“To breathe correctly you must completely exhale and 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.”
“Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly.”
Pilates breathing has many benefits that our typical breathing does not give us. Most of us tend to breathe very shallow breaths; we take short breaths from the top of the lings and then don’t expel them completely. This means that the body’s pumping system by which oxygen is flushed into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is flushed out, is not working efficiently. This type of breathing increases our adrenaline and stress – it is fight or flight breathing. Learning to breathe correctly is one of the best methods of stress relief and it can work instantly. Pilates breathing relaxes tension in our bodies, gives us a better exchange of oxygen, and engages our abdominals.
Proper posture is also important in correct breathing – if the shoulders are slumped or your chin tilted back, your airway is not fully open and the muscles that control breathing won’t be able to stretch fully. Keeping the spine long and straight will prevent the ribs from collapsing and the spine from bending forward.
Stand in front of a mirror to check your breathing. As you inhale through your nose, there should be no upward movement of your shoulders or tensing of the neck muscles. As you exhale through your mouth with relaxed lips, your shoulders shouldn’t pull downward, your spine should stay straight and long, your collar bone shouldn’t move and your neck should remain free of tension.
The Pilates Inhale: Breathing in through the nose warms the air and filters it through the cilia (small hairs in the nostrils). The breath then moves through a series of branches (bronchioles) that looks somewhat like an upside down tree. The diaphragm is at the base of the rib cage at the thoracic area. As we breathe, the diaphragm contracts and relaxes. The Pilates breath tries to get the diaphragm to move across the ribs, going downward during the inhale, allowing space for the air to fill the lungs. It looks like a sling or a hammock attached to the ribs.
The Pilates Exhale: Stitching the ribs together in Pilates breathing causes the diaphragm to move, like an arch, up. This forces the air out and contracts the abdominals connected to the ribs. The inhale also gives you a great stretch of the muscles in-between the ribs (intercostals).
Full Breathing: As your breathing improves, you will feel the muscles between the ribs stretch on the inhale and the abdominals contract on the exhale. Over time, you will also feel your abdominals muscles working when you inhale, by keeping the abdominals connected as the breath goes out into the lungs and rib cage.
Breathing during exercise: Often, in exercise, we should breathe out on exertion or effort. You may have heard people say “exhale with exertion.” In Pilates, the breath can be a little different. Many forms of Pilates have the breath coordinated with the movement of the spine. For example, Stott Pilates notes, “during exhalation the rib cages closes in and down while the spine flexes slightly. For this reason, an exhale is suggested to encourage spinal flexion. During inhalation, the rib cage opens out and up while the spine extends. An inhale is suggested to encourage spinal extension…”
The most important thing is to remember to breathe. If you get confused don’t hold your breath – keep breathing. Always begin the breath before the movement.
Principles of Pilates Breathing
- Do not hold your breath – keep your breath flowing
- Inhale through the nose to cleanse air
- Do not let shoulder rise on inhale
- Breathe into your back and sides of ribs
- Exhale through the mouth with relaxed lips, don’t purse your lips
- Relax your jaw and tongue, neck and shoulders
- Exhale completely
- Hollow abdominals, pull naval to spine on exhale
- Zip or stitch ribs together on the exhale. Try zipping down and zipping up
- Try to breathe at least five seconds each way
- Exhale to flex/round spine
- Inhale to extend/arch spine
- Exhale to move legs and arms away from body (typically in mat work, varies)