When should I be breathing?

One of the things people ask about most when they start Pilates is when and how to breathe. At first it can all seem a bit confusing and complicated and it's easy to get hung up on it.

But there's not necessarily a right or wrong way to breathe when you're doing Pilates. The only thing you do have to do is keep breathing. 

After that, a good place to start is to breathe out when you move.

Teachers have different approaches to coordinating breath with movement and some prefer not to talk about breath at all - the idea being that everyone will naturally find their own breathing pattern.

Attention to breath is an important part of my own movement practice and I usually include some breath work at the start of matwork classes to help people leave the stresses of the day behind and tune into their bodies.

So,  you will likely find a different approach and emphasis on breath depending on who is taking the class. To give you an idea of how breath can be used in Pilates, here are four techniques you might come across in class.

Lateral breathing

Lateral breathing is an energising and stimulating breath which is great for loosening up the ribs and mid back. Here's a good way to get a sense of what it feels like:

  • Sitting or lying, wrap a towel or resistance band around your lower ribs (just below your shoulder blades)
  • Cross the towel or band in front of your body and hold on to either end
  • Breathe in and feel your ribs expanding into the band 
  • Imagine the side and back of your ribs opening like an umbrella when you inhale.
  • Repeat for a few breaths or a few minutes.

One lung breathing

I like to use one lung breathing as a way to balance out both sides of the body and release the shoulders.

  • Lie on your right side with your knees bent and a pillow under your head. Bring your left arm up over your head (elbow bent or arm straight depending on what’s comfortable for you).
  • Imagine you are breathing just with your left lung. As you inhale send the breath under your left shoulder blade and around your armpit.
  • Imagine the left side of your body growing longer and wider.
  • Take around 10 breaths on the left side and then repeat on the right.

Percussive breath

There are a lot of different types of percussive breath that you may come across in movement disciplines such as yoga. In Pilates we sometimes use a rapid sniffing and exhaling pattern. It’s an energising breath that increases the intensity of a movement and you might know it from an exercise called the Hundred.

  • Sitting or lying in a comfortable position
  • Breathe in through your nose 5 times in quick succession – a ‘sniffing’ inhalation
  • Breathe out through your mouth 5 times in quick succession – a ‘huffing’ exhalation
  • Keep the breath easy and relaxed, try not to force it
  • Repeat 10 times.

Belly (diaphragmatic) breathing

This is a wonderfully relaxing and soothing breath that can help calm and focus your mind.  It's a good breath technique to use just before you fall asleep.

  • Sitting or lying, place your hands on your abdomen
  • Breathe in and let your belly expand into your hands
  • As you exhale let your belly sink back towards your spine
  • Exhale fully, let all the air out.
  • Repeat for a few breaths or a few minutes.

In class I use a mixture of breath techniques depending on the exercise and what we are focusing on during the session. As with most things in Pilates the key is to stay relaxed, not over think it and don't worry too much about 'getting it right'. 

Breathing techniques are just a guide - what works for some people may not be right for others - with time and practice you'll find an approach for combining breath and movement that works for you.