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Home » Resources » Health » Pilates Breathing Exercises for Upper Body Relaxation

Pilates Breathing Exercises for Upper Body Relaxation


by Eva Stern, Member of Local 134 (Jamestown, NY), Violist with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Teacher of Pilates and Movement for Musicians

If you’re reading this article, then good news—you’re breathing! However, it’s a common thing for many of us to breathe shallowly, and even periodically hold our breath, as we move through our day. As musicians, this can lead to physical tension, diminished sound production, and heaviness of the arms, and can also exacerbate repetitive strain. Happily, the knowledge of a few breathing concepts that we use in Pilates can make a big difference in how we play and perform.

All musicians to some degree are holding a frame in their bodies to facilitate holding their instrument. Bracing our muscles to hold this frame can constrict the breath and bring tension to the upper body. While the following concepts and exercises can benefit anyone, they are especially useful for musicians who bear the distinction of being able to hold our breaths while we play (as a violist, I know!). 

One of the most profound things that has changed for me since studying to become a Pilates teacher is my understanding of our bodies as pliable and elastic. This idea is particularly useful when it comes to breathing for upper body relaxation, and I suggest you keep it in mind when performing these exercises.

Belly Breathing

This can be done seated, standing, or lying on your back. Place your hands on your abdomen. Breathe in through your nose and allow your belly to rise without forcing. Imagine your abdomen as a balloon that gently stretches on the inhale and sinks inward toward the spine on the exhale.

It can also be helpful in this exercise to visualize the movement of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that attaches to the inside of the lower part of the ribcage in the front and the spine in the back. On the inhale, the diaphragm descends, allowing more air into the lungs. On the exhale, the diaphragm rises, creating room for the abdomen to hollow inward. Visualizing this while breathing lowers our center of gravity and lessens the feeling of work and strain in the upper body.

Rib Breathing

The purpose of this exercise is to bring greater movement and awareness to your ribcage. Rather than allowing the belly to rise and fall, the movement in this exercise is focused on the ribs.

Place your hands on the sides of your ribcage. Tension your belly by gently pulling your navel in toward your spine. Keeping your belly in, inhale and allow your ribs to expand outwards like a bellows, sending your hands apart. On the exhale, the ribcage will narrow, bringing the hands closer together. Think of space between ribs as elastic. Repeat this for several breath cycles. If your belly gets tired, go back to normal breathing for a few breaths.

The shoulder girdle (which consists of the collar bones and the shoulder blades) rests on top of the ribcage. I like to imagine it as marching band epaulettes. When the ribcage is flexible, pliable, and springy, the shoulder girdle can settle onto the ribcage in a way that allows the muscles of the shoulders to relax. Many of us are tighter on one side of our ribcage than the other. This exercise is a wonderful way of discovering where there might be tightness in your own ribcage. It’s amazing how much you can alleviate this just through breathing.

Side Bend Breathing

Either seated or standing, bend to one side. Imagine the space between ribs gently stretching like fabric. Hold this position for a few breath cycles, breathing into the open side of your ribcage. Feel lifted on the side that you are bending toward. If you happen to have a slinky handy, bend it to the side—imagine your ribs to be doing that.

Arm Raises

Seated or standing, take your arms to the side of your body like the letter “A”. On the inhale, raise your arms above your head, expanding the space between the ribs like a slinky. Think of the inhale floating the arms upward. On the exhale, flip your palms outward and lower them back to your side. See if you can keep your ribs stacked when you lower your arms, without collapsing. This is a wonderful way of coordinating the breath with the movement of the arms.

These exercises are portable and can be done just about any time, anywhere. They are beneficial as a warmup before playing or as a cool-down to release tension afterward. The benefits of these exercises are cumulative. I encourage you to incorporate them into your life—you might be surprised by how much better you feel!

For more information about Pilates for Musicians, including video tutorials, visit

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