For over twenty years I have been telling my students when to breath in and when to breath out. And this has not been easy to do. Not for them and not for me. But I never questioned it. Not until I took a Body Harmonics Master Class called Open the Torso to Free the Breath with BH founder and teacher Margot McKinnon. Since then, I have totally changed my mind about breathing. And these are the reasons why.
In classical Pilates training, we are taught the huge importance of the breath and that there is a breathing pattern to accompany each exercise. Sure, these patterns are not written in stone and can and should be adjusted to meet the needs of each student. Typically, however, Pilates teachers instruct their students to ‘breathe in to prepare your body’ and ‘breathe out to engage abdominals and move into the exercise.’ Many Pilates exercises require more than one movement; so, in the middle of it all, teachers will say ‘inhale and stay’, or ‘inhale, keep the body steady’, and then, for example, ‘breathe out as you slowly return the foot or pelvis (or whatever) back to the mat’.
If it sounds complicated, it is. I always knew this. I saw some students struggle with breath, and some even told me straight out that it was the hardest part for them, yet I did not relent. I thought in time they would get it. In fact, when I told my own partner that I was writing a blog on Pilates breathing, she revealed what I had not realized: the reason she had never connected to Pilates, and gave up after two classes, was because of the breathing. She just couldn’t manage it. There were too many instructions and too much to think about. She did not like breathing out through the mouth and at times felt she was holding her breath – which is the opposite of what we want.
Maybe this unsettling revelation so close to home is why Margot McKinnon’s words rang extra true to me: ‘If you help with movement first in the body, you will by default free the breath.’ Obvious, right? But sometimes you just need to hear something at the right time in your life. Margot also admitted that since the pandemic started, and she has been teaching online, she barely cues breathing. Her point is to create comfort and ease in classes. People are already stressed enough without being told when to breathe.
The diaphragm is a pump that shouldn’t be interfered with
The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle wall between the chest and the abdominals, is the primary muscle of respiration. When we are young, our abdominals naturally rise and fall with each breath. As we grow up, we lose this natural breathing. Tightly held abs, whether for reasons of vanity or because of the common exercise class instruction to draw navel in towards the spine, pull down on the lower ribs and interfere with the pump-like downward motion of the diaphragm. When the diaphragm is fixed and we force or control breathing, it can contribute to stress and even pain in the body.
In the classical approach to Pilates breathing, we are taught to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth with slightly pursed or relaxed lips. The reason I was given for the exhalation through the mouth – which I repeated often without really understanding – was that the pursed lips aided in the connection of the pelvic floor and deepest layers of abdominals. Okay. But why do yoga teachers mainly instruct people to exhale through the nose, and not the mouth?
Margot suggested that we should let our students breathe out through the nose if they want. Maybe they will find this more comfortable than always through the mouth. As for the breathing pattern, after getting the movement right, she may “suggest” a breath to accompany the movement.
I was taught that the breathing patterns help students move from one movement into the next. But what if the patterns don’t help? What if breathing for some students doesn’t create flow and relaxation, but stress and frustration? And the exact opposite result: breath-holding.
I have a crystal-clear memory of the first feedback I received as a newly hired teacher. This was well over twenty years ago at my first job teaching Pilates in the athletics department at the University of Toronto. ‘Your students are waiting for you to tell them when to breathe,’ my supervisor said to me after observing my class. ‘Some of them are holding their breaths until you say exhale.’ ‘It’s called Pilates breathing,’ I said defensively. But her point was a good one, and stunningly obvious: everyone breathes at different speeds.
I still cue a lot of breathing in my classes. But now I suggest that students exhale through the mouth or through the nose if it feels better. I encourage the exhalation to be long, but not forced. If you try too hard you may become dizzy or light-headed. Some Pilates exercises sometimes call for staccato breathing: three to five sharply separated “blows” (exhales) and three to five sharply detached “sniffs” (inhales.) This unique approach warms the body and stimulates the diaphragm; and I don’t think I will ever let it go. Staccato breathing (sometimes called “Hundreds Breathing” after the exercise that made it famous) is a great pick-me-up for teacher and students in the middle of the class, if used sparingly.
The mechanics of breath are important. But dealing with breath doesn’t need to be complicated. Sometimes the wisest words are the most straightforward. Do not fixate on the breath. Return to the breathing later on. And, if and when you return to breathing, experiment with suggestions rather than struggling to follow instructions.
My blog, Adapting Pilates for Our Longer Lives, will return in the fall.