The Health and Martial Benefits of “Reverse Breath”

December 16, 2003 11:18 AM

The average person can survive 30 days (give or take) without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 minutes without oxygen. If you believe everything you read on the internet, here are a few more stats about oxygen:

? Oxygen makes up 50% of the earth's crust by weight
? 42% of all healthy vegetation
? 85% of seawater
? 46% of igneous rocks
? 90% of our energy comes from oxygen and only 10% from food and water (partly oxygen themselves)
? Enhances the body's absorption of vitamins, minerals amino acids, proteins, and other important nutrients

Oxygen displaces harmful free radicals in your system, neutralizes environmental toxins, and destroys certain bacteria that can live with little oxygen.

Your lungs will deteriorate somewhere between 9 ?25% every decade (Farmingham study) unless you do something about it. Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that slowing down a few times a day and just taking a few slow deep breaths will do a world of good in your overall health. The Chinese, however, go a few steps further with "reverse breath."

Not too different from Pavel's method of "power breathing" found in Power to the People and Bullet Proof Abs, reverse breath is taught (in martial arts) for several reasons. Proper breathing aids in A) stronger strikes, B) faster strikes, C) greater lung capacity and D) better oxygenation of cells.

Following is the Taoist method of reverse breath.

To begin, stand with your feet shoulders width, relax your shoulders into their sockets and "swallow" your chest (swallowing your chest is believed to stimulate the thymus gland which benefits the immune system). Tilt the pelvis up and touch your tongue lightly to the roof of your mouth. Tuck the chin in a bit and you're ready to start. Expel all your air and push not only your stomach out, but also your sides and lower back (like that spare tire we've all gotten rid of through KB training is still there).

Inhale slowly through the nose and pull your stomach in while lifting the perineum (that no-man's land that separates the front from the back ? just another way of working the anal lock or the squeezing and lifting of the anal sphincter and sex organs). Exhale through the mouth and push the stomach out.

Let the breath lead the stomach in and out and try not to force it with too much muscle. Also on exhalation, relax the perineum/anal lock. The best way is to just forget about the lock and not really push the relaxation of it. It is said that Yamaguchi, the late head of goju ryu, would push too hard on the exhalation during sanchin kata thus creating massive hemorrhoids. Avoid this just by forgetting.

Check yourself in a mirror at first and make sure when you inhale that your shoulders are not lifting and the front of your chest isn't expanding too much. The sides of the chest seem to expand more doing this (which is good. A seasoned martial arts knows when you hit someone as they are inhaling it hurts a heck-of-a lot more. If your attacker can't see when you inhale they will never be sure when to attack).

The way it's been explained to me, this method of breathing allows for more air in the lungs and greater expulsion of the air that's in there. Normally, when breathing high in the chest the diaphragm and lungs get hooked up on each other ? preventing either from full capacity on inhalation and full drainage on exhalation. Not expelling that air totally causes the lungs to carry around stale air.

Doing proper reverse breathing forces the diaphragm to expand in a way that creates a vacuum in the lungs, filling them from the bottom up. Now both diaphragm and lungs are allowed to expand to their full capacity. Exhaling properly expels more air more efficiently, thus saving the lungs from carrying around that stale air.

Using reverse breath in your martial training is essential. As I mentioned above, hitting someone as they inhale has a lot more effect. Learning to use reverse breath powerfully while exhaling actually helps protect the body.
Basically, as you inhale the capillaries and like structures of the body collapse somewhat, as you exhale they expand. Reverse breath, along with the pelvic tilt also keeps your diaphragm from bouncing around which causes that getting racked feeling from setting in after a good hit. That expansion can be used as a sort of cushion to protect your body. So learning to breath more effectively will certainly help your body's resistance to a blow.

Another martial benefit would be in your striking ability. The faster you can exhale the faster you can move. You must learn to coordinate your technique and breath and as each grows, it aids the other. Finally, the more air you expel the harder your hit. This works much the way power breathing does in helping you press that last rep overhead. Exhaling like a shotgun blast (one of the ideas behind the kiai) gives you that speed and power. Be sure to hold onto about 25% of your breath as a reserve. If you exhale everything you won't be able to protect yourself from a strike and it will take longer to "reload" yourself.

It is difficult at first to get the right feeling (if it was easy, everyone would be doing it) and it feels like you're not getting enough oxygen. This is because the diaphragm needs some practice relaxing in the proper way. But steady practice will bring about great results. Practice reverse breath while sitting at your desk, stopped at a traffic light, watching TV, etc. before using it during a workout. Before long your brain will pick up the idea that this is how you want to breath now and will start doing it naturally.
Slow and easy at first but once you are accustomed to breathing this way, you can do it explosively. Enjoy!

Tim Heuertz teaches Yiliquan Kung Fu in Omaha, NE. Tim as been in the martial arts for 23 years and has 8 National Championships through the AAU.