Pilates and yoga breathing: why is it different?

“Why are Pilates and yoga breath patterns different?”

I’m slightly jealous Bridget, the yoga instructor at Silverton Fitness, is asked all the cool questions. I get why no one asks me personally: I’ll answer while teaching class, during an exercise – right after I tell you two more reps; you end up doing 10 more. I get it. But I still want to answer the question, so here goes.

In Pilates, we strive for lateral or intercostal breathing—expanding and contracting the rib cage (imagine an accordion). It’s how dancers breathe, keeping the constant inward pull of the abdominals. Generally, exhalation facilitates flexion while inhalation facilitates extension. You can also think of exhaling during the phase of the exercise that requires most effort or where the emphasis of the movement takes place. We inhale through the nose (using the natural filtration system nature gave us—our nose hairs!) and exhale through the mouth. Think about coughing and laughing and how, during both, the abdominals brace and flatten. I encourage students practice this at home (or even in class but no one takes me up on the offer) by fake coughing or laughing. Our focus is on the inward pull of the abdominals, specifically the deep muscles of the transverse abdominus (our deep, lower abs) to create stability along with the pelvic floor, internal obliques and diaphragm.

Yoga, on the other hand, encourages deep, diaphragm breaths—or belly breaths as they are often called—where the tummy rises during the inhale and falls during the exhale. This way of breathing is calming and helps lower cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) levels. This is more in line of natural, everyday breathing.

In neither discipline do you want to inhale while pulling the belly in and exhaling while letting the belly press out. It’s a huge pet-peeve of mine hearing even the most knowledgeable and well-intended instructors cue “sucking” in the belly. To me, that describes the action of holding your breath. In both Pilates and Yoga, any instructor will (or should!) tell you that it is more important to simply breathe rather than follow any specific breath pattern. And that’s another thing—don’t be shy. It’s okay (even encouraged) to have your breath heard by the person next to you. While your breath shouldn’t be heard across the room or by everyone, if your inhales and exhales are silent, you aren’t breathing deep or full enough. Avoid inhaling and exhaling through the mouth, activating the body’s “flight or fight” stress response.

You might be thinking, “It’s just breathing. Why make it complicated?” Breathing, by nature, is a complex function. During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes and the pressure inside the lungs is greater than the pressure outside. We inhale and the pressure drops, as does our diaphragm—think of it as making room for all of that air to come in.

Breath is one of the 10 principles of the Pilates method. In my BASI training, we learn it not only oxygenates the blood, improves circulation, promotes concentration and a sense of calm, it helps you focus on the correct muscles and use them in the correct order, crucial for supporting the body and making the exercises effective. Breathing also provides us with an inner rhythm, something to sync our movements to.

In Pilates or yoga, we are syncing our breath to movement. Off of the mat, our breath can be seen as our energy for life. Check in with yourself – how are you breathing right now? Notice how you breathe as you go about your day. Are you breathing deep and full, allowing the belly to rise and fall. Or do you breathe shallow, in and out through your mouth.

Think of your ideal inner rhythm, how you want to feel, and breathe to that.Breathe