Today, let’s explore a very healthy and powerful Chinese Medical Breathing Exercise, called “Reverse Respiration,” or “Paradoxical Breathing.” (This way of breathing is also practiced in the many yoga traditions.)
Unlike your arm or leg or jaw or neck, or other muscles, you cannot directly flex or relax your diaphragm. (It is controlled by the involuntary autonomic nervous system, the same system that control the smooth muscles of your arteries, intestines and bronchial passages.)
When people practice “diaphragmatic breathing,” what they are actually doing is using back, abdominal, and various accessory muscles to push and pull the diaphragm around. The diaphragm itself remains passive. And this can actually lead to a lessoning of tone and strength in that muscle!
However there are ways to indirectly tone and strengthen the diaphragm. For example, Carl Stough’s method called “SIMBIC.” (Google him: he’s a modern legend in the breathing world! And his book: “Dr. Breath” is on my suggested reading list.)
And another safe and effective way to indirectly strengthen and tone the diaphragm, is through the ancient Eastern technique of Reverse Respiration.
Normally, as you recall from Lesson 5: with natural breathing, during the inhale the diaphragm contracts downward, and this causes the belly to pop out as it displaces the abdominal organs. While on the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes upward into a dome shape; the abdomen flattens again as the belly button back inward toward the spine.
With reverse respiration, we counter this natural movement by deliberately sucking or pulling the belly in and up while inhaling; and then we push or pop the belly out while exhaling (thus the term “reverse” or “paradoxical”).
This exercise creates strong intra-abdominal pressures, which in addition to toning the diaphragm, helps improve various digestive/intestinal problems as well as gynecological conditions.
(It is also used in Chi Kung/Qigong to “pack” chi. And it is used in tantric meditations to raise kundalini or draw sexual energy up into the heart.)
Sometimes this pattern becomes chronic and unconscious (often in women, but certainly not exclusively so). And in this case, it may not be healthy. And so for those who have for one reason or another fallen into this unconscious pattern, consciously taking control of it and learning to turn it around, has the effect of balancing energy and restoring natural breathing.
PRACTIONER NOTE: When a person’s diaphragm has become very weak, the belly can be seen to pop out when they shout “Ha” or “Hey.” This is a simple test for determining breathing coordination as well as diaphragmatic strength.
When a healthy person with a strong diaphragm and naturally coordinated breathing shouts a loud short syllable like “ha” or “hey”, you can observe the abdomen/belly contracting inward. But if the diaphragm is weak, it collapses under the pressure of the voice and the belly pops out.
Reverse Respiration or Paradoxical Breathing can be done standing, sitting, or laying down. (It’s always a good idea to experiment in different postures and various yoga positions.)
Start with the exhale.
As you exhale and empty your lungs (blowing the breath out either with pursed lips through the mouth, or through the nose), push forward and out with your abdominal muscles: that is make your belly pop out during the exhale.
When you inhale, suck the belly in, and pull up on the perineum… As if you are trying to tuck your intestines and all your abdominal organs up under your rib cage and high into your chest.
Take your time with this. Focus. It’s OK to use some muscular effort, but don’t force or strain.
After three or four rounds of reverse breathing, rest and breathe a few normal relaxed breaths.
This is a great 10 + 10 + 10 x 2 practice, if you have mastered everything so far.
Good luck, have fun, and get healthy!
(For more information on this and other Chinese Medical Breathing Exercises, see my Chi Kung/Qigong Manual.)