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Breathing for Pilates

‘Breathing is the first act of life and the last’- Joseph Pilates


I don’t need to explain to you that breathing is important in exercise, however having a better understanding of breathing can help you to gain more benefits from the exercises during your Pilates class.


At the most basic level, the main functions of respiration is to deliver Oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide (by-product of cellular metabolism) from tissues of the body. The structure of the thorax (ribs, vertebrae, and sternum) play a big part in aiding the pulmonary ventilation pressure changes during breathing. The ribs articulate with the spine to move upwards / outwards on the inhalation and downward / inwards on the exhalation.


Pilates uses breathing in various ways to promote health benefits, such as enhance relaxation, decrease stress, lower blood pressure, improve focus, improve muscle activation, better circulation and respiration, and even lower risk for CV disease. Lateral breathing, set breath patterns and active breathing are three ways that we shape and control the breath in Pilates to achieve this.


Lateral Thoracic breathing (LTB) emphasizes the sideways expansion of the rib cage, as opposed to expanding the lower belly. This is to maintain the activation of the deep abdominal muscles (think big belt around our waist), increasing intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine whilst performing the exercises, which is required not only for successful execution but for protection of the body too.


We should take a normal breath in through the nose and a slow purposeful exhalation through the mouth. As the upper respiratory tract (nasal cavity, oral cavity, pharynx and larynx), purifies, warms and humidifies the air before reaching the lower respiratory tract (trachea, bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli) we should encourage inhalation through the nose. Think of filling two balloons within your rib cage and then releasing as much air as possible through a small opening in a constant steady stream.


Set breathing patterns will help you to get the best results from an exercise. The inhale is usually to prepare the body, and supports the lift of the pelvic floor, which is followed by the exhale, which encourages the activation of the deep-set transverse abdominals. By activating the muscles supported by the breath, we are recruiting the correct muscles in the right order to perform the movement and creating a strong core to support the body. We want to avoid flaring the ribs out forwards on the inhale as this will hinder the ease of activation of the oblique’s to protect the spine. Exhalation is also encouraged on the highest effort of the exercise, which helps prevent you from holding your breath, which can negatively increase your blood pressure and add excessive muscle tension.


Active breathing can help to target muscles and add a higher energy level through being more dynamic. There should always be an intention with the breath rather than just letting it happen. For example, with the Hundred you should breathe in for 5 beats and breathe out for 5 beats, each beat representing further contraction of these muscles.


So let’s try to incorporate the Pilates breathing method into our training. You can even practice at home by standing in front of a mirror and see what parts of your body move when you breathe. Ask yourself, is your lower belly expanding? Are your shoulders and upper chest lifting? Are your ribs flaring? Try firmly holding onto the sides of your ribs and feel your hands being pushed out and in as your lungs inflate like balloons. Try to squeeze all the air out of your lungs, as by doing this you are enabling as much fresh new air to enter on the next inhale.

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