Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Thanks for the great response to my first installation, Footwork on the Reformer, part 1.

Many of you asked about breathing and how it relates to both the Footwork Series on the Reformer and also the greater Pilates method. Thanks for entrusting me with this huge topic and I hope you'll find my perspective to be helpful.

What does Joe Pilates say about all this?

We're all familiar with an iconic quote from Joe himself:

“…above all, learn to breathe correctly.”

That sounds important. But how do we do this exactly?

Oh good, he goes on:

Squeeze every atom of air from your lungs until they are almost as free of air as a vacuum. Notice how your lungs automatically completely refill themselves with fresh air.

Indeed. The power of the exhale shall set us free.

In my Pilates education as well as my experience of the Pilates workout in my body I believe our focus should be mainly on a thorough exhalation.

I'm looking at a key word here from Joe: automatically. Do your workout and you can't help but experience a deeper fuller breath. The exertion required in our exercises, the ever-changing position of the body and our commitment to moving get the job done for us.

A teacher once said to me “I can't teach you how to breathe any more than I can teach your heart to beat.”

We're pretty good at breathing. We've been doing it for a while now.

With the introduction of exertion, our body knows what to do.

We. Need. More. Air.

The Power of the Exhale

The bulk of our 500+ Pilates exercises will find us breathing simply as we would while walking down the street. In through the nose and out through the nose if possible, silently and without any undue noise or tension.

Tense and noisy breathing translates directly into unwanted tension in the body, not unlike the locking of our joints. Tension is diverted away from our center in both cases. We want all the exertion in our center, not in our extremities and not in our throats.


Within our beloved Pilates method we do have a handful of exercises specifically designed to increase our lung capacity: our Breathing exercises. Yay!

With the help of these specialized exercises we'll exhale fully, enabling our bodies to “automatically fill up more deeply with fresh air. ” 

We are on the case, Joe.

Some common exercises to give your lungs (and your body) a workout:

The Hundred

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Right out of the gate no less… our prescribed breathing in this exercise serves to increase our lung capacity as we focus on our long steady exhale. Variations on the inhale/exhale count of this exercise for special populations like opera singers and athletes further challenge breath control.

Double Leg Pull

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Our signature move in the Pilates method. And boy is it a good one. Soon our lengthened out position here will fold up into a tight ball to force all the air out of the body.

Down Stretch

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

The Down Stretch, I must say, is an exemplary breathing exercise. Perhaps it's my favorite…

The Twisting Exercises

From the Stomach Massage Series to the Short Box Series to Snake/Twist on the Reformer and Wunda Chair. All of our Pilates twisting exercises are designed to wring out the air from our lungs.

Ok actually these guys are my favorites…

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Our Twist in the Stomach Massage Series is the first rotation of our workout.

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Next we'll take our Twist onto the Short Box and add a new element to our twisting, the Reach.

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

Our Twist position gets more complex as we proceed further into our workout.

Breathing and the Pilates Method: The Power of the Exhale

And even a nice Twist on the Mat, where we've also got the Saw, Criss Cross and the Corkscrew.

Enjoy this short tutorial.

Thanks for watching!

Hey Southern California…

Saturday January 21, 2017 California Pilates Center, Oceanside, CA

Join me for a day of guest teaching. Just one spot open for a private lesson, they filled up fast –  use this link to snag it for yourself! Register for my 10am Mat class here.

Saturday March 4, 2017 Studio Flo Pilates, San Diego, CA

Join me for an awesome Pilates Mat class. Clients and instructors are welcome. Register here.

Saturday April 15, 2017 Studio Flo Pilates, San Diego, CA

I hope you'll join me for a workshop based on my most popular post,  On the Order of the Reformer Exercises presented for the first time in San Diego! Register here or contact Jennie Groom for more information.

Wanna experience the blog live and in person?

Here’s a bit of what’s cooking for 2017:

Thursday – Sunday May 11-14, 2017 Equinox, London UK

Contact Jayne O’Brien for more info and to register.

Friday – Sunday September 22-24, 2017 Pilates Mödling, Mödling, Vienna 

Join me in Mödling just 20 minutes from the capital city of Vienna. This event is jam packed and not to be missed! I’ll be offering lessons, mat classes and workshops. Workshops include: The Teaser: The Truth will PrevailOn the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises and 3 Chairs + 3 Barrels = 2-way Stretch and On the Order of the Pilates Reformer Exercises.

Contact Andrea Seipel for more info and to register.

Saturday + Sunday October 7-8 2017 Everybody Pilates, Portsmouth UK

Contact Amy Kellow for more information.

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  1. Interesting post thank you. It is something so many struggle with in Pilates but maybe we are over thinking it?! When I was first learning pilates, every exercise had to be on the inhale or exhale in the right bit of the exercise (eg on footwork inhale to lengthen, exhale to return). As a teacher, I’m not as strict with this idea. But where does lateral breathing come into this? I was always taught that this was how we should breathe in every exercise.

    I love the way my journey with Pilates twists and turns like the exercises! I am always learning and experimenting with this!

    • Hi Clare:)

      Yes I think you said it best – we are overthinking it. The more I learn about Pilates I feel there exists within it such a simplicity and economy of thought and movement. When people speak of ‘lateral’ breathing I feel this is a further description of the depth of our lung capacity. Filling up the lungs 3 dimensionally. But again this is tiptoeing into thinky thinky land… But I will say one more thing…
      In the Hundred for example, as you do the exercise and look into your stomach – you may see the abs go in and out as you breathe. You should not, it is possible to hold in the stomach and inhale and exhale – however, if you can feel the inhale happens into the Mat expanding the back of the lungs it may help to keep the stomach in. Ok, now I will stop talking ha ha

  2. Excellent Andrea! totally agree!
    Always is a pleasure to see you in your post and learn every time that I see you. And we are all unique and learning from our own bodies and experience. We just need to try and see what is happening.

