can take time, you can’t fix this for your partner so embrace the changes.
Time to transition – she won’t know how long it will last, be patient and evolve together. It can take months or up to around 10 years. Patience is key.
Humour – delicately retain a sense of humour – laugh, cry and have joy together.
I’d love to hear how you get on and feel free to send me any questions, Laura.