Effective Strategies for Stress Relief using Pilat...

Effective Strategies for Stress Relief using Pilates

When you search for Pilates benefits, the usual suspects—core strength, posture improvement, and relief from back pain—likely pop up (1).  Yet, beyond these physical gains there can be a wealth of mental health benefits in our Pilates sessions (2). In today’s stress-laden world, these mental health boosts might just be the key to enhancing our clients’ quality of life and keeping them returning for years to come.

As Pilates teachers or practitioners, we often hear about how Pilates enhances mind-body awareness and provides many of the benefits of mindfulness practices, including reduced stress, improved sleep, and less anxiety (3, 4).  But have we truly explored how this happens and how we can optimize our sessions to prioritize mental health outcomes?

Just as we customize sessions to address specific physical needs like lower back pain, we can tailor our sessions to prioritize mental well-being without forsaking physical benefits. In fact, with intention and training, we can amplify physical performance by attuning the nervous system and easing stress during sessions (5).

After grappling with my own chronic stress, anxiety, and depression, I shifted my Pilates teaching to prioritize stress reduction and mental health.  The results were transformative—both personally and professionally. I now feel better emotionally and physically, with classes in high demand and clients more satisfied than ever.

My passion for this subject led me to create an advanced training program, Pilates for Stress Relief, to help fellow teachers manage stress and support their clients’ mental well-being.

While focusing on clients’ nervous systems for stress relief involves several steps, there are simple strategies you can implement today to enrich your Pilates sessions and offer a holistic approach to stress reduction and mental health.

Set the Stage for Safety with Mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the process of focusing on the present moment and when it is done most effectively, it also includes cultivating non-judgment and self-compassion.  Pilates is a mindful movement modality because it focuses on integrating breath and controlling movements, which has benefits for mental health (5). For people dealing with mental health issues, placing attention on their internal states can sometimes exacerbate anxiety or sensations of pain.

One of the ways that we can help these clients cultivate mindfulness without exacerbating symptoms is to cue an increase in exteroceptive (external) mindfulness before diving into interoceptive (internal) awareness. We can guide our clients to notice the room, to find a pleasing object or color in the space, or to notice their fellow classmates at the beginning of class.  By leading them to be aware of something pleasant in their environment we are teaching them how to guide their own awareness towards something positive instead of something negative, while also helping them feel comfortable in the space.

Use Breathwork Strategically:

Breathing techniques profoundly impact the nervous system and can help to rev someone up or quiet them down, depending on the technique used.  Deep diaphragmatic breathing with an extended exhale is a simple but effective way to induce parasympathetic activation and calm relaxation (7).

You can use the 2 to 1 method with your clients, teaching them to extend their exhale twice as long as they inhale, gradually increasing inhale and exhale duration. Be mindful that deep breathing may not suit everyone, especially those with a trauma history or chronic stress. Create a safe space and reassure clients that they can shift attention or stop the breathwork if discomfort arises

Release Tension:

Chronic stress often manifests as muscular tension or bracing due to elevated stress hormone levels. Myofascial massage tools like foam rollers and massage balls can alleviate this stress-induced tension, particularly in areas like the feet, hips, shoulders, face, and scalp (8).

I’ll often follow release work with a gentle mobilization technique that facilitates movement and helps to prevent tension from re-entering the area. Placing the head on a partially deflated squishy ball (9 or more inches) and doing skull clocking is one of my clients’ favorite ways to dissipate neck and jaw tension.

The “Mouthwash Breath” is another favorite way to help release jaw tension, my clients often will do this on their own during arm work or any place they feel themselves gripping their neck and jaw.

To do the Mouthwash Breath, take a big gulp of air and direct the air into your cheeks, then roll the air around the inside of your mouth as if it were mouthwash. You can continue to breathe through your nostrils while swishing the air held in the mouth. When ready blow out all the air through the mouth with a bit of force, while instructing your clients to blow out the tension.

