Wait... Do I Inhale Here or Exhale Here? Why We Cue Breathing in Pilates

by Dawne

In Joseph Pilates’ book, “Return to Life” he says "…above all, learn how to breathe correctly.  But what does he mean, “breathe correctly”? 

Let’s all try his instructions together.  Stand tall and:

“SQUEEZE EVERY ATOM OF AIR FROM YOUR LUNGS UNTIL THEY ARE ALMOST FREE OF AIR AS IS A VACUUM.” 

Stand erect again and observe how your lungs will automatically completely refill themselves up with fresh air.”

That’s it - no complicated instructions or detailed explanations about what happens to your pelvic floor or how to purse your lips.  Just breathe fully and you are breathing correctly!

This can be quite liberating when you’ve come to your first pilates class and you don’t know your roll-up from your roll-back and now you’re also being told how to breathe.

When in doubt, just breathe out is a great mantra in your early days, but once you start moving, you will want to get more out each movement to progress your practice and incorporating breathing into your movements is going to help you to do just that.

It's important to note that in Return to Life, Pilates did include breathing instructions with each of his mat exercises.  But not really how to breathe (we can assume that was taken care of when he outlined that we should empty the lungs completely as quoted above).  He told us when to breathe in each movement - to help you use the breath to get the most out of the movement and to use the movement to help you get the most out of your breath!

Breathing has many benefits that extend beyond it’s life-sustaining qualities.  Breathing is used in every culture to focus the mind, connect the mind to the body, and can be used to decrease stress, blood pressure and get us through painful situations.  How we breathe can help in our daily life activities, including how we exercise.  We can breathe using many different techniques, here are a few you may have heard of before:

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing
  • Lateral Breathing
  • One Lung Breathing
  • Percussive Breathing

In pilates, we most commonly use lateral breath, which helps us to keep a sustained abdominal connection while still being able to breathe fully.  Here’s how you can practice your lateral breathing at home:

Starting Position:  Lie on your back in a semi-supine position with your knees bent at right angles, feet flat on floor.  Place one hand on your side of your ribs and the other on your belly button.

Movement Sequence:  

  1. Inhale completely:  Feel the the air fill up your stomach so that it rises and your rib cage expands forward, sideways and backwards as you continue your inhalation.  Inhale until you can't possibly inhale any more.

  2. Exhale completely:  Empty all the air completely from your stomach and lungs as your stomach sinks and ribs close back together.  Feel the lift inward and upward from your deep abdominals at the end of your exhalation and your stomach hollows.

  3. Inhale completely:  Now this time, try to inhale only into your lungs, maintaining your hollow stomach. 

  4. Exhale completely:  Empty the lungs.

Repeat steps 4 and 5 (this is your lateral breathing) for a total of 5 repetitions.  

A great illustration of when we use lateral breathing in pilates is the very first matwork exericise we do - the hundred!  In addition to being a fantastic abdominal exercise, did you also know it was a breathing one?  Focus on your breathe the next time you are in the studio doing the hundred and see if you can find the length of the torso on the inhale and the flexion of the torso on the exhale.  Put them together and your abs will be on fire!

Silvan demonstrates lateral breathing in action with the pilates hundred.  Join him for a private session or group class Wednesday, Thursday or Friday evenings!

Silvan demonstrates lateral breathing in action with the pilates hundred.  Join him for a private session or group class Wednesday, Thursday or Friday evenings!


Want to find out more ways to love your hundred and make the most of your mat practice?  

Come join me on 18 March for a special mat masterclass from 11-12:30pm!  Find out more and book here!