Breathing is one of the six principles of Pilates (the others are centering, concentration, control, precision and flow) and arguably the most important.
Joseph Pilates was keenly interested in breathing because he suffered from asthma and other respiratory illnesses as a child in Germany. “Breathing was huge for him,” says Amy Havens, a Pilates instructor in Santa Barbara, California, and our expert guide to Pilates breathing in this blog post.
Among the uninitiated, Pilates is often assumed to be pretty much the same as yoga. One of the ways the two disciplines differ, however, is their approach to breathing. If you are new to Pilates, and especially if you come to Pilates after having done yoga, you may find Pilates breathing takes some getting used to.
Yogis expand the belly on the inhale and deflate or contract it on the exhale. Picture the way a small child breathes, unselfconsciously and fully, without worrying about how it looks. This type of breathing helps elicit the “relaxation response,” or the opposite of the fight or flight state. Yogis typically breathe through the nose, which has the benefit of warming and cleaning the air. The breathing known as “ujjayi” is characterized by a whispering sound resulting from a slight constriction of the throat. Another breath pattern, called “breath of fire,” features a sharp, forceful exhale that makes a sniffing sound.
Pilates breathing doesn’t have to be loud or vigorous. Pilates instructors tend to exaggerate breath when they are leading a class or teaching a private session because it sets a rhythm and energizes their students, says Havens. It also generates lots of body heat as in the first exercise in Pilates, a rhythmic pumping of the arms accompanied by a chest lift, called the Hundred. We’ll talk about how to do the Hundred a little later.
Pilates instructors offer cues about when, where, how to breathe because breathing is important for oxygenation of the body and circulation, says Havens. It also helps ensure that the body is in the correct position to perform the exercises effectively and safely.
Hint: it takes another Pilates principle, concentration, to breathe properly, especially if you are new to the work.
To try it: Sit or stand and place your hands on either side of your ribcage. On an inhale, breathe into the back and sides of the body, rather than taking what’s known as a “belly breath.” Your obliques and upper back should expand, and you’ll feel your ribs draw apart from one another laterally (sideways). When you exhale, the ribs should knit together again.
The benefit of breathing this way is that it helps to stabilize through the lower trunk. In Pilates, we use the term “Powerhouse” to refer to the trunk region and the muscles that are found there. It’s hard if not impossible to stabilize your trunk when you take a big belly breath, the kind that expands the tummy and causes the rib cavity to rise.
If you are still not clear, Havens suggests lying on your back with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor. Place a bag of rice or something of similar shape and weight on your stomach. You can rest your arms on the floor beside you or keep your hands lightly on the bag of rice (or whatever you are using). Inhale and exhale deeply and slowly. Concentrate on feeling the breath expand the upper back and sides of the body. Try to prevent the bag of rice from rising and falling with each breath.
The goal of this exercise is not to keep the bag of rice from falling, but to find and activate the muscles inside the abdominal region. Engaging the muscles of the Powerhouse creates stability that protects us from injuries and, over time, helps prevent lower back pain.
Think of the classic Pilates exercise the Hundred, which is used as a warm-up in both the Mat and Reformer series.
In some Pilates exercises, there’s a breathing cue (“inhale” or “exhale”) linked to a specific movement in the sequence. This is to protect the spine or lower back, or to provide an optimum stretch. For example, in the classic “Cat/Cow” stretch seen in many Mat classes, the cue will usually be to inhale on the arch and exhale on the round (cow). In a side bending exercise, such as the Reach on the Short Box, we inhale to lift the body and lengthen the spine, and exhale as we bend to the side.
If this seems like a lot of trouble for something you do involuntarily, all day long, don’t worry! Once you start to practice Pilates regularly, the breathing will become second nature.
Do you have questions about Pilates breathing? Feel free to add them to the comments below.