It recently came up in class about how there was a lot to think about in Pilates. You had to think about the movement, the breathing, the abdominal engagement, and remembering to count your reps.
It is true, there is a lot going on and that’s why I’m a big fan of layering things in. As a teacher I don’t expect new students to get everything and do everything perfectly. I always advise picking something to focus on and then layering in everything else when they feel ready too.
I encourage people to focus on the movement, get the form correct, understand why they are doing a movement and then add in the breathing or the abdominal work.
When you are ready to layer that in, you may have forgotten how to do it. I will openly admit I am not as good at cuing abdominal engagement as I could be. Sometimes I feel pressured to keep the class moving, or I know some people already know how to do it, and sometimes I forget.
This is a first in a series called ‘Foundation Refresh’ because we all need a refresher sometimes. This article will focus on breathing in Pilates.
I have an inquisitive mind and one of the things that used to drive me batty during Pilates classes was when the teacher would not (or could not) explain why breathing was important. I was told it was just the way it was done in Pilates, deep breathing was better for you, and my favourite dead silence and then ignoring me.
I was also kind of a smart arse, so I do understand the desire to ignore my questions and walk away.
The first step to understanding Pilates breathing is to understand the anatomy.
You have your main respiratory muscles: diaphragm, abdominal muscles, intercostal muscles, and your pelvic floor muscles.
You also have your accessory respiratory muscles: neck muscles, chest muscles, some abdominal muscles, and a few back muscles.
We are interested in the primary respiratory muscles. These work together to breathe but also to maintain spinal stability. When these muscles aren’t working efficiently together they can cause muscular imbalance, breathing difficulties, and pelvic floor dysfunction.
When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and flatten allowing for more space in the chest cavity. The intercostal muscles (muscles between your ribs) contract which moves the ribcage upwards and outward, causing it to expand. This pulls air into the lungs which enlarge and expand.
When you breathe out, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax causing the lungs to recoil and decrease in volume, forcing the air out of the lungs. The pelvic floor and adnominal muscles will contract and shorten as the organs lift back up into their original position and the pressure on pelvic floor decreases.
To breathe correctly you must completely exhale and inhale, always trying very hard to ‘squeeze’ every atom of impure air from your lungs…Joseph Pilates
Joseph Pilates was very concerned about oxygen circulation and about stale air in the body. The lungs facilitate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide; you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Its way more complicated than that but that’s the gist.
When the air is not fully exhaled, carbon dioxide is left in the lungs. He believed that a full, forced exhalation was the best way to fully empty the lungs and achieve a full inhalation. In his works he instructed breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.
There is evidence to suggest this way of breathing promotes more efficient gas exchange. Pursed breathing, when you breathe through your nose with your mouth closed then breath out through pursed lips, can help to reduce carbon dioxide trapped in the lungs and improve oxygenation.
Now breathe in through your nose. Very slowly. Now draw your abdomen in as far as you can. Bend your head forward until your chin rests firmly on your chest. All right, begin to exhale slowly. Is the breath all out? Good. Pull in your abdomen again. Round your shoulders. Now blow out as hard as you can. There, you see, there was quite a lot of air left in your lungs after you thought you’d expelled it all.Joseph Pilates, Cosmopolitan, February 1941
The 34 original Pilates exercises, as detailed in Return to Life Through Contrology, have very specific breathing patterns. With his concern over trapped air in the lungs and oxygenation of the body I would suggest that he encouraged pursed lip breathing, or a version of it.
In general, you exhaled through the exertion or effort as that would result in pelvic and spinal stability, allowing for easier movement.
Lateral Thoracic Breathing
Pilates often uses ‘lateral thoracic breathing’ or ‘intercostal breathing’. This is where the ribs are encouraged to open up to the side and back, allowing for the lungs to expand out to the side, front and back. This would be done by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.
The intercostal muscles (muscles between your ribs) expand and contract the ribcage. This is where it gets tricky: the innermost intercostal muscles relax, the external intercostal muscles contract, causing the ribcage to expand on the inhale. On the exhale the opposite happens, the innermost intercostal muscles contract and the external intercostal relax. This causes the ribcage to contract, forcing air out of the lungs.
