4-7-8 breathing is the kegel of mindfulness cultivation. You can do it quickly, any time, anywhere, with great results, and without anyone even noticing (okay, unless you’re in the middle of a conversation and decide to practice deep breathing—you got me there). As an added bonus, its practice isn’t limited to beings of the female variety. In fact, it’s not limited to anyone at all. You don’t have to be female, crunchy, green, hip, square, a yogi, a hippie, or an MD. You just have to breathe.
If you haven’t heard of the 4-7-8 breathing technique (or if you read about it in my article about how to spark self healing but were waiting for the follow up), you’re about to gain a tool that might just improve every day of the rest of your life if you let it. This is a practice that dates back thousands of years, having roots in Yogic/Vedic philosophy and Chinese Medicine, and has been re-designed and popularized in the western world by Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard-trained biomedical physician who is one of the pioneers of western Integrative Medicine. You can turn to 4-7-8 breathing anytime you need to reduce anxiety, stop panic in its tracks, induce sleep or just generally bring about a sense of calm in your mind and body.
Here’s what you need to know to get started.
How to practice the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique:
To practice this technique, you’ll need yourself, a place to sit or lie down, and roughly 76 seconds. Once you’re in a comfortable position, follow these steps:
- Touch the tip of your tongue to the ridge of tissue on the roof of your mouth, just behind your top front teeth. Your tongue will remain here for the duration of the exercise. It feels awkward at first (just like all the best things in life), but you’ll get used to the sensation after a few rounds of practice.
- To a count of four, inhale through your nose.
- To a count of seven, hold your inhale.
- To a count of eight, exhale through your mouth.
- Repeat steps 2-4 three additional times, for a total of four rounds of inhale-hold-exhale (your tongue should remain in contact with the roof of your mouth for all four rounds).
It is important to note that at first, you should not exceed four rounds of breath total, so as to allow your body to regulate to this new style of breathing. After a few weeks of practice, you can extend your sessions to 8-10 breaths total. Practice at least twice a day, but there is no limit to how many times per day you can use this exercise—use it whenever you feel tension in your body.
Benefits of the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique:
This technique is the prime example of a gift that keeps on giving. This is because it has both short-term physiological effects that will be immediately noticeable upon completing the practice, as well as long-term psychological, emotional, and energetic effects that will gradually build and improve your quality of life as you continue to incorporate this practice into your daily life.
- Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in the following:
- Decreased heart rate
- Lowered blood pressure
- Muscle relaxation
- Improved digestion
- Prevention of blood sugar spikes
- Interruption of the release of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (more commonly referred to as adrenaline and her lesser known cousin noradrenaline)
- Vagus nerve stimulation
- Oxygenates blood cells, leading to improved cellular function and the prevention of disease
- Detoxifies the blood by removing excess carbon dioxide (a waste product of cellular respiration)
- Decreased anxiety and panic attacks
- Increased mindfulness
- Improved digestion
- Enhanced regulation of stress response
- Healing of stress-related disorders
- Healthier immune system functioning, resulting in less disease overall
- Improved circulation
- Enhanced mood
- Improved Vagal tone (a fancy way of saying that your Vagus nerve is functioning well, which means that your digestion, mood regulation, stress response, heart health, kidney health, glucose levels, cognitive processing, and many other systems are all in good shape)
- Decreased risk of certain cancers (due to the combination of improved immune functioning and oxygenated blood cells)
- Improved coping with pain (chronic or acute)
- Decreased brain fog
Why it works
As with any holistic healing practice, this method works on many levels of your being. Physiologically speaking, the action of breathing deeply and subsequently holding your breath serves to actually force the heart rate to slow down, meaning that practicing this technique guarantees physical benefit, regardless of your perception of its effects. It also signals to your nervous system that there is no imminent threat, which is what kicks the parasympathetic nervous system into gear. Another invaluable physiological benefit is that when a deep breath is held, it allows the cells to absorb more oxygen. This has wide-ranging effects, from allowing cells to function more effectively in general, to improved tissue function and metabolic processes, to cancer prevention. The prolonged exhalation of the breath serves to rid the blood of excess carbon dioxide (of which most of us have unhealthy levels), thereby detoxifying the blood.
