If you were born doing something, one would assume you are near-perfect at it. As land-dwelling mammals, breathing through the nose is something we do, without pause, from the microsecond that we come into this glorious world. Yet, surprisingly, it took a yoga class in my teen years for me to stomach (pun intended) that I was breathing differently!
It went somewhat like this: Teacher: “Now, take a slow, deep breath and let your abdomen fill in with air. You will notice that it pushes out as you do.” I placed my palm on my belly as I inhaled but it was not obeying this simple command. It was, to my utter surprise, doing what seemed to be the exact opposite! I gestured to my sister and she had a similar puzzled expression on her face.
What was going on? Was this normal?
It took some conscious unlearning (or rather relearning) and reading up for us to grasp that we were inadvertently doing something called reverse breathing.
Mindful breathing is the cornerstone of any physical, mental or spiritual practice. Usually, when we breathe in, the diaphragm (a tireless muscle) contracts and moves downward, creating space in the chest cavity so that our lungs can expand to their capacity. This movement compresses the abdominal organs causing the tummy to push out when we inhale.
When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards, such that the abdomen is automatically sucked in. This is called yogic, diaphragmatic or belly breathing and we depend solely on the movement of the diaphragm for it. This type of natural breathing, often called Yogic Breathing, has an exceedingly invigorating and relaxing effect on the body.
Now, as the name suggests, reverse breathing (also called Taoist breathing), flips Yogic Breathing on its head. Practitioners intentionally, but gently, pull in the abdomen when they inhale and push it out with the out breath.
My sister and I were doing this unknowingly. How? Because the body naturally employs reverse breathing as a ‘coping’ mechanism in face of strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, excitement and elation. Not only do we take shallow and quick breaths when we are charged up, but we may also resort to reverse breathing in such scenarios. This could happen even when we are tired and let out a huge yawn, or have a hearty laugh!
Similarly, when we have to do something that requires extra physical effort, like picking up a heavy suitcase or pushing a stroller uphill, we instinctually contract our abdominal muscles to give ourselves a firm grounding and get that burst of strength/energy.
It is no wonder that reverse breathing is used extensively in martial art forms like Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and is, in fact, also taught as a part of Yin Yoga. If executed correctly, it is said to control and channelize the flow of energy (Qi or Chi), such that we can maintain a reserve of energy to deliver a sudden or power-packed action, and brace the body for any impact on the organs.
This conscious and meditative breathing pattern is also known to boost the immune system. It helps to energize the digestive organs and the reproductive system because of the active engagement of the pelvic region.
Reverse breathing, when practised with focused intention on aching, affected joints or body parts, also has the capacity to heal and can, thus, be recuperative.
Though I don’t quite recall now, I believe it must have been the eagerness to learn something new in our yoga class that made us breathe in reverse that day.
Before you attempt reverse breathing:
- Do ensure that you have mastered the art of breathing naturally (Yogic Breathing) first. It should be a comfortable and relaxed process, requiring no manipulation on your part.
- Correct absolutely any bad respiratory habits (for instance, shallow, chest breathing) before you move forward.
- Learn the basics of reverse breathing from an expert. This is highly advisable as unnecessary straining of abdominal and pelvic muscles can cause severe complications. It ought to be a gentle, meditative practice for maximum benefits to the mind and body.
- Reverse breathing should not replace your natural breathing pattern.
In the book, Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body: Chi Gung For Lifelong Health, writer Bruce Frantzis, explains, “Reverse breathing is sometimes called prebirth or womb breathing, because it is how babies breathe chi in and out of their bodies while in the womb.”
He also says, “Reverse breathing opens, strengthens and stabilizes the aura and is integral to one aspect of what Lao Tse called, ‘Breathing from the Heels’, which, within Taoism, is considered to be the only truly complete breathing process.”
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