I’ve been fielding lots of questions about breathing lately – specifically about the differences between the way we breathe in yoga vs pilates, and why.
Pilates and Yoga are two deeply loved practices that approach breathing in different ways. As we explore WHY this is, it will help to keep in mind that the goals of yoga and pilates are very different. PILATES is renowned for its transformative impact on strength, flexibility and posture, pairing precise movements with thoracic (rib cage) breathing. YOGA is an ancient practice that includes a mind-boggling array of pranayama techniques (breath-centered practices) that serve to nurture mental clarity, spiritual connection and meditative states.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that both pilates and yoga offer more than one way to breathe. So when we talk about ‘pilates breathing’ or ‘yoga breathing’ as if there’s just one way to do each, it’s a massive oversimplification. But to keep this conversation manageable, we’re going to compare breathing in yoga vs pilates in terms of which area of the torso you breathe into and why.
BREATHING 'CORRECTLY'. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
Your pilates teacher tells you to breathe into your ribcage and your yoga teacher tells you to breathe into your belly. And they both tell you their way is the 'correct' way to breathe. Who should you believe? Consider that one of the major aims of pilates is for you to strengthen and stabilize your core and the aim of yoga is to quiet and calm your mind. The breath your teacher is telling you to use is likely the correct breath for that particular aim in that particular moment … but not for every situation for the rest of time.
To understand this better, let’s look at the idea of ‘Zones of Respiration’, a concept I learned from my Yoga Tune Up® teacher, Jill Miller. When you breathe into different regions of your torso, it has different effects on your muscles, your physiology and your nervous system. Understanding this concept can help you determine which breath is the 'correct' breath for any situation.
This graphic illustrates the what happens to your mental state when you breathe into different parts of your torso.
Let's break this down in a little more detail.
This isn’t a breathing style that people generally use on purpose. It’s some that happens to you when you feel threatened, stressed or panicked. Though you can breathe this way on purpose and induce a state of panic or anxiety, but why would you want to do that!? Clavicular breathing under-utilizes the muscles designed for respiration (like your diaphragm and intercostals) and over-uses neck and shoulder muscles. It’s also just a very inefficient way to breathe. Consider the clavicular zone of respiration a NO GO zone. If you’re a habitual clavicular breather, this is something you should address.
Also frequently referred to as ribcage or chest breathing. Pilates and yoga both encourage breathing in the Thoracic Zone. When you breathe into the ribcage, it can be helpful to picture your ribs moving like an umbrella opening and closing. On inhalation, all sides lift and spread away from your midline (umbrella opening) and all sides of the rib cage draw in and down on exhalation (like an umbrella closing). Additionally, breathing this way:
In the context of Pilates, thoracic breathing makes a lot of sense. If you engage your abdominal muscles, which Pilates asks you to do throughout the practice, you can't really belly breathe. In order to belly breathe, your abdominal muscles need to be soft & relaxed so they can swell as you inhale. Try to engage your abdominals and swell your belly at the same time. You can't do it! Yoga also incorporates a style of thoracic breathing called Ujjayi (Victorious breath) during vigorous styles of yoga, like Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow. These practices take you through lots of planks, chaturangas, step-throughs and jump-throughs for which you absolutely need your ab muscles engaged. Turning your abdominal muscles OFF so you can belly breathe doesn't make sense in a physical practice centered around strength and stability.
Here’s a fabulous thoracic breathing tutorial with Pilates teacher, Amy Havens
Here's an Ujjayi breathing tutorial with Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Kino McGregor
3 More Benefits of Breathing Thoracically in Pilates and Yoga
Also known as belly breathing. This form of breathing is often used in yogic relaxation practices. Part of relaxation is relaxing your abdominals, and when the abs are relaxed they can swell on inhalation. This style of breath:
Deep, intentional breathing is instructed in yoga because it calms and soothes the nervous system and prepares the mind for meditative states.
Here’s a video that guides you through belly breathing
There are lots of variations on Abdominal-Thoracic breathing in the yoga tradition. They combine the energizing effect of thoracic breathing with the relaxing effect of abdominal breathing, to leave you feeling calm, but alert.
Here’s my teacher, Jill Miller, instructing Abdominal-Thoracic breathing
And here's another variation on this breath called Dirgha Pranayama, taught by Kripalu Yoga teacher, Larissa Hall Carlson
BREATHING CORRECTLY, YOGA VS PILATES
So, what's the 'correct' way to breathe? It depends on what your goal is! Pilates and Yoga both offer valuable insights into the art of breathing. Rather than searching for a single ‘right’ way to breathe, we can acknowledge that each practice offers a unique set of tools that achieve distinct effects on the body and mind. The ‘correct’ breathing technique is the one that aligns with your goals, intentions and preferences. Why not embrace the complete buffet of breathing styles? Use the breathing practices that guide you towards harmony and balance.
