Breath is one of the key principles of Pilates yet it’s the one that many people find the most difficult. Have you found yourself breathing in as your instructor is telling you to breath out or vice versa? Or perhaps you find yourself holding your breath during a particularly challenging movement.
Pilates breathing is often described as lateral thoracic breathing. This means that you should breath into your rib cage. You can practice this by placing both hands on your ribs with the heels of your hands at the side of the rib cage and your middle fingers meeting in the middle. Breath in, focus the breath into the rib cage and feel the sides of the rib cage expand and your fingertips come apart. Breathe out, feel the rib cage move back towards the centre.
The reason we focus on breathing this way in Pilates is to help maintain abdominal contraction whilst performing the exercises during which keeping a stable core is important. This in no way implies that diaphragmatic or belly breathing is negative – away from your Pilates class I highly recommend breathing deeply into your belly rather than shallow breaths into the upper chest and shoulders – but during a class, lateral breathing is best.
As you become more familiar with Pilates you will want to develop a breathing pattern. This helps in several ways:
- It stops you from holding your breath, particularly during a challenging exercise. Holding your breath can lead to excessive muscle tension and, in extreme cases, elevated blood pressure levels.
- It helps to recruit the muscles when they are needed most. Exhaling fosters a stronger activation of your deep core muscles and a slight spinal flexion so breathing out on the more effortful part of the movement (eg. lengthening your legs away from your centre) is very beneficial.
- It helps you establish a rhythm and fluidity to your movement. For example; using a slow, long exhale when rolling your spine down during a Shoulder Bridge encourages a smooth, fluid movement. Breathing out as you extend your legs during a Double Leg Stretch and in as you flex the knees not only encourages deeper engagement of your core muscles during the more challenging phase of the movement, but creates a rhythm with the breath and body working together.
Allow your breath to flow rather than forcing it. Can you hear your breath as you exhale? You may be trying too hard. See if you can keep your breath steady and quiet.
And lastly, don’t over think it! Breathing is often the last piece of the Pilates puzzle to fall into place. Focus first on improving your body awareness and alignment then allow the breathing to complete your practice.