The answer is “Yes”.
The question is one of my unfavourites, in a Pilates context – “What’s the breathing for (insert exercise name here)?” The answer is most definitely, “yes (you do need to breathe)”.
Of course, Breathing was one of Joseph Pilates’ fundamentals for his method. Attention to one’s breath can foster greater mind-body connection, and sense of ‘centre’ (presentness, if you will). And it’s also true that there may be a specific breathing pattern that will facilitate some movements, especially during the warm-up phase of a class. Equally, teaching someone ‘posterolateral costal breathing’ may encourage more mobility in their thoracic spine, and allow for greater control of lumbar spine stability. Undoubtedly valuable assets in Pilates, and life generally. Not to mention that breath focus can be a powerful tool for relaxation. I like it if I’m having trouble sleeping – hopefully it’s a given that sleeping and a Pilates class are not complementary activities.
So, to clarify, I’m not trying to suggest that breathing should never be mentioned in a Pilates class. There are plenty of arguments for referring to it, especially in the early stages of a class.
My frustration arises when focus on breathing starts to hinder movement – because Pilates is fundamentally a movement discipline. I’ve seen many instances (back when I used to cue breathing patterns a lot) of people that were new to Pilates paralysed by confusion over when they’re ‘supposed’ to breathe. I’ve also seen teachers in training practicing what should be flowing movements, on the equipment, but stuck in space whilst they take the time to breathe in, so that they could then do the next part of the movement on an exhalation (because that’s how you’re ‘supposed’ to breathe…)
Again, I can think of good reasons for mentioning breathing during a Pilates class. When I first started teaching, cueing breathing was like a mantra that helped me remember the choreography of some exercises (Now I imagine that I can suggest a harmonious rhythm of movement and breath by the tone of my voice). Some people may need reminders to breathe in order not to grip and brace; other reasons I’ve mentioned above. All well and good in their place.
I’ve heard from teachers, who’ve trained with first generation teachers, that Pilates himself was only specific about breathing patterns with a couple of exercises, and otherwise simply wanted people to inhale and exhale fully. He surely wouldn’t have wanted anyone to focus on breathing to a particular prescription at the expense of enjoying the movement. If I try to rank the things that I believe are fundamental to Pilates, shortly after movement comes personal responsibility – and here’s my other beef with constant cueing of breathing: the more control the teacher assumes, the less their clients are likely to feel responsible for their own well-being. If the impression is created that particular movements have to be accompanied by particular breathing, will people be able to remain robust in situations that don’t allow time to consider when to breathe?
Photograph: Kerry Skarbakka/Barcroft Media
“Damn, should I land on an in-breath, or an out-breath?”
Many different people have tried to find their own niche in the world of Pilates, fusing with, or adding elements of other disciplines; or perhaps trying to make their classes specific preparation for another sport, or activity. (Yes, I have seen ‘bikinilates’ advertised). I think this may be missing the point, but more of that later.
There are also signs that some teachers feel that Pilates is not enough in itself – that it needs to lead to something more – and I’d number myself amongst them. One of my teachers and trainers early in my Pilates career, James d’Silva, has created the Garuda Method, which was advertised at one stage along the lines of “where Pilates ends Garuda begins”. (One might debate the idea of Pilates ‘ending’ somewhere, I can imagine some sticklers for tradition and the original work rejecting the idea wholesale.) For me, CrossFit begins, not where Pilates ends, but overlapping, and happily coexisting. Perhaps this is the time to answer the ‘What is Crossfit?’ question.
The answer is: “Constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement.” (…”Functional movements are universal motor recruitment patterns; they are performed in a wave of contraction from core to extremity; and they are compound movements -i.e. they are multi-joint.”), from ‘Understanding CrossFit’ by Greg Glassman.
