I would argue that breathing is the most important of the six Pilates principles. As Mr. Pilates himself said (1):
“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it.”
In my own practice, it is the principal I resist the most therefore it is also where I am weakest as a teacher. I don’t like being told how to breathe and do not think I am alone in this. I believe it is because Mr. Pilates was spot on that many of us breathe incorrectly.
Many people assume that as long as you are breathing you are fine when exercising. While there is some truth to this, breath can do so much more to facilitate movement and strength. A 2-week prospective study (2) on the effects of Pilates breathing on trunk muscle activation found that it did in fact increase activity of the trunk stabilizer muscles, indicating that practicing Pilates breathing while performing lifting tasks will reduce the risk of trunk injuries. So, breathing correctly does matter when exercising and one can assume the same to be true while doing everyday tasks as well.
When reading the instructions for each mat exercise in Return to Life, every single exercise has specific breath cues listed in capital bold letters, as if that was the most important part to Mr. Pilates. Inhale and exhale are the most heard words in any Pilates studio today.
Mr. Pilates would boast that when the 1918 flu pandemic hit the camp where he was interred, none of the men practicing his exercises got sick. One can’t help but wonder if the breathing exercises and healthier lungs had something to do with it. What can be known for certain is that his students had better calming skills as a result of Pilates and breathing techniques. Breathing too shallowly can rile you up and deep breathing can calm you down (3), (4).
Mr. Pilates wanted you to “squeeze every atom of air from your lungs until they are almost as free of air as is a vacuum” (1). All of the Pilates twisting exercises are designed to wring the air from our lungs (5).
Mr. Pilates was obsessed with getting rid of impure air inside our lungs. He thought “Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying, and dead germs as well as supplying an ideal haven for the multiplication of other harmful germs.” (1). I believe he designed his system to expel all this waste from the lungs, so you could then take in the clean fresh air, ideally outdoors!
The Pilates system does this with (3) complete exhales which down-regulate the nervous system, activate the respiratory musculature, automate a fuller inhale, and maximize lung capacity. Pilates also employs both Lateral and diaphragmatic breathing, also allowing for the fullest lung capacity. (6)
The Pilates exercises incorporate both breath control (timing breath to a movement which is voluntary) and breath awareness (observe and assess your breathing but don’t control it which is involuntary) throughout the system. (3)
Working with breath brings a natural rhythm or flow to a movement that can transform a session bringing the “complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit”. (1)
Breathing was so important to Mr. Pilates that he invented the Breathing Wheel (or Breathacizer). This metal pinwheel with a straw allows you to see your exhales via the movement of the wheel. (3) There is a saying that something as is natural as breathing, but as with everything else in life, our lifestyles have compromised out ability to fully breathe, to the point where correct breathing doesn’t feel natural anymore. By bringing awareness to this with something you can see – the movement of the wheel, I think Mr. Pilates was once again light years ahead of his time. The Breathing Wheel reminds me of the tool that heart and lung patients use in the hospital to test and build lung capacity before being discharged and to keep the lungs clear once being sent home. I can’t help but wonder what he would be inventing were he alive during the pandemic that impacts the lungs.
If a Pilates practice can teach us anything, let it be “Above all, learn to breathe correctly” (1)
(1) Pilates’ Return to Life Through Contrology
(2) The Effects of Pilates Breathing on Trunk Muscle Activation
(3) https://360pilates.com/lesson/the-anatomy-of-breathing/ (Links to an external site.)
(4) Three Breathing Exercises And Techniques
(5) https://pilatesandrea.com/breathing-and-the-pilates-method-the-power-of-the-exhale/ (Links to an external site.)
(6) The Benefits of Deep Breathing in Pilates Exercise