Pilates Breathing – tips to get you started

By far and away, one of the most asked questions I get is around pilates breathing, “I can’t quite get my breathing to match my movements,” “am I meant to breathing in or out?,” “I think I just stop breathing altogether!”

Please know that when you first start out on your pilates journey, nobody gets the breathing so you are not alone! The first objective of breath work in pilates is really just to become aware of your breathing and then to try and keep that breathe natural and fluid as you go; having that awareness is the start of building the mind/body connection that pilates is so famous for. Once you start to become aware of it, this will allow you to develop it as you go I promise.

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

joseph pilates

So why is the breath so important then?

Breathing is a key pilates principle and is one of the building blocks of the practice along with alignment and centering (using core stability) – your ABCs! My community members will know all about this because I created a handy Guide for them all about it.

Intentional breath, or focused breathing, helps calm the nervous system, oxygenates the blood and gets rid of nasties (carbon dioxide) from the body, provides us with energy, activates our muscles and keeps our immune system ticking over.

Breathing is also directly related to the alignment of your skeleton. Nearly all muscles involved in breathing have a postural function and many of them are also involved in stability and help control good alignment as you move. In a nutshell, breathing directly influences stability and control of movement as well as posture and alignment so we are ticking a lot of boxes just by breathing well!

Your diaphragm is the muscle responsible for breathing in your body; it sits between your upper body and your lower body but all 3 parts are connected through your fascia system (that’s like wallpaper on your insides) so just by breathing slowly you are consciously stretching your whole torso – from your neck to your pelvic floor – very cool! The abdominal muscles (especially your deep core ones) are the ones you use to exhale, so breathing out helps kick start your body’s ability to stabilize.

That’s why you will hear cues like ’on your exhale, draw your belly button to your spine’ or ‘draw your abdominals down towards the spine’ or ‘feel your abdominals wrapping around your spine,” that’s me reminding you to think about actively recruiting yours abs on your exhale so as you can give your body some gentle support before you move. It always sounds so much more complicated than it is!

We use lateral (ribcage) breathing in pilates where we consciously breathe into the sides and backs of the ribcage (as if the ribcage was yawing apart), and then as we exhale the ribs draw back in to meet, allowing you to connect and hollow your deep adnominal muscles as you empty your lungs. You then aim to keep this ‘hollow’ as you take your next inhale; holding yourself stable.

Typically we inhale to prepare and exhale to move. However, this doesn’t always work for everyone – sometimes it can be useful to experiment and find a way that works best for you. I’ll do this in The Hundred sometimes when I find the in / out breath count of 5 is too much. If you’re in class with me, you will have seen me do in for 2 / out for 2. I think this is a good compromise for one of the more challenging pilates exercises and is easier to get handle on if you are new to it all.

Whatever you do, just don’t forget to actually breathe! Holding your breath, which is what most people do when they learn something new and are concentrating, adds to tension in the body and we’re trying to release it.

Just remember, that once you feel co-ordinated enough in your movements, then you can start to work on matching the breathe with what you’re doing. We will all be at different stages in our pilates journey so it’s about working in a way that feels right for you – take your time with it, don’t get impatient with yourself. Remember pilates is non-competitive; it’s a journey not a destination so enjoy the ride!

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

joseph pilates

Foundational exercises to support pilates breathing:

Pilates breathing helps stretch the upper mid back, can help to release tightness in the neck, jaw and shoulders, can strengthen and restore good health to the pelvic floor muscles and of course can calm our nervous system. So many benefits!

Here are the key exercises to practice with – get noisy with it and have fun!

  • Ribcage breathing (with a band or scarf so as you can feel the ribs expanding)
  • Shoulder drops
  • The Hundred (stages 1 and 2)
  • Rest position

Good luck!


P.S. Did you realise there was so much going on with just one breathe? I love to know if these tips might make a difference to your pilates practice so if you try them, be sure to leave me a comment with your thoughts.

P.P.S Have you read my post on breathing exercises that I wrote for you too? They are great to have in your back pocket for when you need to take a moment out for yourself or to practice your pilates breathing. I’ve linked them here for you.

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Meet Julie

Hi, I’m Julie owner of Ostara Pilates and creator of The Lifetonic Club. Here you’ll find pilates workouts, educational resources and practical tips dedicated to woman at midlife.  You’ll learn how to build a better relationship with your body and mind during one of the most significant periods of your life and how to create a simple wellness routine so as you feel supported even on the days where you have no energy.   Read more.

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