Pilates uses a controlled and continuous way of breathing that takes time to perfect (Pilates breathing), but results in a stronger and more energy-efficient body. As babies and young children, we breathe correctly, but as adults we tend to develop poor breathing patterns.
Correct breathing ensures a good flow of oxygen to the working muscles, which then cleanses the bloodstream and energizes the whole body. Breathing also improves concentration and aids smooth and fluid movement. There are many types of Pilates breathing techniques, and different types can make movements easier, harder, or more controlled. A correct breathing technique can be mastered, but it takes time and patience.
How to breathe in Pilates?
In Pilates, we follow a breath called thoracic or lateral breathing. This means breathing wide and full into your back and sides, opening the ribcage as you breathe. Think of your lungs as bellows, expanding and widening as you breathe in and closing down as you breathe out. This way of breathing works the intercostal muscles, the muscles between the ribs. When these muscles are working, the upper body is more mobile and fluid in its movements. Pilates exercises are designed in combination with breathing techniques to work the correct muscles to create the required movement. The core muscles always support this process.
When you inhale normally, the lungs expand, the diaphragm drops and the stomach moves out.
As you exhale, your diaphragm lifts and the stomach moves in. This is called “abdominal” breathing in Pilates workouts and is quite natural.
The wrong way
Whatever you do, don’t hold your breath. Most people hold their breath if they pick up something heavy, much as weightlifters would when picking up a barbell. This type of breathing is called the Valsalvic method and results in a stressful increase in blood pressure. It wastes energy in parts of the body where it isn’t required. In Pilates you want to keep your breathing continuous.
Muscles that make up the core
The following groups of muscles make up your core or center:
• TA (transverse abdominal) muscles are the corset-like muscles that wrap around the center of your body.
• Multifidus muscles run down the length of the spine. They link two or three vertebrae and can create or block movement.
• The pelvic floor is the sling muscle that runs from the front of the pelvis to the lower part of the spine.
• The diaphragm is the muscle that lies under the ribcage and helps you to inhale and exhale.
Thoracic breathing exercise for Pilates
Sit comfortably or stand tall. Place your hands on the front of your ribcage with your fingertips just touching. As you breathe in, fill the lungs, open the ribcage, and let the fingers slide apart. As you breathe out, let them slide back to touch again. This can take considerable practice. To advance the exercise, move your hands farther around so that your hands are touching your armpits, and breathe to push your ribcage into your hands. If you can reach, extend your palms around to your back.
Another option is to place both hands on the front of the ribcage and breathe first into the right hand, then into the left hand, then into both hands equally. This will increase your body awareness and your breathing control.