Joseph Pilates once said that “if you don’t get anything right, get the breathing right.”
I often receive questions about breathing during Pilates. People wonder if they are breathing correctly or at the right time. There are many opinions about “proper” Pilates breathing (as far as when to inhale and when to exhale), but, especially with beginning clients, I am personally more focused on just making sure a person is not taking quick, shallow breaths or holding their breath – both which increase tension.
Once a person becomes somewhat familiarized with Pilates exercises, I try to encourage conscious breathing a bit more so as to release any tension and fully relax the body. Even though we all know that breath is the source of life, it is surprising how few individuals breathe properly! By employing full inhalations and full exhalations, we expel stale air and noxious gases from our lungs and replenish our body with fresh air to revitalize our system. This kind of breathing enhances the control of our movement and delivers oxygen directly to the muscles being used…not only in Pilates, but in our daily lives.
The best way to understand Pilates breathing – which is best defined as lateral postural breathing – is to imagine inhaling cool, fresh air (through your nose) when you open and expand your body and exhaling (through your mouth) warm, deep and stale air whenever you close and contract your body. Essentially, you want to activate all the muscles involved in the respiratory process, especially the deep abdominal muscles (mainly the Transversus Abdominis).
When you inhale, think of a fish breathing through its gills. In other words, feel the air flow through your upper chest and down along your spine, taking air into your lower lungs and expanding the back and sides of your ribcage, like a balloon. Did you notice how your shoulders lifted slightly? Did your back extend and your diaphragm lower as your entire chest expanded? If you lift your arms in the air, so as to stretch, it will likely seem intuitive to breathe in.
The exhale should last longer than the inhale, as you want to force every last drop of air out of your lungs – think of fogging up a mirror. As you do so, do you notice how your diaphragm raises, your chest caves inward and you naturally pull in your abs as your ribcage closes? If you add an exertive movement to that breathing pattern, such as lowering your arms back down, you can imagine how much sense it makes to exhale. Furthermore, if you were carrying weight in your hands, as simulated by the straps on the Pilates reformer, you will naturally be inclined to exhale on the exertion of that movement.
To keep it simple… Inhale to prepare for a movement, open your chest, and lengthen or extend your spine. Exhale on exertion and to engage your abs more deeply.