How to Use Lateral Breathing in Pilates Exercises

Woman with a hand on her heart and stomach taking a deep breath
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In Pilates, we learn several breathing techniques but one method is emphasized over all others, lateral breathing. All exercisers should breathe fully, taking advantage of every breath cycle to draw in lots of fresh air and subsequently rid the lungs of every bit of stale air. The goal is to oxygenate the blood, increase the overall circulation, and experience the rejuvenating sensation that a full, deep breath delivers. As one of the six original Pilates principles, the breath is a foundation of Pilates movement. We frequently coordinate our exercises with inhale and exhale pattern and use the breath to initiate and support movement. Learning the specific lateral breathing technique will not only establish good form for beginners but also enhance and improve results for more advanced-level practitioners.

Pilates is well known as a multi-tasking exercise method and learning lateral breathing will be no different. Keeping the abdominal muscles pulled inward and upward and also taking a great big inhale at the same time can feel like an exercise in advanced coordination. But that's exactly what will happen and you'll be an expert in no time at all.

What Not to Do

Here's the way you may be breathing in the course of an ordinary day. Place your hands on your low belly. Take a deep breath and let your abdominals expand outward into your hands. Now exhale and empty the air watching your hands draw into the waist. Take a few more breaths just to feel the natural rise and fall of the belly. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this breathing pattern, but now that you've reviewed a normal regular style of breath control, let's move on to the lateral breathing technique.

What to Do

In this technique, we draw the breath upward and out of the low belly and focus on redirecting the breath into the back of the body and the sides of the ribcage. Move your hands from the low belly in the prior exercise to the sides of the body around the rib cage for this next exercise. Take a deep breath into the sides and back of the body. Remember that your lungs sit inside your torso and your ribs can expand with each breath. Feel your ribs pushing your hands outward as you inhale. On the exhale your ribs will contract and the hands will draw back towards each other. Repeat this breathing pattern several times until you feel the ribs expanding and contracting.

Add the Abs and a Band

When the abs are pulled in properly, they protect the spine and act like a supportive corset for the whole trunk. Knowing how to breathe well while keeping the abs contracted gives us extra support throughout an exercise. As you practice lateral breathing, you will find that you are able to perform Pilates exercises with greater ease. It helps make the scoop of abs easier and enhances the sense of lengthening the spine with the breath.

This exercise will help you feel the lateral expansion of the ribcage with the breath:

  1. Wrap about 3 feet of exercise band around the lower part of your ribcage. You can also use a length of elastic or just wrap your hands around your ribcage.
  2. Hold the band closed in front of your chest.
  3. Inhale: Let the breath travel down your spine and expand into your back and sides so you feel the band is stretched, side and back, by your breath.
  4. Exhale: Actively draw the ribs towards each other as you slowly let the breath out.

While lateral breathing is the technique to use when you want to keep your abs in during an inhale, we are talking about training the abs here. We don't want to have our abs contracted all the time. Diaphragmatic breathing, with a natural extension of the belly on an inhale, is still the healthiest way to breathe regularly. Adding lateral breath to your diaphragmatic breathing will increase your overall breathing capacity.

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