Breathing & Pilates: How to do it & why it matters

Breathing …..We take it utterly for granted most of the time….even during Pilates or other exercise sessions

Our lungs:  we really should pay them more attention and respect.

But they aren’t sexy are they?  Like the glutes.

Or iconic, like the heart.

Or trendy, like the liver – forever being detoxed to within an inch of it’s hepatic life.

No,  the lungs, despite their size and central location, lie forgotten, breathing quietly away, whilst we monitor our foreheads for wrinkles, (or is that just me?).

Even the word lung is rather dour and unappealing.

Well, enough!!!

Lets be inspired, both literally and metaphorically 


Basic Mechanism of Breathing

The primary muscle of breathing is the diaphragm – a sheet of muscle that divides the heart and lung cavity from the other internal organs.     In order to breathe in  (a process also referred to as inspiration or inhalation), the diaphragm contracts and flattens downwards.  It is assisted by the muscles around the ribs: the external intercostals, which pull the ribcage up and out.   This results in a pressure change within the system.  The pressure increases, thus drawing air into the lungs.  In terms of muscular work, the in-breath is the more active breath. The out-breath is more passive: the diaphragm and external intercostals relax and the air is gently expelled from the lungs in order to equalise the air pressure between the lungs and outside the body.

In order for the diaphragm to have room to contract and flatten down, the internal organs have to move out of the way slightly.  So, with each contraction of the diaphragm, both the pelvic floor and the abdominal muscles have to relax to accommodate this small change in the position of the organs (mostly the digestive system).  This is one reason why you shouldn’t try and contract your pelvic floor or “pull in your abs” as you exercise.  This runs counter to how your body works.  Each time you breathe in your abs relax and as your breathe out they contract slightly.



During intense physical activity the body uses extra muscles to achieve forced inhalation (and forced exhalation) which can really increase the size of the thorax (the space that the lungs and heart sit inside) in three dimensions .  The lungs can expand more, more air can be breathed in and therefore more Oxygen can reach the tissues and Carbon Dioxide be taken away.   The muscles that assist when we’re working our muscles at high intensity are

  • In forced inhalation: front of the neck, back of the neck and the smallest of the Pectoral muscles.
  • In force exhalation: abdominals, pelvic floor, a number found in the mid back muscles and one of the lower back muscles.

Diaphragmatic breathing is primary breathing and it is how we should breathe most of the time.

However,  much of the time we have a tendency to use a secondary breathing pattern.

Secondary breathing has an over reliance on the assistive breathing muscles in the neck and upper body.  People with chronic breathing diseases such as bronchitis or emphysema  rely upon them.  The rest of us shouldn’t though.

Why is it that we end up with faulty breathing patterns?

Lots of reasons:

  • having a very rigid mid back and rib cage.
  • hypermobility in the neck or lower back.
  • having an excessively rounded upper back.
  • generalised over breathing.  There are many causes of this, including anxiety.
  • over-use of the muscles associated with forced exhalation.
  • good diaphragmatic breathing can be disrupted by prolonged lower back pain – sometimes even after the pain has gone.
  • prolonged stress response.  This is biggie!  Most of use are aware of the term “fright or flight”: the colloquial term for the bodies’ physiological response to the sign of imminent danger.   One of the big changes brought about by the fight/flight response is to speed up the amount of breaths we take and swapping from slow, abdominal breathing to faster, shallower chest breathing.  This is vital and healthy in the short term and jolly useful when running away from a proverbial marauding pack of wolves but 21st century stress will trigger the same response.  Our unconsious mind doesn’t get the difference between the wolf and being under pressure at work.  The response is the same even though the best solution to the problem isn’t.  You need to run away from wolves – hence – rapid breathing.  I’ll leave you to ponder the solution to work based stress / financial stress / exam stress / existential angst etc.   If we are constantly triggering the fight/flight response we can begin to habitually breathe with our upper chest even though the stress may be over.  This style of breathing sends signals to the brain that we are under stress when we may not be.

And the result?

Inefficient breathing into the top of the lungs can lead to chronic tightness in the upper chest which can then cause tightness radiating into the upper back, shoulder blade elevation, neck tightness.   Many people suffer with this, and possibly attribute their problems to posture, over use of computers etc.  Maybe this is the case, but don’t over look the tendency to use secondary breathing as a cause.

And it’s not just chest tightness that could be a problem.   Failing to use the diaphragm properly can mean that  the lungs don’t fill up properly causing subtle metabolic changes in the body because oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide release is affected.  Our bodies are capable of adapting but they shouldn’t have to.  This is a subtle, hidden compromise that all the Chia seeds in the world can’t compensate for .


What can we do about all of this?

Firstly we can simply remember just how vital breathing is to life and proper breathing is to general well being.

  • It is a really good idea to simply focus breathing once a day.  Of course we’re forgetful, so more realistically, maybe just focus upon it once in a while.  It could be whilst you are driving, sitting on the bus or watching TV- any activity that doesn’t take too much concentration.
  • Breathe into your pelvis.  This is a very simple way to encourage diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Or how about this?  Smile with your ribs as you breathe in.  This is a great  thing to try, because it is very hard to smile your rib cage without smiling your mouth as well.   So you have to do both!   Smiling helps to lift your mood, even if you don’t feel much like smiling.
  • Notice that the out breath is more relaxed and takes less effort, (unless you are exercising very vigorously).

Lying down on your back (if you have time ha ha)  or when you’re in  bed is a great position to focus on lovely calm, steady diaphragmatic breathing.

It helps breathing, and also the muscular-skeletal system to maintain good posture.  For the most part, avoid slumping forwards because this impedes the expansion of the ribs: Sit or stand tall with the spine long and with no obvious tension in the muscles.  Soften your breast bone and rib cage.   No tensing the stomach muscles.  They will contract slightly with each out breath.

When and if you practice mindfulness, or if you’re thinking of starting, focussing on the breathing is a really lovely “entry level” task.  The purpose here is to use the breathing to quiet the mind, but there is an added bonus – it helps gives you a greater awareness of your breathing and simply reminds you that it is happening!   Meditation also harnesses the subtle and gentle power of this vital, constant presence in  our bodies.

Click here for a link to a mindful breathing exercise.

Do Pilates regularly!   Pilates provides an ideal opportunity to focus not just on the exercises but your breathing as well.

Yoga would be equally helpful and likewise other forms of exercises such as T’ai Chi or Qi Gong.    Indeed, these Eastern traditions have retained and promoted an understanding of the importance of breathing properly.    Prana in the name given to the vital, life sustaining energy  in the spiritual and healing systems of India.   It is a notion similar to the Chinese qi, the Japanese ki, and the Ancient Greek pneuma.    It has  the qualities of a nutrient that can be taken into the body.    Because prana is present in the air,  breathing exercises are believed to have a central role in promoting health.


How does Breathing Influence and Assist Pilates?

Well first and foremost the breath should match the requirements of the exercise.  In addition:

  • the breath plays a major role in core control because the diaphragm and pelvic floor are fully integrated into and form part of the inner unit of  stability.
  • good diaphragmatic breathing transmits  a force that will connect the entire body during movement.
  • using a particular breath can assist movement.  For example, forward bending (spine flexion)  is assisted by the out-breath, upper back bending (spine extension) is assisted by the in- breath.
  • and it works the other way around.  Movement can assist the breath.  For example, spine flexion will assist with breathing into the back of the rib cage and side bending will assist a directional breath  – a right side bend will help breathing into the right lung and right rib cage.
  • the breath can be used to facilitate stability during a move, mainly by providing spine stability but also in the shoulder blades.

Joseph Pilates was absolutely convinced of the supreme importance of breathing and it is widely reported that one of his favourite maxims was

breathe… you got to OUT de air to IN de air!

A few years ago when my daughter was only about 2½ we were walking to her nursery – quite fast and up a steep hill.  She suddenly stopped and said:

Mummy I’ve run out of breathe!

Beautifully put eh?  Always bear it in mind:

for your fundamental well being: physiological, metabolic and emotional

to allay anxiety, quiet the mind

to help exercise, enhance Pilates

which in turn will help the first two…..

Never run out of breathe

My daughter now, aged 9!!!
My daughter now, aged 9!!!


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