Perfect Breathing

Pilates: The Balance of Body and Breath

Jennifer Kries Master Pilates Instructor, dancer, owner of Hot Body Cool Mind Studio in Philadelphia

IN THE HUNDREDS OF PILATES FITNESS CLASSES that are sweeping the Western world, there is an emerging gospel that teaches a determined focus on strengthening the body's "core." That part of the anatomy, the gospel holds, is centered on the abdominal muscles, skeletal hips and vital organs. It is no coincidence that that core corresponds to yoga's sacral chakra, thought to exist from the lower abdomen to the navel. It is here, the ancient teachings say, that a human's balance lies, as well as the energy to make change, execute personal choice, and maintain a healthy yin-yang existence.

In her work as a master Pilates instructor, Jennifer Kries spends countless hours addressing that core, the human powerhouse from which, she counsels, all movement should initiate. Kries was among the first to synthesize a fresh fitness method that incorporates the pioneering work of Joseph Pilates, a discipline that emanates from a series of stretching and toning exercises once called Contrology, and now known simply by its founder's name. Additionally Kries has sewn into the fabric of her teaching the conditioning techniques and liberating spirit of dance and the profound power of the breath as taught in yoga.

Hers is a philosophy born of her years as a professional dancer with several renowned international companies, intertwined with her studies in yoga and Qi Gong, and her rigorous training with three of Pilates' original disciples, Romana Kryzanowska, Eve Gentry, and Ron Fletcher. The result is an integrated philosophy she simply calls The Method, a holistic approach to the health of the mind, body and spirit that's rooted in disciplined, focused breathing.

DISCOVERING PILATES

Kries discovered Pilates in England years ago, after sustaining a serious hip injury that threatened her dance career. Pilates, she says, was her introduction to the body as a "thinking machine." From her first Pilates mat class with Eve Gentry, a woman of "incredible grace and bearing," Kries says, "she instilled in me an appreciation for spatial awareness. There was a kind of flow that entranced me because her movements were motivated by the breath."

As a dancer for most of her life, Kries says, "I didn't feel that the breath was accentuated enough. As I've gotten older breathing has played a much more essential role in my life. Breathing can enhance what you're doing. The breathing I studied in yoga and Eastern philosophy has increased my energy, my concentration, my reserves, my follow through. In breathing carefully and consciously, you oxygenate your entire system. Your focus is so different when you're thinking about breathing, instead of lifting your leg higher."

Kries finds that beginners to her program are, often unwittingly, hungry for this knowledge. They come with pre-conceived notions of how the workouts will go, with rigorous exercise, exertion and intensely physical output. Contrarily, Kries first introduces the profundities of the breath. "I don't start with anything physical," she says. "I start with the breath. I'm mystified by that fact that no one breathes, that no one knows how to breathe," she says. "Because of the stress that dominates our lives today, because we're highly digitized, we've grown so far away from Mother Earth. They're totally awestruck or dumbstruck, because they're breathing for the first time. They're a little high."

THE PERVASIVE BREATH

Kries is intensely aware of her breathing well outside of her work. It pervades everything she does. "Without a doubt, from the minute I open my eyes in the morning, I'm conscious of my breathing," she says. "For someone who earns her keep teaching people how to breath and stretch, be introspective, and how to transform themselves, it's an incredible sense. In the morning I'm incredibly conscious of my breath."

Consciously remembering to breathe throughout the day pays huge dividends, she says. She'll periodically undergo what she calls the Heaven and Earth Breath. "I love the idea of pulling from Earth energy and pulling from heaven energy. I love integrating things. I don't like isolating things, because we're such total beings, with a complete body. It's always frustrating for me if I have to isolate a muscle and not work everything. It's not practical in life."

When she needs to reenergize, and wherever she is, she stands up, and on the in breath, she imagines pulling positive ions up through the earth, "Through that bubbling spring point in your foot." Then, through the crown chakra in the head, she tries to feel a blossoming or blooming. The sensation is one of opening up to the sky. On the exhalation, she tries to feel a genuine letting-go of what she doesn't need. She begins calmly, with a manageable breath, then builds to a crescendo by the fifth breath.

THE TOTAL CONNECTION

For her, there's a total connection between body, breath and spirit. "There's nothing flimsy about the way I approach this. You need to find a balance for how you approach people about this. Everyone is pretty well set in the way he or she believes in how life should be led. Every person comes to his or her personal balance of spirit versus science, what ever you want to call it, first and foremost, you have to present it someone so they can hear it. You have to be respectful."

Kries has a strong sense of the world, but, she says, "I believe in mystical, magical things, to a degree, but because I'm also a scientist, I'm always wondering whether we live in a random universe or if there is such a thing as destiny. Who the hell knows? When it comes to breathing and these Eastern pursuits, they've been around for thousands of years. I completely keep myself open to that, and I definitely incorporate it into what I do."

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Don Campbell and Al Lee are the authors of Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath At A Time (Sterling Publishing/2008) and write, speak, train, and blog tirelessly on the subject. Discover more ways you can improve your health, performance, and wellbeing at www.perfectbreathing.com. Reach them at info [at] perfectbreathing [dot] com or call 1-888-317-6718.