5 Tips to Help You Master Breathing in Pilates

It’s a common complaint: “Karen, I’m getting the breathing all wrong.”

“Before any real benefit can be derived from physical exercises, one must first learn to breath properly. Our very life depends on it.” [Joseph Pilates]

If you’ve ever wondered how you are supposed to breathe in Pilates, or why, or when, or all of the above – this post is for you.

Hold on tight. It’s a long one.

The most important thing to remember about breathing is that fretting about it will not help. Once you’re more confident with the moves, the breath will come more naturally. This might seem to contradict Joseph Pilates but it’s how I teach. It’s all about progress not perfection and we have to start somewhere.

The second most important thing to remember about breathing is to breathe. Try not to hold your breath.

Now that’s out of the way I’m going to try to explain the whys and wherefores of breathing in Pilates.

How to breathe

In Pilates we aim for lateral thoracic breathing. Translated this means breathing deep into your ribs. The literal translation is sideways breathing into your thoracic spine, that’s the bit that runs from your neck to the bottom of your ribs. It stands to reason that the part of the spine we are focused on, is the bit which holds the ribs.

TRY IT: Stand in front of a mirror and focus on breathing deeply. Look at how your body moves.

If your shoulders rise and fall a lot and your breathing is shallow, you are probably a chest breather. Asthma and poor posture can make this worse. You’ll probably know if you’re a chest breather since you’ll often feel short of breath, suffer with tension headaches and tense or tight shoulders and neck.

Chest breathing is also really common when we are tense or stressed. Our posture can impact our breathing too, so if you’re slumped at a desk a lot, tense, you know what’s going to happen!

TRY IT: Now place your hands around your ribs at the bottom. As you breathe in focus on breathing deep and into the sides of your ribs. Try to push your hands apart with your ribs as you breathe. Keep your shoulders as relaxed as possible.

If you’re struggling standing then lie down and have another go. There’ll be more on this in another blog post soon.

When to breathe

The original 34 Pilates moves have breathing patterns as part of the move description. This is what we aim towards. However, sometimes in class I might slow a move down or focus on a specific element, in which case I’d alter the breathing. I might even swap the breathing round whilst I’m teaching a move with the aim of getting it back to the original eventually. If a client has specific pelvic floor issues or we’re working on thoracic mobility, then again I might alter the breathing accordingly.

I don’t want to confuse, so I’m sharing my rationale for breathing in a certain way, based on a combination of original Pilates teaching, my own experience and some anatomical considerations too.

Rolling

We usually exhale on the rolling phase of a move. So rolling up or down, a shoulder bridge roll up (see note on this later), rolling over. If we’re rolling forwards and rounding our back, the out breath helps to squeeze all the air from the lungs. Think of the Saw, when you’re reaching forwards to your toes. If you use your out breath effectively here you get a lovely sense of wringing all the air from your lungs.

Shoulder Bridge

I teach the Shoulder Bridge breath slightly differently with women post natal or post menopause. There’s a greater risk of sucking air up (the vagina) on an in breath so I’d teach the roll up in to the bridge as an out breath, to close off the pelvic floor and then inhale as we lower. I’d have the same consideration for Rolling Back or Rollovers. If there’s a risk of vaginal flatus (fanny farts) I’d teach the out breath on the bit where there’s a greater risk of inhaling through the vagina. Yes. That’s a thing. For more on this please read Help! Why Does Pilates Make Me Fart?

Abdominal work

When you exhale, there’s a natural dynamic between the pelvic floor and diaphragm. It closes off. It also makes it easier to engage abdominal muscles. Given most of my participants are post natal or peri/post menopausal, I’d usually adapt the breathing to ensure there’s an exhale on the stronger part of the move. So the leg extension in double leg stretch (in the original 34 moves the breathing is opposite but I’m talking about my clients here). So when you extend the leg, rollover, or roll up to a teaser, breathe out. This is the bit that requires most effort. If you need to use your core, exhale.

Held

Once you progress with Pilates, few moves (if any) are held. It’s all dynamic. But when we’re setting up, there may be some practising. Do breathe slow and steady, in and out throughout, maintaining core control. A challenge on its own.

Accenting your breath

There are some moves, like the hundred, the saw and scissors where you accent your breath. For example, breathe in for five little counts or out for three little counts. Use these to fully exhale.

The One Hundred has a breathing pattern of its own. The original pattern was breathe in for five counts and out for five. More recently it’s been adapted to in for four and out for six, to take more time over the out breath. There’s research to say taking longer on your out breath can help clear the mind from CO2 and switch off your stress response.

Spine Extension

This is where an inhale can work magic. If you use your in breath to open the chest and extend the thoracic spine, this can increase your range of motion because of the way the ribs have to move as you breathe in.

Signs you’ve not quite got it right

If you are finding you’re frequently holding your breath or pressing your lips shut, you’re probably working too hard or you have lost your focus. Don’t forget if the moves are all new there’s a lot to think about. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just stop. Breathe and focus again on exhaling through the effort.

Work in progress

Don’t forget Pilates is always about progress not perfection. Do what you can now. The same is true for me, I might learn something new and have a rethink on my breathing instruction. But for now, what you’re doing is enough.


Here’s a little recap on the breathing to take into your class:

  1. Exhale on the forward roll.

  2. Exhale on the core challenge.

  3. Exhale when there’s a risk of breathing in through your vagina.

  4. Inhale on thoracic extention.

  5. Use the accented breaths to expel all the air from your lungs.

For more information or to book classes check out our Pilates Classes and Pilates Online, our answer to being able to do Pilates anywhere at anytime, with nearly two hours of 10 minute Pilates workouts for all abilities.

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