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The Fletcher Percussive Breathing™ technique is a significant differentiator of the Fletcher Pilates® approach from other Pilates lineages. Ron often recounted that Joseph Pilates encouraged his students to breathe, but never offered much further direction on the process. “Breeze!,” Pilates would command of his students. (That’s “breathe” with a thick German accent.) Followed by, “You must OUT de air to IN de air!”
The Percussive Breath system was developed and refined by Ron, primarily to emphasize Joe’s insistence on the importance of breath, and partially born of Ron’s desire to repair physical damage from years as an alcoholic. He wanted to flush his body with oxygen to heal himself. Thus, the signature “sniff-sniff-shush-shush” measured and counted breath, became a regular practice for our teacher. As encouraged by Pilates, Ron trained himself to use the full capacity of his lungs and to empty them as completely as possible. Students witnessed, on numerous occasions, Ron inhaling for up to twenty measured counts – and exhaling for the same number of measured beats.
At the inception of his practice, Ron noticed his tendency to breathe shallowly, and set out to change this practice in himself. Upon further observation of his students, he noticed most people are what he called “stingy, shallow breathers,” depriving their bodies of valuable, revitalizing oxygen and neglecting to expel carbon dioxide and used up air from their lungs. He noted that many breathe from high up in the chest, lifting the shoulders and tightening the neck. While others breathe into the belly, distending the abdominal musculature, compromising the spine.
Deviating greatly from the dance world philosophy of not breathing in an obvious manner to distract from the movement, Ron incorporated breath into each Pilates movement. He specifically initiated each movement with breath, using it to “inspire” the movement in some instances, and as a grounding tool in others. Depending on the piece of movement, Fletcher’s Percussive Breathing is utilized to expand the chest and thorax, initiate abdominal contraction, emphasize axial elongation, and to simply release all bodily tension. Outside the Pilates studio setting, the Fletcher Breath technique may be used to awaken and energize or, conversely, to calm and center the mind and body.
Ron essentially defined and revived the ancient art of consciously manipulating delivery of oxygen to manage one’s own health and movement. Why? Because it works!
The Basic Ins & Outs of Percussive Breathing
Breathing is a miraculous process. It can be executed consciously or unconsciously. It is the process by which oxygen, the base necessity of all living things, is delivered to the 75 trillion (or so) cells of the human body. The more nourishment cells receive, the healthier they can be. The lungs are the primary delivery vehicle for oxygen to the body. They have no muscles of their own and depend upon the diaphragm to drive their expansion and contraction to fill and empty. The lungs, however, will only expand within the space allotted them. Cue the thoracic and intercostal muscles which can be conditioned to expand the chest cavity to allow the lungs more space to expand. A large part of the percussive breathing practice is consciously conditioning these muscles to create area for the lungs to expand – to increase their capacity to take in and absorb oxygen.
The second, and perhaps more complex aspect of Percussive Breathing is the use of breath to drive movement, to ground and solidify positions, or to release a held muscular contraction. Each of these uses are situational and outlined in acute detail in the Fletcher Pilates Program of Study. For example, when performing the Hug-a-Tree on the reformer, the practitioner inhales to reach the arms forward to first position and exhales to open to second position. The exhalation is cued upon opening the arms to ensure the thoracic spine stays connected, elongated and supported, to avoid the temptation of inhaling to expand the chest, along with extending the thoracic spine.
What is the secret to Percussive Breathing? Control and practice. Inhalation is generally through the nose and exhalation through the mouth. The exhale is controlled by narrowing the aperture at the front of the mouth – creating a narrowed tunnel with the tongue against the palate – to make the signature shush sound. This in turn more completely empties the lungs, engaging the deep abdominal musculature.
Ron encouraged beginners to place their hands on their lower ribs with their fingertips nearly touching at the center of their torso and to separate the fingers upon inhalation, expanding the ribs, deepening the breath, drawing the fingertips together on exhalation. Next, to take evenly measured inhalations, til lungs are filled, exhaling in equal measure to empty the lungs. Begin with two inhalations/exhalations, then three, and so on, up to 20!
With practice, control, concentration and guidance, anyone can learn to employ the use and benefits of Ron Fletcher’s Percussive breathing technique for movement and for life!