Pilates is really having a moment right now -and when a fitness trend is HOT, the internet gets busy churning out buzzwords and bold promises. As a body nerd, kinesiologist, and card-carrying skeptic, I tend to approach any strong fitness claim with curiosity and questions. Lots of questions. The internet really doesn't make it easy to separate fitness facts from fiction. So, when folks started asking me to weigh in about how they can expect pilates to transform their bodies, I went into full geek mode, jumped down the research rabbit hole, and got you all some answers.
Grab a comfy seat and put on your logic cap – cuz we’re about to take a trip through the world of fitness fallacies, and get real about pilates' potential to transform your body.
Ready? Let’s go.
Myth #1: ‘In 30 sessions you will have a whole new body.’
This quote is attributed to Joseph Pilates, the creator of Pilates himself. He is famously known for saying: ‘In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you will see the difference, and in 30 sessions you will have a whole new body.” This statement is frequently cited in pilates marketing to get people excited about getting fit and to highlight the transformative potential of a Pilates practice. But is it true?
As far as experiencing a ‘whole new body’ in 30 sessions goes, think of this as more of an aspirational claim than a scientific one. No exercise system can give you a whole new body. While there are definitely some things you can change about your body, other things you cannot. We’ll dive deeper into this idea in a moment. Let’s assume this statement is meant to get pilates students excited about creating a dedicated practice, and reaping the rewards - of which there are many.
An exercise system can create significant improvements in your physical health, strength, flexibility and overall well-being – but it can’t give you a ‘whole new body’ in the sense of fundamentally transforming your anatomy. Here’s why:
It’s also worth noting that some people may have pre-existing conditions or limitations that affect what they can realistically expect to transform through exercise. And keep in mind that results of pilates practice will not only vary based on individual differences, but on other factors too. Like, how frequently you practice and what kind of pilates you’re doing (HIIT or Classical or Physio Pilates), etc.
Keeping Expectations Real
Here’s what the science suggests pilates CAN reliably deliver:
That’s a nice looking list of perks! So, even if Pilates can’t grant you a whole new body, it can still be a game-changer for you. You’ll be rocking improved fitness, your mental health will get a boost. You might feel stronger or like you’re standing taller or notice you’re feeling more fabulous in general. Those are all clear signs that something good is happening. Keep going!
Ultimately, the goal of Pilates, and any form of exercise, should be to improve your overall health, strength and well-being, though many people come to pilates in search of a specific aesthetic ideal. Which brings me to the next myth.
Myth #2: Pilates Gives You Longer, Leaner Muscles
Pilates people come in all different shapes and sizes. Though social media might have you thinking that pilates will make you look like a professional ballerina. It won’t. Many women come to pilates because fitness marketing has told them pilates will give them ‘long, lean muscles’ and that pilates is a great way to get strong without getting ‘bulky’ in the process. This idea is so pervasive, it’s accepted as fact and it’s frequently repeated by fitness professionals. Is it true? Nope. Here’s why:
The phrase ‘longer and leaner’ muscles is scientifically imprecise and very misleading. Pilates can’t give you longer, leaner muscles. No exercise system can.
Muscles have attachment sites on bones, a point of origin (where they start) and a point of insertion (where they end). These are fixed points. No matter how much you exercise or stretch a muscle, you can’t change where it inserts on a bone. Given that we can’t change where a muscle begins and ends, we can’t make it longer.
This image was modified and made from content published in a BodyParts3D/Anatomography web site. The content of their website is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.1 Japan license. The author and licenser of the contents is "BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan."
You also can’t make a muscle ‘leaner’ by exercising it. Muscle is, by definition, ‘lean’ tissue. Exercising doesn't make it leaner. You can look leaner by changing your body composition - that’s your ratio of muscle to fatty tissue. When you reduce body fat, the muscles beneath your fatty layer become more visible. You can also grow larger muscles with resistance training. This combo of reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass makes you thinner and makes your muscles more visible, which makes you appear longer and leaner. However, your muscles are the same length they always were.
If one of your exercise goals is to look longer and leaner, and it’s not happening for you, it’s likely because pilates alone can’t deliver on this promise. There are a number of factors that play into your body composition, including gender, age, nutrition, physical activity and hormones.
