Class handout by Jo Everill-Taylor B.Sc

The Importance of Breath

Joseph Pilates emphasized using a very full breath in his exercises. He advocated thinking of the lungs as a bellows – using them strongly to pump the air fully in and out of the body. Most Pilates exercises co-ordinate with the breath, and using the breath properly is an integral part of Pilates exercise.

A full breath cycle spreads oxygen throughout the body, gets rid of waste gasses like carbon dioxide, and stimulates the internal organs.

Deep breathing is an essential part of maximising any form of exercise you do. In Pilates we use the dynamic of full breathing — big inhales and exhales — to initiate and power our Pilates exercises, and most Pilates exercises are taught with breathing patterns, including a Lateral Thoracic breathing method.

Despite the focus on the breath in Pilates, some people feel a little “inhale deprived” when they start learning Pilates exercises. Keeping the abdominal muscles deeply pulled in and taking a great big inhale at the same time, can seem like contradictory directions. But Lateral breathing is a special breathing technique we use in Pilates that allows us to maintain a contraction of the abs throughout an exercise. 

In lateral breathing we breathe deeply, all the way down the spine and into the pelvic girdle but emphasise expanding the breath into the back and sides of the ribcage.

When the abs are recruited properly, they protect the spine and act like a supportive corset for the whole trunk. Knowing how to breathe well while keeping breast bone elevated to free up the floating ribs, the abs contracted gives us extra support throughout an exercise. As you practice lateral breathing, you will find that you are able to perform Pilates exercises with greater ease. It helps make finding a stable base easier and enhances the sense of lengthening the spine with the breath.

This exercise will help you feel the lateral expansion of the ribcage with the breath:

  • Wrap about 3 feet of exercise band around the lower part of your ribcage. You can also use a length of elastic or just wrap your hands around your ribcage.
  • Hold the band closed in front of your chest.
  • Inhale: Let the breath travel down your spine and expand into your back and sides so you feel the band is stretched, side and back, by your breath.


Stability from Breath

Did you know that your breath can also help to stabilise your spinal column? I know it sounds mad but simply setting up your breath well can give rigidity and stability to your lower back.

If you think of your lower torso being a closed chamber- you can use your diaphragm (large breath muscle) to increase the pressure in this chamber and provide rigidity to the spine decreasing the amount of work required of the erector muscles (the ones that support the spinal column).

Estimates suggest that this reduces compression forces on the L5/S1 disc by 30% and reduces the force required by the erector spinae muscles by 55%.  Wow! Just by using your breath!

Of course, to get these results you will also need to pay attention to your pelvic floor musclesas these form the base of your compressed chamber so need to be strong enough to maintain the pressure.

(Bartelink Balloon mechanism 1957)


Positive Vibes

Breathing has also been shown to help with both emotional recognition and memory recall.

Studies have shown that both of these processes were more accurate during breathing incompared to breathing out. Once again, the route of breathing was critically important – the effects were seen when the participants were asked to breath in through their noses.

Sounds like our Pilates breath is the perfect one to help make your memory better and recognise and deal with emotions!

(Zelano, C., et al. (2016).Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function. J. Neurosci., 6: 12448 –12467)

Jo Everill-Taylor, founder and director of Betterbody Training