The simple things in life are often the most important. And you would think that nothing is simpler or more important than breathing.
But as it turns out, breathing is not as simple as it seems. Or put another way, there’s more than one way to breathe!
Breathing is one of those critical processes that our brain subconsciously attends to while we are focused on more important tasks like watching Netflix, checking Instagram or burning our toast in the morning.
And of course, the fact that you are reading this article indicates your subconscious brain is continuing to manage the task of breathing for you just fine.
That’s a good thing. We can’t be focused on breathing all the time or we’d never get anything else done.
But there are many reasons why we may want to consciously focus on our breathing from time to time.
Why focus on breathing?
Focused breathing can provide many physical and mental benefits.
For starters, focused breathing can help you relax and it can calm a busy mind if you are having trouble getting to sleep. It can also be used to lower the heart rate and to ease anxiety or stress.
Breathing is usually one of the first techniques suggested for helping with anger management. Think of the phrase ‘take a deep breath!’.
It’s also used for helping with phobias and other emotional conditions.
And let’s not forget childbirth! There’s a reason mothers are taught to focus on their breathing during antenatal classes. Other than drugs, it’s probably the most effective strategy available for managing pain and assisting with the process of labour.
There are many ways to breathe
There are many different ways to practise focused breathing.
Anyone who’s done any form of yoga, meditation or martial arts will have been exposed to various breathing techniques. Some of these breathing exercises can be quite complicated and take a long time to master.
But one of the simplest and most effective breathing exercises I’ve come across is what’s called the 4-7-8 breath (or ‘relaxing breath’).
What is the 4-7-8 breathing technique?
The 4-7-8 breath has been popularised by celebrity ‘new-age’ doctor Andrew Weil. It is based on a Hatha yoga technique called pranayama, which is the ancient practice of controlling and regulating the breath.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise involves a simple process of inhaling for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7 and exhaling for a count of 8. This process is repeated four times to complete the exercise.
How to do the 4-7-8 breathing technique
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your upper front teeth and keep it there for the remainder of the exercise.
- Empty your lungs with a deep exhale
- Close your eyes (optional but recommended)
- Inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale slowly and strongly through your mouth for a count of eight, whilst making a whoosh sound.
- Repeat steps 4, 5 and 6 three more times for a total of four breaths.
- After the fourth breath, open your eyes and wallow in the bliss 🙂
The ratio is what’s important
You may need to count quickly at first until you get used to holding your breath for longer and exhaling more slowly. Over time you can continue to lengthen your breaths by slowing down the speed of counting in your head.
The absolute time you spend on each phase is not so important. What’s important is to maintain the ratio of 4:7:8 and ensure that the exhalation always takes twice as long as the inhalation.
Consistency is also important
Dr Weil recommends that you practice this exercise at least twice a day, every day, for two months to realise the full benefits.
You can do it more frequently throughout the day, but you must stick to only four breaths each time for at least the first month. After a month, if you want, you can increase to eight breaths per exercise, but never more than eight.
He warns that you may experience some lightheadedness the first few times, but if you stick at it and keep practising, this side effect will soon disappear.
And he claims if you practice this exercise twice a day for two months “you will see wonderful changes in your body”.
Does the 4-7-8 breathing technique actually work?
There’s very little scientific evidence to support the claimed medical benefits of the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
But there is a lot of anecdotal evidence from people who claim it has magically cured their insomnia or in some cases helped them with panic attacks and anxiety conditions.
You may notice in the video that Dr Weil looks a lot like Father Christmas. So perhaps this technique is a bit like Santa? (it only works for those who believe 🙂 )
Personally, I haven’t found it to be a life-changing silver bullet (yet). But I have found that it’s a very easy breathing technique to practice and a useful tool to use when lying in bed at night trying to get to sleep.
There are lots of other breathing exercises available, so you may want to try various ones and see what works best for you.
The thing that makes this technique so powerful, in my opinion, is its ease of use.
The 4-7-8 exercise is dead simple to remember. You can do it while standing, sitting or lying down. And it only takes about a minute and a half to complete. You could literally do this while sitting on the toilet!
Now, if you want to experience the full benefits, Dr. Weil claims you must practice it every single day (at least twice a day) for two months. And I have to admit, I have not yet done that.
But if you wanted to shoot for this result, it’s probably not that hard to manage.
You could make a habit of doing one round of four breaths every morning when you first wake up (as part of your morning routine or before you brush your teeth) and a second-round every night when you get into bed. Easy Peasy!
Do that for two months and see what you discover.
Alternatively, do what I do and just keep this technique up your sleeve as a simple thing to practice whenever you need to relax, de-stress or calm a busy mind so you can get to sleep.
Any form of focused breathing is better than nothing. And because this technique is so easy to remember and so quick to do, it’s a great place to start and a good tool to have in your kit.
Let me know how you go.