So far in our teachings we have discussed some background information about posture, alignment, and the correct positions of our joints. In this series we are going to explore this subject more in depth by studying the Five Basic Principles of STOTT PILATES. Over the next five months we will take a detailed look at each principle: breathing, pelvic position, rib cage position, scapular position, and head and neck position. These principles serve as a tool for us to develop good posture and body awareness as we stabilize our core and learn to find our best neutral joint position, both with movement and static positions.
The picture below illustrates the Five Basic Principles of STOTT PILATES, where the joints are lined up in a neutral position. The pelvis is directly underneath the rib cage with the SITS bones (a common term for the two big, bony prominences at the bottom of the pelvis through which we weight bear when sitting) wide and your weight balanced over them. The ribs and head should stack right above the pelvis and the head and neck should be balanced between the shoulders. Your shoulder blades should be centered, flat and flush against the rib cage.
The first principle is breathing, which is obviously very important to us – we need to breathe in order to live. But proper breathing does more for us than just provide oxygen to our system. Proper breathing also helps keep our ribs and mid back mobile, which helps our entire spine function better. Improper breathing causes stress in our tissues and can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain. First we will discuss the form for proper breathing.
When inhaling, we position our tongue in its resting position on the roof of the mouth, as if we are saying the L in “love,” and breathe through our nose. Nasal breathing helps create resistance to increase our intrabdominal pressure which helps activate the muscles of our pelvic floor (more on that later). The tongue position leads to a more relaxed position of the jaw. We want to breathe three dimensionally, meaning that when we inhale our lower ribs should expand laterally, with a slight posterior roll to our ribs. The sternum should also lift gently and the ribs should expand symmetrically. When exhaling through our mouth, a gentle, passive recoil of the rib cage is desired most. Often during exercise we also will use the exhale to assist in gently engaging the transverse abdominis – a deep abdominal stabilizer.
When we evaluate someone’s breathing, it is more important to evaluate what we don’t want to see. Quiet breathing is ideal – the rest of the body should be relaxed and we should not see tension in the muscles surrounding our ribs and neck. There are two common poor breathing patterns: the first is called accessory breathingand occurs when there is excessive elevation of the scapula (shoulder blades) with every breath. Accessory breathing leads to overuse of the muscles in the neck, compression and shearing at the neck, and can lead to scapular instability and shoulder problems. The second pattern that we see is called excessive thoracic extension, and occurs when the middle of the back pivots backwards with every inhale, which leads to the ribs popping forward and shearing at the mid-back. Since we breathe on average twelve times a minute, you can see how these patterns can contribute to musculoskeletal pain.
During exercise this ideal breathing pattern should be performed though our movements. We typically use the exhale during the most difficult part of the exercise. This helps us to recruit the deep (level 1) stabilizers of our lumbopelvic area: the pelvic floorand transverse abdominis. The pelvic floor is a group of muscles at the base of your pelvis that act as a sling and hold the contents of the abdomen in place. It is easiest to feel these muscles while in a sitting position. These muscles are engaged by gently lifting this area as if you were to stop the flow of urine or protect your pubic area while walking into cold water. It may sound vague, but with practice this muscle contraction is easy to find. The transverse abdominis is the deepest layer of your abdominal muscles and, just as it sounds, runs transversely across your abdomen. It acts as a corset to support the abdominal wall and can be engaged by gently drawing in your belly button toward your spine. It is most easily felt in the quadruped position when we are on our hands in knees. In this position, the contents of the abdomen are gently lifted towards the ceiling without moving the spine.
So let’s put it all together. While performing your exercises proper breathing is cued as follows:
Inhale: Inhale through your nose and feel your ribs expand backwards and to both sides.
Exhale: Exhale through pursed lips and gently engage your pelvic floor and transverse abdominis as you allow your ribs cage to gently close.
As you can see from the picture below, it can be helpful to place the hands on the lateral ribs to give feedback during the inhalation so the breath is directed to this area.
That’s it: ideal breathing. Good luck with your practice!!
“Basic Principles: Breathing.” STOTT PILATES Essential Reformer Manual. 2nd ed. Toronto: Merrithew, 2003. 4-5. Print.
STOTT PILATES RMR1 Spinal, Pelvic & Scapular Stabilization: Matwork & Reformer. Toronto: Merrithew, 2009. 10-11. Print.