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?
“Damn, should I land on an in-breath, or an out-breath?”