Breath or Cue? Which is really more important in Pilates practice?
Why even ask this question? It’s so obvious. It’s breath of course. But which to teach/practice first? That is the real question and it deserves a much more complex answer.
First let’s be clear what we mean by ‘Cue’ and ‘Breath’.
A Cue ‘something said or done to excite an action’. In Pilates a cue is a signal given by a teacher or from within our own selves which motivates a correct muscular action. Abs, glutes, inner thighs. Romana Kyrzanowska referred to these actions as Power House Actions.
Breath is the air that is taken in and expelled during breathing. To breathe is the action of drawing in and expelling air out of the lungs. The breath or the action of breathing is the life force, the vital animation. That answers our question for sure. Without the life force there is nothing.
My personal experience.
In my twenties and even my thirties I am not sure I even understood what someone meant by ‘the importance of breath’. I thought that all the answers would come my way if I worked hard and practised. A lot. For a long time I pulled my abs in, worked my glutes and fought with my eternally tight upper back and chin poke. In other words I worked the ‘Cues’ to death. I got really strong for sure, and for the most part I inhaled and exhaled in the right places as I was taught, using my breath to motivate a deeper action.
However this new strength did not eliminate the mysterious creep of my Levator Scapulae (an easily aggravated muscle involved in shoulder girdle placement/stability) which I finally recognised was directly related to the weight of responsibility I felt towards students, clients, the studio and my peers – ahhhh was I good enough? – in other words stress! It seems that no matter how much I worked the cues and gained strength it did not affect my muscular reaction to stress. Often I had a headache or my jaw clenched. I had pain in my neck and shoulders.
At some point I must have given in and decided to forget the ‘big’ work-out and instead just lie on my sitting room floor and breathe. I began to investigate the one piece of the Pilates jigsaw I had ignored. Here, finally, my mind quietly moved around my body, gently getting in touch with what actually needed to be addressed. I breathed through my body as a whole. I was no longer slipping in the odd appropriate inhale and exhale. I was letting my whole body breathe.
My workouts became less about gymnastics, more about massage. How relevant now the Stomach Massage. I had found the ‘internal shower’ that Joe described his workout to be. It was the breath that allowed me to access the finer more satisfying points of The Method. It only took twelve years of daily practice to figure it out!
Am I slow? Maybe. Did I need to do all the other stuff first? Maybe. I was not strong mentally or physically when I started Pilates (I thought I was). So what needed to come first for me in my Pilates practice were muscular actions – the cues – without which I lacked the internal strength to hold myself up. Without which I couldn’t soften enough to allow breath to fully come to the surface. Now breath is my true guide and my body and mind are the strongest they have ever been. With that comes a way to manage stress.
I recognise now my younger self was not ready to work with the breath in the way I can today. So to my younger self I say ‘thank you’ for the resolute practice needed to make me strong. To my stronger more mature self, I say ‘thank you’ for finally having the wisdom to listen. Looking back I see my breath was always there like my shadow, just below my radar, out of sight but not unknown. It took time to really surface. It’s hard not to sound clichéd around the Breath. To finally ride the wave and all that!
So, in conclusion, I can tell you that no matter how strong you become muscularly, that alone will not take you to the Mastery of the Art of Contrology. To get there you need to know how to BREATHE.