Our breath, our breathing practice, is what connects the mind and the body.
It is the bridge between past and future where we find ourselves in the Now. We average over 20,000 breaths in a single day, most of which are unconscious and passively guided by our Autonomic Nervous System. This system controls blood pressure, digestion, breathing, heart rate and all the other essential roles that keep our various organs working together without taking up precious brain power.
But what happens when we directly influence our breath with a conscious breathing practice and isolate it from that autonomic system?
We can actually help steer these different aspects of our bodily functions towards improved performance by focusing on the breathing practice we embrace. This is the goal of pranayama, often referred to as breathework. There are masters who have spent their entire lives perfecting a breathing practice. To allow for control over the body’s various systems: from consciously fluctuating body temperature to actively boosting their immune systems to fight back against infection. However, we all must start somewhere and I believe 4-7-8 breathing is a vital first step down the pathway of embracing the power of our lungs.
The process of meditation, breathwork, yoga or any of these self enhancing practices can seem quite intimidating at first glance. This initial anxiety can be enough to turn anyone away from exploring the numerous benefits to be found within determined self care. I began my journey with this very technique and it is one I still incorporate into my regular practice to this day.
The idea behind 4-7-8 breathing is that we can communicate with our central nervous system through the breath. By allowing our exhales to be longer than our inhales we signal to the mind that we are not in danger and it is okay to reduce the chemicals within the body that are associated with fight or flight responses, and so with stress.
As we come into this mental state of peace and relaxation the body also slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety levels. This is a great technique for anyone who suffers from stress or anxiety as the practice can be done with no equipment, in very little time and in any location. I would often use the 4-7-8 breathe pattern on my subway rides to work, after a stressful situation or even when I’ve simply been in need of greater mental clarity.
The most important aspect of this breathing practice is the focus of your mind. We constantly inhale and exhale throughout our entire days but to sit with the intention of focusing on that breath presents a new experience to the mind and to the body. If you are not experienced in breathework try to avoid feeling frustrated with yourself or as though you need to force yourself to operate at a more demanding level, just the act of beginning such a path is an admirable accomplishment.
Even just sitting with the eyes closed for a few minutes and simply breathing 4 counts on the inhales, 7 counts as you hold the breath and 8 counts as you release it again you will have done yourself a great service.
4-7-8 Breathing Practice Technique
I like to start off this practice by taking a seat cross-legged somewhere quiet and calm with my eyes closed and devices away from my general area. It is perfectly acceptable to practice this technique while standing, laying down, driving in your car or even taking a stroll.
Once I have gotten comfortable I begin by releasing all the tension held in my shoulders and neck.
You can do this by taking a large, full breath in through the nose and bringing the shoulders up towards the ears. Squeeze whatever tension you feel upwards and hold the breath. Finally, release the breath and allow the shoulders to relax again as you breath out the stresses that were locked within the muscles. You can gently roll your neck here from side to side, remembering to continuously take deep, full breaths and be careful not to strain yourself in any way. Repeat this tension relief practice as many times as feels appropriate for yourself before moving on to the breathing portion.
Next I suggest taking three large clearing breaths to center yourself and mark a beginning to the practice.
For my clearing breaths I generally take a full inhalation through the nose and exhale through the mouth with a large sigh, try this at least three times.
After you’ve finished your clearing breaths you can begin applying those counts to each portion of the breath: 4 counts inhaling through the nose, 7 counts holding the breath and 8 counts exhaling again through the mouth slowly and with control.
Note that the breaths are divided by counts and not by seconds, the ratio of the different parts of the breath to each other are what produce the results we’re after, although going slower is the goal. To greater focus our mental energies on the breath, we place the tip of the tongue up against the roof of the mouth throughout the entirety of the practice. There will often be times your mind wanders and you will find your tongue has lost its concentration as well, this is perfectly normal and the reason we call this a practice. When you find you have drifted mentally from your breath take a moment to recenter and begin again, placing the tongue back to the roof of the mouth and diving into the next cycle of breathing. The great thing about this technique is that it only takes a handful of minutes to begin experiencing the benefits of alleviating stress and anxiety which is a great reinforcement for continued practice which will only produce more refined results.
This technique is a wonderful introduction to the healing powers of the conscious breath for newly intrigued knowledge seekers, young children, elders or anyone who is looking to expand their understanding of the universe within and without. We encourage you to practice this next time you are feeling overwhelmed or just in need of a quick re-centering. It is by far one of my favorite techniques because of its accessibility, ease of practice and quick noticeable results. We hope you find this technique as useful as we have and that you feel inspired to incorporate it into your daily life as well as share it with friends and your loved ones! If you are interested in more whole self wellness techniques, read our blog about Spiritual Anchors