Greg Glassman is the creator of CrossFit and, like Joseph Pilates, a maverick figure with a solid conviction that what he is doing is valuable and should be disseminated as widely as possible. The strongest link that appears to me between the two disciplines is in the intended outcome. My understanding has always been (though I can’t find it in either of Pilates’ books, I’ve heard it from first generation teachers) that Pilates’ intention, after years of practicing a variety of different disciplines, was to create an exercise program that was non-specific. In other words, his exercises were for overall fitness, in readiness for whatever challenges life may bring. More recently the concept of GPP – general physical preparedness – has emerged, and this is central to CrossFit methodology. One trains a wide variety of activities in order to be prepared for as wide a variety of potential challenges as possible. Glassman seems to be fond of the idea of preparation, in as much as one can, for the “unknown and unknowable”.
I cannot think of a single Pilates exercise that works a joint or muscle in isolation, and the idea of a “wave of contraction from core to extremity” sounds exactly like Pilates. Joseph’s own principles for his method were: breathing; whole body movement; and whole body commitment. I haven’t come across anything in writings about CrossFit specifically related to breathing, but it is very much to do with whole body movement, and total commitment. In a divergence of the two methods, Pilates prescribed his exercises lying or sitting to “relieve your heart from undue strain” (from ‘Return to Life‘). This is one of the areas that leaves some of us feeling that Pilates alone is not enough, and CrossFit workouts certainly put significant strain on the cardiovascular system. (Whilst I think the tired “no pain, no gain” slogan is a crass one, I believe it’s true to say that you can’t have adaptation without stress.) In this context CrossFit also profoundly effects breathing, and full use of lung capacity. Anyone who has tried high intensity exercise will most likely be aware that breathing to full capacity doesn’t require cueing…
The video is self-explanatory, if you jump straight to 3:20 you’ll see how well her lungs are functioning. (In case anyone is concerned, the video above is of an elite athlete performing at an advanced level. This does not represent the kind of work that beginners would be asked to do.)
Many Pilates exercises involve maintaining a stable trunk (spine) whilst moving arms and/or legs. Typically the weight of the limbs and their movement act as a challenge to that stable trunk position. Similarly, one of the fundamentals of many CrossFit movements is ‘midline stabilisation’ – the idea that, particularly under load, you keep your trunk stiff, and move from your hip and shoulder joints. The only difference between the two is that Pilates doesn’t add load to the same degree. Had he been faced with current levels of osteoporosis, for instance, who’s to say that Joseph wouldn’t have favoured picking some weight up?
Another element that CrossFit and Pilates share is an emphasis on precision. Sadly, if you make only a cursory search of the internet, you will find plenty of alarm expressed over the dangerous nature of some CrossFit workouts – and, indeed, plenty of YouTube video clips of people doing very demanding movements with eye-wateringly poor form. Just like so many articles about Pilates being bad for you, I don’t believe that this is a reflection of CrossFit, but one of either poor coaching, or simply poor performance. Just as Pilates insisted on his exercises being done with precision, both videos of training seminars, and conversations with Crossfit luminaries make it clear that ‘Form is everything’. In fact, one of the particularly interesting challenges for me is that CrossFit workouts ask questions along the lines of: ‘We know that you can lift that heavy barbell off the floor with good form, now can you do that multiple times, quickly, with good form? And how about keeping your form and doing that when you’re gasping for breath because you’ve just been doing another challenging movement at speed?’
Rich Froning – ‘Fittest Man on Earth’
Joseph Pilates – tattooed health visionary
What else is there to lead me to the conclusion that Joseph Pilates would have embraced CrossFit? Followers of both methods will attest to the remarkable transformations in body composition, energy levels and overall well-being that are there for the taking. He didn’t seem to be interested in great analysis of his method: one of my favourite Pilates quotes (as recounted by Ron Fletcher) is, in response to a question about the purpose of an exercise, “It’s for the body!”. CrossFit celebrates becoming faster, stronger, more agile – and does not dwell on the exact mix of muscles required. Perhaps most significantly Joseph, tattooed as he was, would have fit right in with a great number of CrossFitters, for whom ‘ink’ seems de rigeur.
I’m convinced that Joseph would have been involved in a movement like CrossFit, had he the chance. The truth is, while I couldn’t bring myself to give the post this heading, I believe (with apologies) that ‘CrossFit is the new Pilates’.