Pilates Obsession: The Breathing

Pilates Lateral Breathing
Alycea Ungaro's Real Pilates

The list of Pilates benefits is a long one.

In addition to strength, flexibility, core strength, posture and coordination, Pilates is routinely associated with reduced stress levels, better sleep and improved breathing.  To be fair, any quality exercise can deliver on a lot of the above but breathing is not typically on the short list of exercise benefits. So, what’s the deal with Pilates breathing?

First, some back ground. In his book Your Health, Joseph Pilates wrote “Above all learn to breathe correctly.” The inclusion of breathing instruction is widespread in the Pilates world. There are teachers that focus intensely on the initiation and implementation of proper breathing. Many instructors consider the fundamental study of Pilates to be all about the breath.  Some styles of Pilates have a signature breathing style and others while addressing it as a component of each exercise choose not to separate out the breathing technique. At minimum, most teachers will instruct Pilates by telling you specifically when you inhale and when to exhale.

There are several key concepts around Pilates breathing but let’s focus on just two. Lateral breathing and exertion breathing. Basically how to breathe and when to breathe. In order to understand this fully, you’ll want to get hands on, with yourself.

Breathing Exercise #1

  • Stand up  or sit tall and place your hands on sides of your lowest ribs.
  • Inhale
  • Now Exhale

Repeat above but with the following change.

  • Inhale as though you are pushing your hands out as far apart as you can stretch them.
  • Pause a moment.
  • Exhale slow and long allowing your ribs to pull in towards each other and your hands to migrate closer and closer together.

    This is what Pilates people call “Lateral Breathing”. We prefer it because it avoids distending the abdominal wall and instead allows us to hold our core tight while still breathing optimally.  Pushing your abs outward is not how we train in Pilates so this adjustment in breathing style suits our movement technique perfectly. Breathe sideways and keep your trunk from front to back strong and still.

    We're not done yet.

    Breathing Exercise #2

    • Stand up tall with legs in parallel and hip with apart, arms genie style.
    • Bend low in a squat keeping your abs held strong.
    • Stand back up.

    Repeat above but with the following change.

    • Inhale as you lower down into the squat
    • Exhale as you return to standing.
    • Repeat several times focusing on the exhale at the hardest point in the move.

    This is what we term "exhaling on the exertion". For some it comes naturally. For others a continual reminder is required to be certain the breath is not held during the challenging portion of each exercise. The point of this breathing approach is scientific. A well timed exhale draws the diaphragm upward facilitating an abdominal contraction. While you may not be thinking about pulling your abs in during squats, if you breathe properly, you will be able to engage your Abdominals at the peak of any move and get more muscle recruitment and therefore more strength out of each exercise.

    Pilates breathing also comes in specific styles. Depending on where you study you may actually "hear" Pilates breathing in a few different manners. Some Pilates instructors prefer deep silent breathing. Some prefer an in through the nose and out through the mouth technique. And others adopt a percussive audible breathing pattern.

    All of these elements are meant to teach Pilates students that breathing is an active and specific component of the method. Indeed, all of these strategies can be implemented in any other exercise you enjoy.

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