Pilates Principles #1: Breath

Breathing in Pilates

Breathing is the basis of our existence.  It’s the first thing we do in life and from that moment, it creates the rhythm of life.

Breathing techniques can be used to reduce stress, lower or raise blood pressure, improve aerobic capacity and to calm the mind and spirit.

Many Pilates exercises have breathing patterns that are a fundamental part of the exercise. Sometimes the breath is used to further activate our abdominals (think of what happens when we sneeze, cough or laugh), sometimes to enhance a stretch (twist you spine into rotation and then take a huge deep breath inb – how does it feel?) and sometimes to drive the rhythmic pulse of an exercise (The Hundred).

At the start of your Pilates practice you will find it hard just to follow form and alignment. There are so many things to think about when your doing an exercise that concentrating on breathing may seem like an enormous challenge. If you are particularly self conscious, this challenge may seem to be utterly impossible! Don’t give up, but persevere.


“Patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor.” Joseph Pilates


The breath and use of breath is absolutely fundamental to The Practice.  Pay attention to how you are breathing and start to develop patterns that assist your practice and make the exercises as effective as they are.

A stronger core with strong intercostal (rib) muscles improves the respiratory system and this in turn holds benefits for both the body and the mind.

How Breathing Works

The basic element in breathing is the diaphragm muscle.  It forms a dome in the bottom of the rib cage.  It is connected to the:

  • lumbar vertebrae – and much lower down than you might imagine.
  • twelfth rib – this is the shorter of the two floating ribs and the anterior end is covered in cartilage.
  • xiphoid – the cartilaginous part of the lower sternum or breastbone.

The Diaphragm: click for full size image.

When the diaphragm is at rest, the muscle fibres at the top of the dome are at the height of the fifth rib.  Inhalation causes the diaphragm to be pulled down the rib cage by about 4 cms.  Then, when the diaphragm is relaxed, the air in the lungs is pushed out.

In addition to the diaphragm many other muscles play a part in breathing:

  • internal and external intercostals
  • serratus posterior superior
  • inferior scalenes
  • upper trapezius

In fact, the upwards and outwards movement of our ribcage when breathing in can be compared to the handle of a bucket which increases the circumference of a bucket as it lifts up.

Bucket handle ribs breathing

Why is breathing such a big deal in the exercises?

Rather than setting out rules regarding how breathing should be, let’s bear in mind the words of Loita San Miguel (Pilates Elder – a first generation teacher, trained by Joseph Pilates himself):


“Breathing is a tool, not a rule”


Breathing in Pilates can be used to facilitate movement, improve strength, as well as improve lung capacity and mental focus.

Generally speaking:

  • inhaling facilitates the effectiveness of
    • spinal extension and lateral flexion
    • stretches when in rotation
  • exhaling
    • makes rotation and lateral easier (not necessarily more effective as part of Pilates practice)
    • assists in abdominal contraction or activation and spinal flexion.

When you are starting off, you should follow the rules and when you have assimilated the patterns, try experimenting with breath patterns to see what effect this has on different movements.

Joseph Pilates on breathing

Joe Pilates Knee Stretches

Joe Pilates Knee Stretches

From “Return to Life Through Contrology”:

“…above all, learn how to breathe correctly.”

“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.”

“Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying and dead germs.”

Breathing “is our internal shower”

“To breath correctly you must completely exhale and inhale, always trying very hard to “squeeze” every atom of impure air from your lungs in much the same manner that you would wring every drop of water from a wet cloth.” –

“To properly deflate the lungs is an art in itself and this final step in correct breathing is least understood. …It is seldom, if ever, taught unless the individual is privately coached by one who understands what is really is all about.” – Joseph Pilates from Your Health.


Ron Fletcher on breathing

– Ron Fletcher from Every Body is Beautiful

“Are you a stingy breather? Well, don’t be. Be extravagant with you breathing and come fully alive.”

“Everyone can learn to open and close the rib cage and increase the action of the lungs. All it takes is time, patience, and practice.”


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