Q:What is Reverse Breathing and how is it useful?

In general, Rehabilitative Qigong & Tai Chi focuses primarily on coordinating natural abdominal breathing with specific therapeutic movements, however at times reverse abdominal breathing can be very effective with accomplishing certain goals.

The first Tai Chi masters were keen observers of nature and supposedly watched infants to learn about natural, inherent breathing processes.  There are basically three types of natural breathing processes: abdominal breathing, reverse abdominal breathing, and stress (upside down) breathing.

Stress breathing occurs when we feel threatened and results in high, heaving chest expansion during inhalation.  When upset, children use this breathing method to project vocalizations and release powerful emotions.  In adults, while this breath style is a natural survival process when running from an angry dog, prolonged, it quickly loses its advantage and becomes physiologically costly.  Unfortunately lower level stress breathing is also very common in adult populations and a major contributor to most disease processes.

Abdominal breathing is typically seen when a child is safely asleep and noticeable by abdominal expansion during inhalation.  Focused, relaxed abdominal breathing has been shown to prompt a parasympathetic nervous system shift and activate natural healing responses in the body.  Most Qigong & Tai Chi gestures coordinate abdominal breathing with movement to, among other things, improve blood flow and lymph circulation.

During reverse abdominal breathing the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles contract during inhalation causing the breath to expand towards the lower back or up into the solar plexus areas.  This breathing pattern would naturally be seen when a child braces her core muscles while pulling herself to stand.  According to Kenneth Cohen in “The Way of Qigong”, traditional Chen style Tai Chi martial artists use a rapid exhalation with reverse breathing to simultaneously increase striking power and also sink “qi” downward to improve balance and stability. Cohen goes on to say that, “reverse breathing is generally dangerous for physical and mental health, except under certain conditions or as a specialized Qigong exercise.”  In contrast to Cohen’s opinion, Yang Yang Ph.D. notes that reverse breathing, “is a deeper, more efficient way of breathing and therefore obviously beneficial to health and respiratory function.”  It is worth noting that varied views with regards to breath practices are common and even healthy, reminding us to discover for ourselves what is useful.

Rehabilitative Qigong &Tai Chi employs reverse breathing, in the upcoming Core & Lower Extremity Strengthening program, as a powerful way to build core strength in combination with functional movement.  Reverse breathing can initially be practiced in isolation to develop efficient core contraction/relaxation patterns and then woven into more challenging Qigong & Tai Chi gestures over time.  As with anything new, it is always important to proceed mindfully and practice with moderation.  In my personal experience, appropriate reverse breathing is indeed an effective way to strengthen the deep core cylinder, enhance balance, and build “jing” or physiologic vitality in the lower dantien.   

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Be Well,

Brian Signature