Psychologically, 4-7-8 breathing encourages the formation of new neural pathways that, over time, help your mind avoid counter-productive panic responses, cope with stress, and cultivate the propensity for a calm, focused, and positive mental state. It can also be used to quell the perception of pain. Beyond the formation of new neuronal connections that promote positive mental states on a long-term basis, it also triggers the immediate release of inhibitory neurotransmitters, which leads to more productive cognitive functioning in times of stress as well as a relaxed state of mind. When used therapeutically in cases of panic and anxiety related disorders, this method is second-to-none in terms of tools to have on the frontlines when moments of anxiety arise.
Energetically, this technique does what any energy-based healing modality aims to do: removes barriers to healing. When our bodies are in an anxious state, the free flow of energy into and throughout our body is hindered. The anxiety we feel is our indication that we are out of alignment with our higher consciousness. Our higher purpose is always one of love, and when we’re operating from a place of fear (i.e. when our fight-flight-freeze response is activated), we can be sure that the results would serve us better if we were to gently shift ourselves back into a place of love and contentment. 4-7-8 breathing does just that—it pries us from the grips of our panic-laden patterned thoughts and gently places us back in the warm embrace of the truth: that we really are going to be okay after all.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What will it feel like?
A: There’s a high likelihood that it will feel like you just downed a giant glass of liquid peace and now it’s seeping into every cell in your body. There’s also a chance it might feel like nothing at all…at least at first. The important thing to remember with 4-7-8 breathing is that the results of this practice improve with time. Many people will feel a difference after just a few rounds of practice, but some take longer—both are perfectly fine and normal. It’s also important to note that the first few times you may feel a little dizzy or lightheaded. This is also perfectly fine and normal and will dissipate shortly with regular practice. Most people report a sense of tranquility and ease in the moments right after practice, as well as a lasting feeling of calm, clarity, and wellbeing throughout the day. With consistent practice, you will certainly feel both the short-term and long-term effects of this method.
Q: Why the tongue to the roof of my mouth?
A. This part of the method stems from a concept that has its roots in Chinese Medicine and is commonly used in the practice of Tai Chi. According to this concept, the touching of the tongue to the roof of the mouth serves to complete the circuit of the two main energy vessels, one of which runs along the front of your body and the other of which runs along the back of your body, both terminating in the area of the mouth. When the tongue is touched to the roof of the mouth, the two vessels are connected in a way that they are not normally throughout the day, which allows you to more efficiently experience the delivery of Qi (energy) throughout the body, by a process known as “circular breathing.” If you’re not into the energy thing but are a fan of cold, hard results, give it a try. You’ll instantly feel more focused and grounded.
Q: How slow/fast should I count?
A: My favorite answer: it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. You’re aiming for long, slow, deep breaths in the long run, but the magic of this method is in the ratio of inhales to exhales, which means that you can count as fast or slow as you want (with the goal of gradually slowing your breath over time), and you’re good to go.
Q: I'veheard this is a good technique for inducing sleep—does this mean that if I practice it during the day it will make me tired?
A: Fortunately, the answer to this is no. In fact, Dr. Weil recommends practicing the technique immediately upon waking. When used during the day, the exercise will produce a sense of calm alertness, and when used at night the exercise will have more of a sedative effect.
Regardless of your preference of healing modalities, this is one exercise that you only need to try a few times before you’re a full-blown believer-- the results speak for themselves. In fact, you might even find that simply knowing the technique is available to you in times of stress helps keep stress at bay since you know that at anytime, you can regain control of your body and mind. You now have your own personal reprieve from your programmed state of stress, and soon enough, your whole life will be the reprieve you’ve been so steadfastly seeking.