Every Breath Your Client Takes: Programming For A Better Breath Pattern

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average person takes between 17, 280 and 23, 040 breaths per day. Something to think about as Pilates instructors because not only is it a Pilates principle that we’re constantly cueing, it is perhaps the only one that clients will do (efficiently or otherwise!) without any cues at all. If they’re in the Pilates space, they’re breathing!

Recently, in order to take the cueing and use of this principle a little deeper for both my clients and myself, I’ve tried to adapt it based on how connected each client is to their breath pattern. Unsurprisingly, and yet something we perhaps don’t pay enough attention to, I’ve found that;

A) Everyone uses their breath differently from everyone else,

B) Every workout brings a different breath connection

and perhaps, most crucial for us as Pilates instructors,

C) Nobody recruits the same breathing technique for their entire Pilates workout. Nor should they.

As Pilates instructors, it’s important that we are able to explain and cue the breathing pattern in an effective way. But programming and exercise selection can also provide clients with a greater connection to the breathing principle.

When your client begins a session, take a bit of time in the position you’re starting them in, whether it is standing, lying supine, lying prone, kneeling or sitting, and observe where their breath is being distributed. What we’re looking for is an easy, natural non-exaggerated manner that expands the ribcage to the sides and back. But often, what we get is a shallower breath or one that I often describe as ‘breathing that starts in the throat”. In this instance, it’s often best to get them moving through easy, supported movement patterns that emphasize mobilization of the spine (think: Spine Stretch Forward from the wall or  Side Lying Spinal Rotation with Arm Circles) to begin with a more effective, relaxing and breath awareness approach.

If your client has a consistently solid connection into their breath during their Pilates workout, how can an even greater connection be made? Conversely, if a new client is obsessing on their breath to a point where nothing else is given attention, how do you keep it simple yet effective?

In my experience, both types of clients can often find a better breath connection by the types of exercises that are added in rather than cues and corrections that can often lose their meaning and value.

For a client that can connect well into their breath and has no other issues that need to be considered, their workout may alternate between segments that emphasize stability and segments that highlight mobility. By challenging clients with endurance and load vs. proprioception and coordination, we’re demanding that they connect with a breath that can be effectively transferred from one demanding component to another. (think: Short Spine and/or Up Stretch on the Reformer followed by Leg Pull on the Mat and/or Elephant Flat Back on the Stability Chair).

However for a newer client, the Pilates breathing principle can often be an overwhelming or frustrating part of their workout. They may over focus on their breath and lose sight of the other components in the workout. By starting clients’ workouts in safe and simple yet challenging positions, instead of lying passively, you may find a more rewarding way to help them connect into a stronger breath pattern.

For example, lying supine to begin a workout is often not the easiest way to connect into the breath and core muscles. Why not try them standing (think: Lat Pull Standing with Push Thru Bar on the Cadillac)? Or perhaps 4 point kneeling (think: Leg Pull Front Prep or Swimming Prep Kneeling on the Mat)? For a client with a few more sessions under their belt, try Bend & Stretch on the Reformer and get them to imagine using their exhale to press the carriage away from their feet (rather than the more traditional cue of straightening the legs away from the body on the exhale).

Thinking about the breath as it pertains to the exercise is a great way to deepen a client’s connection into it and help them to understand that the breath can, and should, change based on the purpose of the exercise. But flip this around so that you’re making exercise choices as they pertain to the type of breath pattern you’re trying to encourage and you have another great and substantial approach to programming for clients. Have fun!