4-7-8 breathing: How To Relax
The breath goes largely unnoticed most of the time, and its power, therefore, is left undervalued. It makes sense that this happens; it is not one of the bodily functions that we need to consciously control or create. A wonder of the autonomic nervous system, it manages itself without any conscious effort on our part. It is not therefore required that we think about it in order to survive; but what if we wish to thrive?
The fact that it happens without our effort does not mean it is not possible or beneficial to consciously work with this automatic life force. In fact, for thousands of years, yogis have understood the great power that lies in the breath and have used it as a tool to benefit mind and body. By learning to work with the breath, we are able to enhance our overall wellbeing. As Thich Nhat Hanh describes, “The breath is the intersection of the body and mind.”
Many different breath techniques exist to help increase overall wellbeing, reduce stress and anxiety, and help heal the body. One such technique based on yogic breathing principles is 4-7-8 breathing, created by Dr. Andrew Weil. This technique, recommended for daily practice, can assist with sleep issues, mild to moderate anxiety, cravings, and internal tension or discomfort. With regular practice, positive effects will begin to appear within two months.
So how is it done and how much time will it take? Compared to some of the more complicated breathing techniques, this one is simple and only requires four repetitions. The “4-7-8” in this technique’s name refers to the number of seconds of breath for each phase. With three phases and four repetitions, it can be completed in about one minute. It can be practiced in any position – sitting, standing, or lying down. If sitting, ensure that the back is held straight.
To start, touch the tip of your tongue to roof of the mouth; specifically, to the tissue just behind the upper teeth. Keep the tongue in this position throughout the duration of the practice. It may feel slightly awkward at first, particularly on exhale, but will begin to feel more natural with practice.
Now that you are in position, follow these five simple steps of 4-7-8 breathing:
- Exhale all air out of the lungs, releasing with a whoosh sound. Close the mouth for the coming inhale.
- Breathe in through the nose to a count of four.
- Hold the breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale via the mouth for eight seconds.
- You have completed one full round, or breath cycle. Begin again from inhale (step two) and continue until you have completed a total of four rounds.
For the first month of practice, do not exceed these four breath cycles per session. Taking this time allows the body to adjust to this simple yet transformative practice. After one month, you can increase the number of repetitions from four to eight.
4-7-8 breathing is most effective when practiced twice daily. The most profound results will start to appear after approximately two months of regular practice. The idea, Weil says, is that after a period of time of voluntarily imposing these rhythms onto the involuntary system, the body will begin to incorporate these patterns into the autonomic nervous system. This is why continual practice is important; it helps to embed the practice into the involuntary mechanism of breathing.
While the technique works best when maintained as a daily practice, it can also be used to combat inner distress during stressful situations that take us by surprise. In this way, it can be both scheduled and spontaneous. In the modern world, there is no shortage of stressors that can cause mental and emotional unrest. From forgetting you had scheduled a lunch meeting to misreading your flight time, there is a whole host of unforeseen life happenings that can cause us to feel unsettled or anxious. During these moments, the technique can be used as a tool to help ease the inner world before the conditioned reaction takes over. By easing the breath, we lessen the stress response and create space for the relaxation response to take its place.
If the breath is the intersection between body and mind, we can use it to help bridge the gap between the two. By slowing and counting the breath in this way, we focus the mind and ease the body. By becoming more in touch with the breath, we begin to see that it is not only a survival mechanism of the body; it is a tool to help us explore what it means to thrive and to feel united, body and mind.