Research has proved time and time again that physical training and making a consistent, habitual change to your diet have the strongest influence on transforming body composition – but you may need to take other factors into consideration as well. A lot of fitness marketing omits this very important detail.
Myth #3: It's Not A Good Workout Unless I Feel Sore Afterwards
‘No pain, no gain’ is a commonly used expression in the exercise world. This probably explains why so many people use how sore they feel after a workout to gauge whether or not a workout was good. So, let’s investigate this belief.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a technical term that describes the feeling of soreness you experience in the hours and days after a workout. It’s better known by its acronym, DOMS. Typically, you get a case of DOMS after you’ve done an exercise you’re not used to or you’ve done something particularly strenuous.
The theory is that DOMS is a result of exercise-induced muscle damage. Which sounds bad, but isn’t. A little muscle damage is actually necessary to help build larger, stronger muscles. When damaged muscles repair themselves after exercise, they re-build themselves bigger and stronger than before. Once you’ve built bigger, stronger, more resilient muscles, you also become less likely to experience DOMS the next time you exercise.
This explains why when you exercise regularly, you don’t generally experience DOMS as frequently or as intensely as you did in the beginning. It also explains why DOMS may not be the best way to gauge whether or not your workouts are effective. If you wake up the day after pilates class NOT feeling sore, it might simply be because … you’re stronger than you used to be! Your body has adapted to the stress of exercise. Instead of using DOMS to measure how good your workout was, you might try gradually increasing the number of reps you do or the amount of resistance you use (try heavier springs in your next reformer pilates class or add a resistance band to your side leg series in mat class). If you can increase your resistance, that’s proof that you’ve gotten stronger!
With so much fitness (mis)information floating through cyberspace, it can be really hard to know what to believe. I hope we cleared up some confusion here. Though pilates may not grant you a whole new body, it does hold the possibility of a multitude of other benefits – from improved flexibility to reduced low back pain - and it just might be a total game-changer for you, and your physical and mental well-being.
Even if every bold claim isn’t true, you can still gain a lot from practice. Keep rocking those workouts. Celebrate your health and fitness journey. Keep your expectations real, and set some realistic goals. Here’s to stronger cores, better
mental health and bodies that move with grace and ease.
I love watching students settle into savasana at the end of yoga practice. It's a strange and beautiful thing. Usually, people get together to socialize and DO something. In yoga, we often gather together to un-DO things. Agreeing as a group to lie down, to let our guard down, to take off our social masks, to relax, to let go, and to just BE in one other’s presence, without expecting anything from ourselves or each another. In a world that's always telling us to do more, to get more, and to achieve more, there's something delightfully counter-culture about that.
Students tend to either love or loathe yoga’s restorative practices.
If you’re the sort of person that craves intense stimulation, you probably have a hard time surrendering to yoga’s softer side. You might even find it feels pointless and frustrating. When you’re a busy person with things to do, it’s easy to think you don’t have time to lie on the floor and do ‘nothing’. And you would be right – except that when you’re doing restorative work, it only looks like you’re doing nothing. Beneath the still surface of your restorative practice, there are a mind-boggling array of physiological processes taking place in support of your health and well-being. Rest is absolutely essential for long-term health, happiness and success. Prepare to be inspired, surprised and delighted by the benefits of rest.
If you’re already sold on this idea, you can just skip down to the 5 Yoga Practices for Rest, Rejuvenation and Relaxation and set yourself to maximum chill. Otherwise let's dive into
The Benefits of Rest
1) Your Body Heals and Regenerates
When you relax you turn on your body’s healing response, also known as the ‘Relaxation Response’ or Rest/Digest/Repair response. During relaxation your body directs its energy resources towards digestive functions and tissue repair. When you're stressed, on the other hand, blood is shunted away from your organs and re-directed towards your muscles to prepare you to fight or flee from danger. When your body perceives a threat or stressor (like a grizzly bear or an angry boss or being stuck in traffic) it decides that you can digest the burrito you had for lunch later while it devotes energy to getting you safely out of that stressful situation. That’s how chronic stress can affect our health and well-being - from tension headaches to high blood pressure to digestive issues.
The table above shows a sampling of the ways in which stress creates wear and tear on your body and how relaxation can helps promote health and well-being.
2) You Become a More Relaxed Human Being
Relaxation is a trainable skill that you can practice on your mat or meditation cushion and take with you into everyday life. Learning to relax yourself can help you feel more in control of your emotions and become less reactive. It can also help you deal better with anxiety, depression and sleep problems.
3) You Integrate New Learning
Your nervous system processes new learning when you rest. All those new movement skills you just learned in yoga class? You integrate and assimilate them better when you make time for rest at the end of practice. This goes for ANY movement practice; not just yoga.
