Here’s my approach to most areas of life: Do the best you can with what you’ve got and don’t worry about the rest. True, we can’t control everything, but let’s talk about a simple, often-overlooked, essential function that you can control. And when you do, big benefits are in store for every system of your body.
First, let’s consider that science has proven cancer cannot survive in high levels of oxygen and that there is a direct link between shortness of breath and heart disease. We also know that breathing drives the nervous system, so anxiety and depression can crop up when the nervous system is out of balance.
Additionally, proper breathing promotes weight-loss, restful sleep and energy. All this from a function that just happens without effort. So let’s take a closer look.
Proper breathing is a skill that can be gained through practice. I’ve had the opportunity to be trained by experts in the field, and the study of breath work has changed my life and health. It is the central focus of the Mind & Body exercise class that I teach on Tuesdays at the Community Center.
Dr. Andrew Weill developed a breathing exercise that is simple to do and easy to remember. It can be done anywhere, is easy, and no equipment is necessary. You can do this in any position, but Weill recommends sitting with your back straight while you are learning. Dr. Weill calls it the 4-7-8, or Relaxing Breath, Exercise:
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.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4-7-8 is important.
If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up, but keep to the ratio of 4-7-8 for the three phases. With practice, you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently.
Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Thank you to Dr. Weill. It’s wonderful to have this tool in your pocket for use during periods of stress, to release tension, or for those times you need help falling asleep. Having the ability to soothe yourself can improve more than your body. Clarity of thought, peace of mind and a deeply rooted sense of contentment — ahh, now that’s something I want to practice.
I’ll see you in two weeks.
Love & health,