    I did the experiment and feeling the difference already. And of course the breathing over all is the most important. Big thanks for your post that always helping me more and more! as a teacher and always student! Sending big hugs. Going to LA February 18 Hope to see you lovely Andrea,

    xxxx Luz

    • Hi Luz!

      Thank you so much for your kind words on the blog. Always appreciated. So glad you find the posts to be helpful 🙂

      And yay! I will be at Jay’s February workshops too – so I will see you there. I will be working in the Vintage studio on Monday the 20th as well. Safe travel and I am glad we’ll get to hug it out very soon – xox

  3. Alessandra says

    Hey there! Thanks for a really useful post! Great to have the ‘breathing debate ‘ demystified!!
    Makes perfect sense… Of course ???? I too, like Clare above, was originally taught complicated breathing patterns, which I became so intent on following , that I forgot the main purpose of the exercise! Eeek! ???? I also find it confuses most clients, so I now don’t really use them, unless I think it’s useful.
    i was also told to inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth…wonder where that came from? Breathing….such a complex topic!! Or is it? ???? But sooo important!
    Great footwork tips too!! Now looking for alignment in the legs… Can be tricky..Thank you Andrea! #pilatesgeeksunite #rockon Andrea xoxo

    • Hey Alessandra, glad it’s not just me who found the whole breathing thing confusing! 🙂
      I think inhaling through the nose is so that the nostrils can filter out particles we don’t want to breathe in which is why we have tiny hairs in our nose.

      • Alessandra says

        Hey Clare! Yes, I think you’re right about the nose filtering the air…I was wondering more about why I was taught to exhale through my mouth, when it seems the original method was breathing in and out through your nose…. I find I sometimes control the airflow better if I exhale through my nose….is there a right or wrong here I wonder? Andrea can you shed any light (or air????) here please? …

        • Yes exactly – you have greater control (hmmm maybe there is a clue already) and can “direct” your air better – hard to be clear about my meaning. I find I can connect my exhale and direct it to deepen my connection into the stomach in the Hundred for example when I exhale through the nose. It is a help rather than something diffuse or extra… does that make sense?

          • Alessandra says

            Yes this makes total sense!! I used to practice Ashtanga yoga and still find their ‘ujjayi’ breath a great technique… Breathing in and out through the nose to create heat in the body….sounds familiar?? ????

          • Oh yes it does – I had forgotten that bit… very familiar…

      • Ooh that’s a good point as well. Thanks for that 🙂

    • Alessandra,

      Yes clients do get all bunched up about breathing I agree. Romana used to say that the nose is for breathing and the mouth for eating (and kissing I think) but inhaling in and out through the nose has a heating up effect on the body. When you exhale through the mouth it cools the body and can create throat tension if it is noisy. There are many breathing schools of thought in the Pilates universe, but the inhale/exhale through the nose and silent breathing works for me and is my preference for people I teach. Thanks as always for being awesome! xox

      • Alessandra says

        Ha ha!! Love that Romana???? I totally agree (again!) about quiet vs noisy breathing!! It really can create all sorts of unwanted tension in the body and can be very distracting!! I too, encourage quieter breath but above all, just get people to breathe! Sometimes they seem to forget!! Eeek!! More recently I’ve noticed that when the breath comes easily and naturally movement becomes much more flowing and the connection to centre in much stronger….ok now I’m going to stop writing????
        Love these chats…. You’re all awesome too!! ???? #unitedinjoswork

        • yes – I have been noticing that the body does visibly have more ease as the breath calms and quiets…it almost radiates a relaxation through the body, you are so right. This has been a lovely chat here today, thanks for that hashtag too #unitedinjoeswork xox

  4. Love this post! It’s amazing also how when we focus on breath, tension and stress flows out of the body. When teaching the short box series today on the reformer, my client made a connection between the power of her breath to help drop the shoulders and gain length in the spine.

    • Hi Donna,

      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here – and I thank you for your kind words on my post. Happy to have you here 🙂
      Have a great Pilates week!

  5. Hi, I know that this post was written a long time ago, anyway I was wondering for a while, what are the benefits of exhaling through the mouth? why in Pilates that’s the method of breathing, in oppose to Yoga, that encourages exhaling through the nose?
    what is the difference, and what is the importance of breathing out through the mouth in Pilates?
    Thanks a lot,
    Naama – a beginner Pilates instructor

    • Hi Naama,

      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts and questions here. Welcome 🙂

      I’ve just reread the post and your question is a great one that I touched on but did not address as specifically as I will here.

      In the Pilates Method – and my training – the goal is to be able to have steady even breathing free of any undue tension. If possible you should actually inhale and exhale through the nose rather than the mouth. Other methods of fitness – and even some Pilates training – do promote an exhale through the mouth.

      And at the beginning of your Pilates career as a client or practitioner, exhaling through the mouth is okay. It is considered more challenging to exhale through the nose as you can direct your exhale more deeply into the action of the stomach. So it does increase the engagement and therefore the difficulty of the exercises to breathe in this manner – in through the nose and out through the nose. But that is the goal. And not everyone we teach will be able to do this at first – especially if they are used to breathing differently in other modalities or have congestion, etc…

      The other reason for the exhale through the nose is that in Pilates we are looking to heat up the body – especially for example in the Hundred as it is our warm up. Exhaling through the mouth actually has a cooling action on the body, whereas the body stays warm when exhaling through the nose.

      I hope this helps to clarify – and thank you again for the wonderful question to add here on the post.
      Best of luck to you with your Pilates career and I hope you’ll join us here again sometime.
      Cheers to you!

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