Pilates Breathing for Spinal Health and Flexibility

Breathing has a profound affect on the way we bend our back

A dedicated Pilates practice can be a powerful tool to increase spinal health and flexibility, particularly when Pilates-method breathing is included. I struggled with back pain starting at 9 years old. I am hypermobile and my spine was like a Red Vine in the back of a hot car, all goo and no structure. I was able to touch my butt to my head, but not stand up straight.

Kristina in a deep backbend grabbing her ankles from behind and smiling

Deep backbends were my thing, but I didn’t have good control

My backbend at age 36 was still pretty bendy

My posture was my primary struggle, cutting short my foray into gymnastics as a child and forever frustrating my dance technique. I just couldn’t hold myself up well, and it resulted in such intense lower back pain that it kept me home from school some days, laying on the floor with a heating pad.

As a kid in the 70s and 80s there were very few resources other than my pediatrician who gave me aspirin and some exercises that did nothing at all. I assumed it was something I just had to live with.

Pilates Improved my Back Pain

Nothing really made a huge difference until Pilates. Pilates entered my life when, at 32, I was training contortion 6 days a week at San Francisco Circus Center and manipulating my spine in all sorts of creative ways. Contortion had actually reduced my back pain by giving me an impressive new set of muscles, but I focused almost exclusively on back bending since we all like to do what we are good at.

Tiffany Parish, a member of the cutting edge circus and dance company Xeno and founder of Bodicraft Pilates, with the first person to teaching me Pilates breathing for spinal health. She showed me how changing my breathing patterns could unload my spine and get my hip flexors to chill out, helping me counter the compressive forces of contortion.

The Importance of Spinal Health for Longevity

While my struggle with spinal health and flexibility is extreme, it is not unusual. According to the Center for Disease Control, 30-40% of folks in the US have back pain at least once a year. Untended, postural issues and immobility can lead to a host of unpleasant structural issues that don’t get better with neglect.

The good news is that it’s never too late to start working on improving your spinal health and flexibility!

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise is an important part of preventing and even reversing lower back pain. No one form of exercise has emerged as the silver bullet because the root causes of pain and the application of exercise is so varied, the important thing is to move, try out different forms of strengthening and stretching, and find what works best for you and your body.

Pilates Breathing for Spinal Health

Pilates breathing patterns that emphasize diaphragmatic and rib cage breathing. That means that the rib cage expands on the inhale and relaxes down on exhale. Diaphragmatic breathing gives us more access to our lung capacity and, importantly, it helps our back muscles to relax so that we can get some ease and movement into our spine.

As I explain in my post on diaphragmatic breathing and posture, this breathing pattern gives us more access to the “meat corset” muscles that support our spine and upper body. These muscles wrap around our waist and protect our spine while also supporting its natural flexibility.

This postural shift has potential benefits for folks with upper back and neck pain, since the muscles in those areas can sometimes take over if the diaphragm is sticky or sleepy. Last month’s post contains a breathing workout specifically designed for folks who suspect they may be breathing with their neck and shoulders.

Below is a slightly 20-minute workout with a series of simple but very effective Pilates exercises that focus on using diaphragmatic breathing to access the “meat corset” core muscles that help to lengthen, support, and stretch the lower back. I hope you find them useful.

Happy Bendings!

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