Integrate Rest and Recovery:

In our productivity-driven world, rest is often overlooked. However, rest and recovery are essential for physical and mental well-being. Incorporate rest intervals throughout workouts, incorporating breathwork or nervous system reset techniques. This not only allows clients to rest but also enhances nervous system adaptability, facilitating smooth transitions between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. Consider hip traction exercises or gentle stretching at the end of sessions to promote relaxation and release tension.

Play and Have Fun:

If all else fails, incorporate something silly into your workout to help lighten the mood and build community among classmates. One of our new favorites is sticking out the tongue while rolling back into an assisted backbend over the long box (lion’s breath from yoga)! Yes it’s weird, and yes your clients will hesitate to do it. But after you explain that it can help release their jaw, regulate mood (9), dissipate tension, and release the pelvic floor they’ll probably try it – and love it!!!

By incorporating these effective strategies into Pilates sessions, we provide a comprehensive approach to stress reduction and mental health. We can empower our clients to strengthen their bodies while fostering inner peace and resilience through Pilates, enabling them to live life confidently and effectively. And remember, these strategies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unlocking the full potential of Pilates for mental well-being!


Want to bring optimum stress relief to your clients (and yourself)? Check out Pilates for Stress Relief, Ky’s teacher training specialty program.

Get more guidance on how to incorporate mindfulness and stress relief into your classes and sessions with Ky’s FREE guide. Get your free copy of the Mindful Moment Pilates Starter Pack here!


1. Tolnai, N., Szabó, Z., Köteles, F., & Szabo, A. (2016). Physical and psychological benefits of once-a-week Pilates exercises in young sedentary women: A 10-week longitudinal study. Physiology & behavior, 163, 211-218.
2. Fleming, K. M., & Herring, M. P. (2018). The effects of pilates on mental health outcomes: A meta-analysis of controlled trials. Complementary therapies in medicine, 37, 80-95.
3. Ahmadi, H., & Mehravar, M. R. (2019). The effect of an eight-week Pilates exercise regimen on stress management and cortisol levels in sedentary women. Journal of Physical Activity and Hormones, 3(4), 37-52.
4. Fleming, K. M., Campbell, M., & Herring, M. P. (2020). Acute effects of Pilates on mood states among young adult males. Complementary therapies in medicine, 49, 102313.
5. Memmedova, K. (2015). Impact of Pilates on anxiety attention, motivation, cognitive function and achievement of students: structural modeling. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 186, 544-548.
6. Harricharan, S., McKinnon, M. C., & Lanius, R. A. (2021). How processing of sensory information from the internal and external worlds shape the perception and engagement with the world in the aftermath of trauma: Implications for PTSD. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15, 625490.
7. Banushi, B., Brendle, M., Ragnhildstveit, A., Murphy, T., Moore, C., Egberts, J., & Robison, R. (2023). Breathwork interventions for adults with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders: A scoping review. Brain Sciences, 13(2), 256.
8. Kim, S. H., & Choi, H. J. (2023). The Effect of Self Scalp Massage on Adult Stress. Journal of the Korean Society of Cosmetology, 29(4), 992-1005.
9. De Roza, E., & Miller, B. (2018). The lion and the breath: Combining Kalaripayattu and Fitzmaurice voicework techniques towards a new cross-cultural methodology for actor training. Journal of Embodied Research, 1(1).

Ky Russell is a Balanced Body Educator with a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and additional certifications in yoga, Grief Yoga, and mindfulness meditation. She has been teaching Pilates for over two decades, and is the founder of Pilates for Stress Relief Advanced Teacher Training. Ky is also a Balanced Body Advanced Movement Principles, Barre, and Anatomy in 3 Dimensions Educator and has been teaching teachers across the globe since 2008. Ky is a former faculty member in Kinesiology at San Jose State University, where she instructed Embodied Stress Management courses for over five years. Since she began incorporating traditional stress management tools with Pilates she has seen incredible gains in her personal health, her clients’ successes, and her client retention! Ky lives in Santa Cruz, CA (where the redwoods meet the sea) and is a mom to a 12-year old daughter. If she’s not teaching she’s probably at the beach, walking in the redwoods, or volunteering at her daughter’s school! Come join her in Santa Cruz, in an online program, or on one of her Pilates retreats in beautiful, sunny places!



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