Breathing Exercises for Relaxation

“Just calm down and take a deep breath.”  It’s a go-to when you’re feeling stressed and anxious.  Over 5 thousand years ago yogis brought breathing techniques into a daily practice as they began to focus on enlightenment through the body.  These practices are still in effect today and as luck would have it, science follows right behind with an explanation.

Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) connects the brain to the body.  When you experience unsettling thoughts, feelings and events, the nerves switch on the Sympathetic Nervous System which is responsible for your Fight or Flight response.  This brings about a rise in your breath rate, heart rate and blood pressure.  And that’s just the beginning.  

Happily, the converse is true, too.  When you change your breathing pattern, your heart and lungs are communicating the opposite message to your ANS to switch on your Sympathetic Nervous System (also known as your Rest and Digest or Relax Response).  With an extended exhale (at a 2:1 ratio) your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, digestion improves and calm renters the picture.

Enter the 4-7-8 Breathing technique.  This is a yogic breathing exercise made popular by Dr. Andrew Weil, considered to be the father of Integrative Medicine.  Dr. Weil believes this to be a very powerful tool to calm anxiety, triggered emotions, sleep disruptions as well as deal effectively with food cravings.

The exercise is simple:

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.

You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.

Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.

Hold your breath for a count of seven.

Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.

This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

For the first month, you should only practice with four breaths at one time and then extend it to eight. Immediate effects might include light headedness, but that will clear up quickly.

The magic happens relatively quickly but the REAL stuff occurs when you make it a daily practice for 1-2 minutes.  Then you’ll have a very powerful tool to calm yourself, lower your heart rate, blood pressure and improve your digestion.  Dr. Weill believes this technique to be as effective as anti anxiety medication without the heavy price tag.  And having that at your beck-and-call is worth all the yogi tea in China.


~Karen Abrams, GodSelf Faculty