Principles of Pilates – breathing

With Pilates the way in which the exercises are executed is of more importance than the number of repetitions completed or the exertion used. Mastering a simple exercise is often far more complicated than forcing the body to create a larger movement. Pilates teaches us to bring subconscious control into habitual movement patterns so that we can move with more ease and efficiency.

Following the eight principles of Pilates helps us to get the most from our practice. Last time we looked at centering.

This time we’re going to look at breathing.

“To breathe correctly you must completely exhale & inhale, always trying very hard to ‘squeeze’ every atom of impure air from your lungs in much the same manner that you would wring every drop of water from a wet cloth” J Pilates

Breathing:

Breathing has 3 key functions:

  • to carry nutrients around the body, bringing energy to every part of the body
  • to carry waste products away from the body and back to the lungs where they can be exhaled
  • to increase stamina

A restricted breathing pattern can create issues such as muscle tightness, restricted joint movements, tiredness and headaches. A more relaxed breathing pattern can help to reverse these issues whilst also reducing stress and creating a sense of well-being.

mat-work pilates

In Pilates, we use breathing as a way of connecting with the deeper core muscles (made up of the transverse abdominals, pelvic floor, diaphragm and multifidus). When the breath is aligned with our movements, we can experience greater control at our centre with reduced tension in peripheral areas of the body.

The goal in Pilates is to breathe fully into the lower rib-cage without unnecessarily using accessory muscles in the neck and shoulders. It is one of the key principles of Pilates but can also one of the hardest to grasp to start with.

What is the best breathing pattern for Pilates?

  • keep the neck and shoulders relaxed to reduce tension in these areas
  • breathe into the lower part of the rib cage, allowing it to widen in all directions
  • allow the belly to relax, soften and expand on each inhale
  • feel the belly gently contract and lift as you exhale
  • allow your breath to flow – don’t hold your breath at any point

Some people advise that it is best to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, but I think it is best to do what feels right for you. However, if you are more comfortable breathing out through your mouth, try to do so with soft lips (not pursed) and make a sound as if you are sighing – think of the sound that waves make as they break on the beach.

When do I inhale/exhale?

When practising Pilates we want to exhale with the movement which requires the most effort. The basic rule is that you exhale as you move away from your starting position, and inhale as you come back to it. There will be some variations to this rule, but it is a good guiding principle to start with.

For example:

  • with a leg slide, exhale as the leg extends; inhale as it comes back to relaxation position
  • with knee rolling, exhale as the legs rotate to the side; inhale as they return to an upright position
  • with a side-lying leg lift, exhale as the leg lifts; inhale as it lowers

Don’t get too hung up on your breathing!

Although there are very sound reasons behind the style of breathing used in Pilates, don’t get too hung up on it. If you’re struggling, simply focus on keeping a relaxed, rhythmic breathing pattern so that your breath is flowing as you move. Gradually as you get more confident with the exercises, you will find the breathing becomes a more natural part of your practice.

If you’d like to know more about breathing, you can find my ‘focus on optimal breathing’ guide here

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