When I was a young dancer I remember coming off stage after rehearsing a dance and our entire group was gasping for breath. We were far from being out of shape, but our teacher asserted that not one of us had taken a single breath during the entire run of the piece. That launched a short workshop about how to breathe when dancing. It wasn’t until I started practicing Pilates years later that movement and breath working together started to make a lot of sense to me. It became necessary. As a teacher, when a new client walks in the door, it doesn’t matter how athletic or how experienced that client is – the first thing I take that person through is my favorite breathing exercise. It’s simple. Easy. Effective.
Lie down on your back, with your legs bent. Knees can be in line with your hip bones or they can fall in and relax against one another. Close your eyes, and gently lay your hands across your rib cage, lining your fingers up with your ribs. Take a moment to just notice what your breath is doing. Don’t try and change it. Just notice. Once you’ve made some observations (is the breath slow, fast, uneven, shallow, forced, deep, soft) start to lengthen the duration of the breath. It helps to inhale while counting to a specific number (anywhere from 5 to 10 is a great start) and exhale for that same number. Repeat this for about three or four cycles of breath.
You can continue with this simple counting breath, but to take it one step further, on the exhalation draw the ribs in towards one another deeply. I like to imagine the ribs knitting together. As you inhale expand the ribs in every direction, to the front, to the sides, and to the back. The back ribs are often difficult to isolate, but over time with a little practice, you’ll feel them expanding powerfully with your inhalation.
As a final step, when you exhale and fuse the ribs together, begin to tighten your navel to your spine. Without changing the position of your spine (imagine keeping a grape between your lower back and the floor, you don’t want to crush it) pull your navel in and contract your abdominal muscles actively. Repeat this for a few rounds, and you should be ready for your day or your workout. This simple exercise helps to bring awareness to your breath, wake up the abdominal muscles, and stimulates the mind-body connection.