4) Rest Stimulates Creativity
Relaxation stimulates activity in the right hemisphere of your brain (your left brain is the side that analyzes, calculates and deliberates). Right-brain activation is the doorway to holistic, big-picture thinking. It allows you to connect far-flung dots and think outside the box. It creates space for introspection, self-reflection, and inner clarity.
Rest allows us to tap into our creativity, generate fresh ideas, and find new perspectives by providing an opportunity for the mind to wander and explore new possibilities. It's an invitation to inspiration. Some of my students bring a journal to class with them – because they've found their best ideas come to them right after savasana. If you feel stuck in a problem that’s crying out for a creative solution, try rest!
Honouring your need for rest can enhance your creativity and help you tap into your full potential.
5) Replenish your energy reserves.
Constant activity can deplete your energy levels and lead to fatigue and burnout. Incorporating a resting practice into your life gives you a chance to recharge and rejuvenate. Nurture yourself through rest so you can replenish your physical, mental, and emotional energy, restore a sense of balance and vitality. and approach your life with renewed focus and enthusiasm.
If you’re thinking ‘all of this sounds great, but I just CAN’T relax.’
Stop right there.
You definitely CAN’T relax - if that’s your mindset.
Now, repeat after me:
“I do enough. I have enough. I am enough.”
“I allow myself to rest deeply and relax completely.”
Your ability to relax gets better with practice. Just like you have to do lots of bicep curls in order to see muscle growth, you also have to do lots of relaxation reps to get good at it. Relaxation is a trainable skill. Keep practicing. It's worth it!
Now that we’re all pumped up about calming down, let’s get into the practices.
5 Yoga Practices for Rest, Rejuvenation and Relaxation
1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is an excellent gateway into other styles of relaxation practice. It can be especially helpful for people that have a hard time recognizing what tension and relaxation feel like. For the cues to 'relax' and 'let go' to mean anything at all, you have to know how to relax and let go. PMR teaches you that. You're instructed to tense a particular muscle group, like shoulders, then to release that tension and notice how the muscles feel when they are relaxed.
There’s a two-way communication relationship between your mind and your muscles. A worried mind exerts pull on your muscles (in preparation for fight or flight), but you can trick your mind out of stress by consciously relaxing physical tension - which sends a message to your mind that it can let go too. It's brilliant in its simplicity. Also, very effective and very easy to learn.
This is a great place to start training your relaxation muscles.
2. Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Savasana is yoga’s quintessential resting pose. It involves lying down in a comfortable position and surrendering your body and mind to complete relaxation. Savasana invites you to release tension, calm your nervous system, and integrate the benefits of your yoga practice. Focus on letting go of physical and mental tension, and let yourself drift into a peaceful state of deep rest.
The video above introduces you to savasana practice.
3. Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep)
Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation/visualization practice. It involves getting into a comfortable position and following the verbal instructions of a teacher as they take you on a tour of your body, breath, sensations, emotions and mind - while you hang suspended in a state between wakefulness and sleep. Yoga Nidra promotes deep relaxation, inner awareness, restful sleep, and leaves you feeling calm, refreshed and rejuvenated.
This is one of my favourite Yoga Nidra's with Dr. Richard Miller, creator of iRest Yoga Meditation.
4. Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is a gentle practice that relaxes your body and mind with gentle stretching. If you’re chronically stressed out, you've probably noticed stiffness in your neck back, shoulders or hips. Stretching just plain feels good. It relaxes you by relieving tension and improving circulation - which help to reduce stress. Stretching also gets you out of your head and into your body, by focusing your awareness on physical sensations, rather than thoughts. Stretching also has an analgesic effect, acting like a natural painkiller. The effects are temporary, also like a painkiller.
Taking time to stretch is like hitting a mental and physical ‘refresh’ button.
Try this Yin class from my online studio.
Pranayama is a yoga practice that involves breathing in specific patterns to help quiet your mind. It's often used for relaxation, stress reduction and to improve focus.
I created this little sequence of 4 pranayamas for soothing your nervous system. Get yourself in a comfortable seat and give it a try.
Slow down. Breathe. Relax. Tune into bodily sensations. Observe with a passive state of mind. By embracing rest as an integral part of your mindfulness journey, you can experience profound transformation: gain perspective and clarity on your life, replenish your energy reserves, open up your creative potential and assist your body's natural healing potential. In other words, when you make time for rest and relaxation, you DO LIFE BETTER. That's why we need to invest in rest.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions