Joseph Pilates reminds us, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last.” Breathing for most people, is something that just happens.  We don’t give it much consideration throughout the day, but improving one’s breathing has plenty of health benefits.

When life gets challenging, focusing on our breath can reduce the stress in our body and provide a sense of calm. Deep breathing is a great way to give yourself an energy boost in the middle of the day and improve your health by decreasing blood pressure, improving your immune system and relieving pain.

We all know how to breathe, but are we getting the most out of our breath? Here are a few simple tips to breathe better.

Deep Breathing – There are many techniques and exercises when it comes to focused breathing.  Here’s a simple exercise when I teach the fundamentals of Pilates to a new student. While this exercise can help you connect to your core muscles, it’s also an easy way to get centered and relax your body and mind.

Start by lying on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms at your sides. When inhaling through the nose, feel your rib cage and back expand fully and then exhale through your mouth until all the air is expelled. Keep the inhale and exhale flowing and do your best not to hold your breath. Start with 10 breath cycles or a few minutes of focused breathing.

Focus on your Posture – “Standing up straight” is easier said than done, but awareness of our spine is key to having better posture. When we slouch, our spine compresses on the diaphragm, leaving less room for full breaths. Exercises that articulate the spine create length and space in our backs. Kneeling flexion and extension of the spine not only increases our mobility, but can open up our chest and shoulders.

Start on your hands and knees with your hands in line with your shoulders and your knees in line with your hips.  Begin with a flat back as if your back was a table with 4 even legs.  Inhale deeply and then exhale as you round your back to the ceiling.  Allow your head to drop so your eyes are gazing past your thighs.  Inhale and move your spine in the opposite direction, lifting your eyes and chest forward while your back drops into extension.  I like to think of my spine in the shape of a smile. Repeat this approximately 5 times, allowing your body to move with your breath.

Open up your chest – Computers, phones and other electronic devices keep our shoulders rounded, which closes the front of our bodies, specifically the chest area.  Here’s a 2 part exercise that first releases the pectoral muscles and then stretches the area out. 

Pectoral release – You will need a small, sturdy ball (tennis ball is perfect). I have even recommended a lemon if a student didn’t have a ball at home. Stand facing the wall and place the ball under your collarbone and near the breast bone. Gently lean into the wall while rolling the ball back and forth below your collarbone. Avoid rolling on bone. Be aware of your breath and continue rolling until you feel the muscles relax. Repeat on the other side. 

Pec Stretch – Stand in front of a door opening with your arms in a 90 degree angle. Place your arms in the shape of a goal post with your head directly in the middle of your arms. Position your arms on each side of the door frame and step forward with one foot to deepen into the stretch. Remember to breathe as you hold the stretch for 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat 3 to 5 times.