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Reduce Neck Pain and Improve Functional Movement: The Benefits of Exercising the Tongue During Pilates Exercises

Posted Jan 31 2012 12:30pm

Have you ever thought about what your tongue is doing during exercise?  Do you realize that what your tongue is doing in your mouth can really make a difference for improving Pilates exercise technique, reducing neck tension and neck pain, and improving functional movement?

If you or your Pilates clients are interested in:  Better breathing habits, reducing neck pain / neck tension, improving the execution of exercises that articulate the spine, freeing up the whole body for flow and ease of functional movement.  Then I recommend that you play with, introduce, and think about what the tongue is doing in your mouth during a workout.

This may not be something to add into the mix for a beginner Pilates student who is still getting in touch with basic body awareness and just figuring out how to execute the exercises. But for intermediate Pilates students who are focused more on fine-tuning their exercise technique, the tongue can be one more thing to pay attention to that will help enhance and improve performance.  And, if where your tongue is in your mouth and what it’s doing improves performance for Pilates – Imagine all the other sports, and daily life activities that paying attention to your tongue could be a valuable asset for helping improve overall wellness, functional movement, and improved athletic performance!

The tongue is a pretty large & powerful muscle sitting up there in your head. It shares a common nerve root with the Diaphragm.  So what the tongue is doing in your mouth can dramatically affect how well the diaphragm is working, and your ability to move higher volumes of air (oxygen) into and out of the body.

If you are familiar with Eastern concepts and Meridians, the tongue placement on the roof of the mouth closes the circuit for the Central & Governing Meridians.  This is used during circular breathing and Cosmic Egg meditation techniques, but during these meditation techniques, on the exhale the tongue remains on the roof of the mouth.

During Pilates workouts we are doing more vigorous exercises, and a part of our breathing goal is to transfer as much oxygen as possible into and out of the lungs.  To accomplish this we must change the tongue position in the mouth, allowing it to drop to the floor of the mouth on the exhale, to cue the diaphragm to release, lifting and pushing air out of the body as quickly as possible for the “forced exhale” that Joseph Pilates encouraged during exercise.

  • When you inhale, the tip of the tongue should be lightly placed on the roof of the mouth right behind the front teeth.  The tongue placement here cues the diaphragm to drop on the inhale so the lungs can fill with air.
  • When you exhale, the tongue should drop to the floor of the mouth. This cues the diaphragm to lift up and assists in emptying the lungs.

Any exercise that the neck and head are involved with can benefit from paying attention to the tongue during exercise.  If your goal is to facilitate better breathing, reduce neck tension, improve neck mobility, and assist better articulation of the entire spine for flexion, extension, side bending and rotation, spend a couple of workouts focusing on what your tongue is doing in your mouth during your Pilates workouts.  Discover how being aware of what your tongue is doing affects the freedom and ease of spine articulation and your overall movement experience.

On every exercise there is the opportunity to train the tongue to better support your breathing and movement.  But on some exercises you may find this particularly helpful.

For Improving Spine Flexion / Bending Forward

  • The Roll Up
  • Spine Stretch Forward
  • Neck Pull
  • Rolling Like a Ball
  • Short-Spine Massage
  • Long Spine Massage
  • Elephant-Round
  • Kneeling Knees – Round/Off
  • The Roll Down w/Bar
  • Parakeet
  • Tower
  • Teaser

For Improving Spine Extension / Arching Backwards

  • Swan prep
  • Pull Straps & T
  • Down Stretch
  • Short Box – Round to Arch
  • Swan w/Push Through Bar
  • Spread Eagle
  • Back Bend over Barrels

For Improving Lateral Flexion / Side Bending

Hint for Side Bending:  When you side bend, allow the tongue to drop to the floor of your mouth, and go towards the side you are bending to.  (Side bend  to the right the tip of the tongue will be on the roof during the inhale, and it will lay on the right side of the teeth on the exhale.)  If you side bend right, and the tongue goes left it is counter-balancing the bend and will restrict your neck and head from moving in the correct direction causing more neck strain and eliminates the body’s ability to sequentially articulate through the spine sideways.

  • Mermaids
  • Short Box Side Bends
  • Seated Side Bend
  • Standing Side Bend

For Improving Spine Rotation / Twisting

  • Seated Simple Twist
  • Saw
  • Stomach Massage Twist
  • Short Box Twist
  • Snake/Twist

This is by no means a full list of exercises to play with tongue support on!  But hopefully a good starter-list with a few of the exercises I have used with my clients to introduce this concept with to discover the benefits that tongue placement has to offer for improving form, function, and exercise technique.

As with any new concept – add this thought in to simple, more basic exercises first, where technique and body awareness is already in place so clients dont have a million and one things to pay attention to, but can maintain their body placement and can put their primary focus on feeling what the tongue is doing and how it affects their movement.  Then progress to incorporating this “Tongue Technique” with the intermediate and advanced Pilates repertoire.

I would love to hear from you about what discoveries you have made as a Pilates student, or Pilates teacher with incorporating a little emphasis on working and releasing the tongue muscle on your inhale & exhale during exercise.

  • Can you notice a difference in the ease of your movement? 
  • Is your neck more relaxed? 
  • Does this help you get through your sticky-spots on exercises like the Roll Up & Neck Pull? 
  • Is it easier to roll down out of Short-Spine?

Play with this, share it with your friends, and then please drop me a comment and update me on what interesting things you’ve discovered while paying attention to your tongue during your Pilates exercises and any other health & fitness workouts.

Have a Fit & Fabulous Day!

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