Breathe to Move, Move to Breathe: A Conversation With Gina De Soto About Pilates and Breath

Every meditative practice done today has one thing in common: breath. Whether it’s yoga, tai chi, or simple seated meditation, the primary vehicle of calming our minds is focusing on our breathing and letting the rest go.

We don’t think it’s a coincidence that Joseph Pilates named breathing as one of the main tenets of his movement method. He’s known for emphasizing breathing in creative and colorful ways, saying that “Lazy breathing converts the lungs...into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying, and dead germs….” It’s a touch dramatic, but not necessarily wrong.

Since Joseph grew up suffering from many ailments including asthma, it makes sense that he’d find such profound power in learning to breathe fully. But even those with a perfect immune system can benefit from breathing correctly.

Ideally, every exercise we do in Pilates is initiated by breath. Rather than trying to “breathe through” a difficult exercise, we’re to use breath to start, sustain, and complete the exercise. It’s a subtle difference, and one you could easily overlook for years, but it makes a significant impact when applied correctly. Sometimes it requires changing the way you’ve done an exercise since day one.

The classic 100’s exercise is a perfect example. In my training, I was taught to keep the abdominals drawn in the entire time. To allow space for an inhale during a sustained exercise like the 100’s, I was taught to breathe into my ribcage, then engage the abdominals even more on the exhale. I asked Gina how she’d balance breath and abdominal engagement in that case.  

“In the specific instance of the exercise the 100’s, you’re in a flexed position of your entire spinal column. Because we are all different and have unique bodies, it may unfair to ask someone to be in this position and try to keep their belly ‘flat’, she said. “If I’m trying to keep my stomach constantly pulled in during this exercise I could potentially be restricting my breathing.”  Gina points out that by not allowing our belly to expand on an inhale, we’re not able to inhale fully. “The truth is...if one of the goals of Pilates is to learn how to breath more fully and more freely, I need to experiment and practice a variety of different breathing techniques and styles; ideally in various positions in gravity and during all different types of movements.”

Functionally, a lot is happening as you breathe. On the inhale, your lungs fill with air, your ribcage expands in every direction, and your diaphragm drops down towards your pelvic floor (which also drops). All of this takes up space in the abdomen and pushes the abdominal wall out. On an exhale, the diaphragm lifts, pushing the air out of your lungs. This allows your ribs to relax and your abdominals to re-engage.

In order to really embody the freedom of breathing Gina describes, we need to expand our definition of our “core” to include not just our abdominals, but also the muscles of our pelvic floor, spinal support system, and back. If we think of our core as an entire network of muscles, that all participate as we do the 100’s, we should be able to take a deep inhale and exhale without losing our form completely, regardless of what our abs “look” like during the exercise. Our muscles can sustain our position as we inhale, and our abdominals can engage when they need to.

“All of us were taught that it’s not attractive to have our belly pooched out or that we’re always supposed to be engaging our core,” Gina said. But core engagement doesn’t always look like pulling your navel in towards your spine. Our abdominals are often working for us — that’s how we’re able to stand up and walk or bend down to pick something up. Without them, we’d fall over. We want pliable abdominals that can fully contract AND fully release.” Allowing ourselves to relax our abs and take a full inhale [allows] us to increase our lung capacity, clear out the “dead air,” and achieve the full, unrestricted movement that’s possible when we breathe.

We know that can sound overwhelming, and that’s precisely why Gina is offers a breathing workshop. In it, she teaches several different breathing techniques and provides imagery to help people understand how their body moves as they breathe. She then pairs these various kinds of breathing techniques with Pilates mat exercises so students can apply what they’ve learned while moving.

One of the techniques described mentioned (in which the abdominals are relaxed completely on the inhale) can be practiced by an exercise Gina recommends called “Pregnant Cat”. This exercise was created by Master Pilates Teacher Kathleen Stanford Grant, and she was very fond of cat-like exercises.

To do the exercise...

Set yourself up as if you’re about to do a cat / cow, on your knees and palms. Make sure your wrists are underneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Find the natural curves of your spine. On your inhale, allow your belly to completely release and distend (hence the “pregnant cat”), while you fill up your body with breath. On your exhale, draw your abdominals in (the cat is no longer pregnant).

*The most important part of this exercise is staying in a neutral position of your spine throughout the exercise. You want to feel that your belly is moving in and out because you allow it to be pliable and change as you breathe—not because you are maneuvering your spine.

Ali Weeks