How should I be breathing during Pilates?

“Two things I hate: Holding my breath, and snakes.”

This blog post about “Pilates breathing” is dedicated to fresh orange juice; Indiana Jones; and Seattle’s now-defunct Alaskan Way Viaduct, whose demolition is currently causing the longest major highway closure in Puget Sound history.

Have you seen this article about what deep breathing does to your body? Deep breathing so powerfully stimulates relaxation that some recommend practicing it every day to combat the chronic, constant stress that modern life so often serves up.

Say it with me now, Seattleites: Carmageddon is no match for me and my lungs! Scream it out the window on I-5!

Even if you aren’t dealing with a traffic nightmare at the moment, it’s fun to read the cool research out there right now about the effects of breathwork. It’s one reason why the breathwork part of Pilates fascinates me endlessly. Plus, my certification is from a classical Pilates program called Fletcher Pilates, which places special focus on the breath.

Breath Groupie that I am, I invite clients to focus on breathing during classes and private lessons. My clients sometimes ask me: “Am I doing the breathing?”

Short answer: Yes, you are doing the breathing.

Your amazing body knows how to keep itself alive. So if you are alive, you are doing the breathing. (I am pretty sure no one I teach is undead, although I did once teach a monster-themed Halloween class, and there were some pretty convincing zombie walks.)

And just the fact that you are asking about your breath makes my heart sing. You wild, respirating thing. Noticing your breath while you are working on the mat or the equipment is a huge accomplishment.

Here are three reasons why you deserve mad props for noticing your breath while doing Pilates:

  • Breathing is one of the keys to taking what you learn from Pilates into your daily activities. Your breath’s effects on your posture and alignment is fully portable and always with you. Have diaphragm, will travel. You probably are not going to drop to the floor in your office breakroom and bust out some single leg circles. (If you do, VIDEO OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN.) But you breathe all day long.
  • Perhaps you notice that you hold your breath during certain movements or parts of class. This is super valuable information. Since you noticed, you can begin to explore why. Maybe the movement just isn’t that great for your body right now, and we can work together to find a similar movement that lets your breath flow.
  • The act of noticing how you are breathing builds body awareness. Practicing this skill helps you take up your space and feel more at home in your own skin. Breath awareness can take time to develop, but I promise it will pay off.

OK. But … am I doing the breathing?

There are lots of delicious layers to exploring breath during Pilates, including three-dimensional breathing, lateral breathing, and playing with the way you exhale.

For now, try starting here: Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Notice how that feels in your body.

Don’t worry about the other layers — you’ll learn them over time. If you find yourself holding your breath during class or confused about how to breathe, just return to inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth.

Breaking News: There is no “Pilates breathing”

This simple technique, without the other layers, aligns with the fundamental principles of Pilates as passed down by Mr. Contrology himself — Joseph Pilates.

Photo of Joseph Pilates

To say Mr. Pilates was a big fan of breath would be an understatement. In his book Return to Life Through Contrology, he wrote, “ … above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” Despite this, there’s no evidence that he ever specifically identified the “right way” to breathe during Pilates.

Pilates Elder Mary Bowen remembers hearing Joe’s cueing of the breath“IN de air! OUT de air!” — resounding through the studio, in his German accent, like a broken record. She says Mr. Pilates taught many breathing patterns, but never a technique. He preferred breathing in through the nose and encouraged a full exhale, but never made it a rule.

Ron Fletcher, the Pilates Elder who founded the lineage I’m trained in, remembered Joe’s IN de air, OUT de air, too. Ron developed and taught a structured breathing technique called percussive breathing. Nonetheless, one of the most famous quotes from Ron advocates a meta-approach to breath work: “All you gotta do is breathe. Breathe as if your life depended on it — because it does.”

Try experimenting with your breath

Instead of thinking of breathing as another thing you have to “get right” during Pilates, think of it as an experiment. You are the subject! (What a beautiful and intelligent subject you are! Your hair looks amazing. For your time, you will be compensated with increased mind-body fitness and/or vegan cheese puffs. Sound good?)

Once you’ve found your breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, try an experiment. Try inhaling to prepare for movement, and then exhaling on the part of the movement you perceive as exertion.

For example, if you’re working abdominals on the reformer, lying on your back with your hands in the straps: Inhale as you prepare to move, then exhale as your fingertips press down to hip level.

Now, switch it up — inhale as the arms press down to your sides, exhale as you return to starting position.

Notice any difference? Did one way feel easier than the other? Did you feel any difference in your abdominals? Your ribcage? Your shoulders?

Aaaaaand … that’s it! You moved, you breathed in through the nose out through the mouth, you noticed how those things felt in your body. Your job is done. Want to go get ice cream?

Indiana Jones and The Last Orange Juice

Listen, if you are still like, that’s all well and good, BUT YOU ARE THE TEACHER AND I PAY YOU TO CUE ME SO AM I DOING THE BREATHING?

I feel you. As a recovering perfectionist who loves Pilates in part because it can be so precise, I srsly feel you.

Here’s what I can say.

Last week, I was at the grocery store. Big bottles of fancy-brand fresh-squeezed orange juice were on sale and there was one bottle on the shelf in the refrigerated section, and I experienced this primal instinct to ACQUIRE that I normally experience only in the Nordstrom Rack shoe section. But it was a fresh OJ kind of day. I dunno why. The effects of January in Seattle, maybe?

Anyway, I was like THAT BOTTLE IS MINE AND I WILL SLICE YOU AND JUICE YOU IF YOU GET IN MY WAY. And the bottle was on the top shelf way in the back, so I had to stand on my tiptoes and climb halfway into the refrigerator and reach for it.

Like reeeeeeeeeeeach. Like Indiana Jones reaches for the Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, Sean Connery wasn’t there to whisper “let it go.” So I got the bottle! MUAhahahahaha!

Then I turned around. And there was a giant display of fresh OJ bottles, right in front of me, on the other side of the aisle. Literally at arm level, the whole time.

After I finished cursing/trying to figure out if anyone saw me, I was like: This is the story of my life. Why is it that so many things turn out to be less of a “do” and more of a “notice”?

This is to say:
That orange juice is your breath.
It’s been there the whole time. Inviting you to let it go.
OK wait.
Your breath is Sean Connery.
Umm …
Your breath is a grocery store?

At this point I realize I have mixed my movement metaphors. I can’t help it. I’m a Pilates teacher. Movement fills my brain with images.

So let’s close with this straightforward experiment:

Focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth with as much effort as you can.

Next, try 50 percent of that effort. And then 30 percent of that effort. Notice how you feel as you move.

And keep breathing as if your life depended on it, Indiana. In de air, out de air.

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