With this type of breathing you want to minimise the movement of the ribcage upwards, there is going to be some movement, but the primary movement should be front, back and side. Think of that forceful exhalation Pilates encouraged. This movement of the ribcage is going to facilitate that.
In my experience a lot of teachers ignore the pursed mouth element to intercostal breathing, and honestly I don’t blame them. This type of breathing is often audible and a lot of people get self-conscious about that or are embarrassed. This can be particularly true in group classes; no one wants to be the person panting in the background.
I let my clients decide if they want to do this kind of breathing or whether they want to focus on the ribcage movement. I don’t want them to be uncomfortable in my classes and forcing someone into audible breathing is not going to help them overall.
01) Lie on your back with your head supported and your knees bent, feet on the floor. If you are not comfortable with knees bent, then have the legs long with a pillow under the knees for extra support
02) Place your hands on the front of your ribs with the longest fingers touching in the centre. Relax the shoulders and jaw, have a gentle nod of the chin to discourage the accessory muscles from getting involved
03) Take a deep breath in through the nose and allow the ribcage to expand to the side which will cause the fingers to separate slightly
04) Exhale out through the mouth, relax the ribcage and allow the fingers to come together again. This will focus on width through the ribcage rather than height or lift.
Layer It In
Functional breathing is not easy and for many of us it doesn’t even feel natural. Don’t walk into a Pilates class and think you need to do it perfectly. It took me a long time to sort my breathing out and even know when I get anxious I switch to those accessory muscles, let them lift and lower my ribs, and I breathe shallowly and talk really quickly.
Layer it in. If you are at a point where you want to layer in the breathing then start by exhaling through the effort, it doesn’t need to be a single exhale either, you may need to break the breathing up particularly if you are doing a movement such as roll back where you are exhaling for a long time.
Breathe out on the effort. Then think of the diaphragm lowering, the ribs expanding, elongate the breath. Take whatever approach you like to it.
It is something you practice and get better at and eventually that will carry over into your ever day life. This is ultimately the goal. Functional breathing is not just for Pilates.
When I started researching for this I found a difference in terms used in scientific journals and in Pilates.
In scientific journals ‘thoracic breathing’ refers to a dysfunctional breathing pattern that involves breathing using the upper chest muscles and accessory respiratory muscles rather than the diaphragm.
In Pilates ‘thoracic breathing’ is often used instead of ‘lateral thoracic breathing’ or ‘intercostal breathing’. The breathing encouraged in Pilates.
Just be aware of this if you do your own reading.
Aliverti A. (2016). The respiratory muscles during exercise. Breathe (Sheffield, England), 12(2), 165–168
Bahenský, P., Bunc, V., Malátová, R., Marko, D., Grosicki, G. J., & Schuster, J. (2021). Impact of a Breathing Intervention on Engagement of Abdominal, Thoracic, and Subclavian Musculature during Exercise, a Randomized Trial. Journal of clinical medicine, 10(16), 3514
Bradley, H., & Esformes, J. (2014). Breathing pattern disorders and functional movement. International journal of sports physical therapy, 9(1), 28–39
Breslin, E.H. (1992). ‘The pattern of Respiratory Muscle Recruitment During Pursed-lip Breathing’. Chest, 101 (1), pp 75-78
Contreras-Briceño, F., Espinosa-Ramírez, M., Moya-Gallardo, E., Fuentes-Kloss, R., Gabrielli, L., Araneda, O. F., & Viscor, G. (2021). Intercostal Muscles Oxygenation and Breathing Pattern during Exercise in Competitive Marathon Runners. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(16), 8287
Gerritsen, R.J.S., and Band, G.P.H. (2018). ‘Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12: 397
Keeley, D., and Osman, L. (2001) ‘Dysfunctional Breathing And Asthma: It Is Important To Tell The Difference’. British Medical Journal, 322 (7294), pp 1075-1076
Nguyen, J., and Duong, H. (2020). Pursed-lip Breathing. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing
Park, H., & Han, D. (2015). The effect of the correlation between the contraction of the pelvic floor muscles and diaphragmatic motion during breathing. Journal of physical therapy science, 27(7), 2113–2115
Visser, F.J, Ramlal, S., Dekhuijzen, P.N.R., and Heijdra, Y.F. (2011). ‘Pursed-Lips Breathing Improves Inspiratory Capacity in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease’. Respiration, 81, pp 372-378