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.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions