Shelly Answers 7 Questions on Breath

When something is very natural it’s often compared to breathing; an implicit trust in an unconscious process. 17, 000 breaths a day is as natural as it comes. That’s why you’ll be surprised to know there are better breathing techniques than regular breath that Pilates encourages. We sat down with our Director of Curriculum, Shelly Power, to set the record straight on breathing for Pilates. There are many ways the breath is useful and integral to movement.

  1. Generally, how does proper breathing help Pilates?

‘Proper breathing’ is such a funny expression – as if there are good and bad breathers. We joke that most ‘bad breathers’ are dead. Seriously though, the main thing to remember, is to breathe. Joseph Pilates is often quoted as saying ‘breathe in the air and out the air’. That is great advice. What Pilates brings is breath awareness and control. Students often ask me ‘what is the right way to breathe?’ ‘Should I be inhaling or exhaling?’ What I really want to say is, ‘yes’. At first breath, however, it’s most comfortable. As a teacher, I observe what comes natural and decide when I can use the breath in a different way to assist or challenge the student. Sometimes we use breathing to help the body move and sometimes we use it to help the body stay stable. And, sometimes we move to help us breathe. So, the breath really depends on what you want. There is a quote from Blandine Calais-Germain about spontaneity, “This, in some activities (even very complex ones) there may be a total lack of breath training because ‘only spontaneous breathing will harmonize well with the movement.’”

  1. Is there a certain “intensity of breath” across all Pilates movements? How might an instructor cue on the proper amount?

In Polestar we like the intensity of the breath to match the intensity of the movement. You don’t breathe the same way walking as you do when you’re running. It’s the same in Pilates. Certain movements require a stronger breath, some require something softer. It often depends on what your desired outcome is. Is the current style of breathing making the movement better or is it getting in the way? If the student is distracted by too much focus on the breath, let it go and just let them breathe comfortably. Eventually, we should really be able to change the breathing patterns with ease.

Dr. Larry Cahalin discussing improved breathing habits with Pilates
  1. Which Pilates exercises are closely related to breath control?

The most well-known Pilates breathing exercise is The 100. It consists of breathing in for 5 counts, then out 5 counts 10 times, all the while maintaining the torso in a rolled up position with the legs outstretched. It’s a challenging exercise, to say the least. There are others but this is the one most everyone knows.

  1. Why is too much of a focus on breath a negative?

Focusing on exactly when to inhale and exhale often gets in the way of the movement being performed. Especially when a student is new to Pilates. Having students breathe comfortably is sometimes a better approach at first, so as not to overwhelm them. Too much or little of anything isn’t great. Find a happy medium until the student can coordinate the movement and the breath.

  1. Can breath for Pilates be applied to other movement disciplines (high-intensity workouts/meditation)? 

Pilates movements help to create mobility throughout the body which is crucial for good and efficient air exchange. During high-intensity workouts, there is a lot of air that is exchanged. The better our ribs, spine, shoulder girdle and trunk muscles function, the easier it is to breathe. Conversely, resting breath should be efficient and should really just use the diaphragm, the primary muscle in breathing. No need to use a lot of other muscles.

  1. Can it improve daily functions around breath or movement?

Absolutely. Practicing different styles of breathing can help to both improve mobility in the thorax and strengthen the muscles associated with breathing. If our torso is rigid, it makes it difficult to expand the ribs when inhaling and to narrow the ribs when exhaling. The latter is often associated with people who are obese, women who have just given birth, and in addition to the changes in the lung tissue, COPD. They often lack the mobility and strength to close the rib cage and squeeze the air out of the lungs. Many Pilates movements can assist in restoring better function

  1. What are the consequences of poor breathing habits?

One of the biggest consequences of poor breathing habits is a lack of energy. The first goal of breathing is gas exchange – to rid the body and CO2 and take in O2. In addition to the physiological needs, we also improve posture with better breathing techniques and can change our mood or state with more energetic or quiet breath styles. Long, slow breaths can bring us toward a more calm state. This is often the goal of meditation and relaxation techniques. A more vigorous breath gives us energy and can make us more aware and alert.

Breath should be natural and spontaneous. Shelly and Brent delve deeper into breath in their video on diaphragmatic breathing. It’s always good to take a step back and reevaluate the basics, even if you feel you mastered it centuries ago.

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