I used to be skeptical of people that flaunted their natural methods that acted as a cure-all for any ailment. Headache? Drink more water. Dry hair? Try a coconut oil mask. ADHD? Look at your diet and eat less sugar. I would usually roll my eyes and think “if the solution was that simple, EVERYONE would be doing it.” Why would Xanax, Prozac, and Adderall even exist if there was a better, safer, and cheaper method out there? (Ha.)
I think most people want to take something that is a little more tangible. There is something comforting about going to a doctor in an official white coat, and being prescribed a medication that will help you sleep or reduce your anxiety. I never used to believe that something so simple, like drinking more water, meditation, or doing breathing exercises could garner such impactful results. I guess sometimes the simple things really can be best.
I was completely shocked when I started utilizing a breathing technique that I learned about from Dr. Andrew Weil during one of my lectures with IIN. I was familiar with Dr. Weil through his restaurant chain, True Food. True Food is one of my absolute faves. It’s a little pricey, so it was one of my favorite first date spots before I met my husband. I hope all those Tinder boys still think of me when they are impressing their new Tinder dates with a suggestion to try out True Food. Thanks to me, they appear health conscious and financially stable right off the bat. You’re welcome Tinder boys.
After listening to a lecture on Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean style diet, my ears perked up when he said he wanted to tell us the most important advice to remember from his lecture. I was assuming he would say something nutrition related, but he veered off and discussed…breathing.
Immediately my interest waned. Yes, I know breathing is super important, they talk about in yoga and I use it for meditation. I guess I was hoping for something a little more groundbreaking than breathing.
I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt because his restaurant does serve the absolute best kale guacamole I have ever eaten in my life, so maybe he has something else up his sleeve as well.
I am so glad I did. And I actually learned A LOT about breathing. Here are some of my main takeaways:
- breathing is the most central, most important physiological function of the human organism.
- Improper breathing is the root of many health problems, including poor function of the digestive system.
- Breath is the link between the conscious and unconscious mind
- It’s the key to changing to function of the autonomic nervous system and is the master controller of our emotional states.
- The basic rule of breath work is to try to make your breathing deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular.
- The theory behind breath work is that since breathing is the only function that you can do completely consciously and unconsciously, it’s run by two different sets of nerves and muscles. It’s the only function that offers you the opportunity of changing the function of the involuntary nervous system. It is improper functioning of the involuntary nervous system that is the root of many health conditions like high blood pressure, digestive disturbances, circulatory disturbances etc.
Whew! I guess breathing isn’t quite as simple as I thought it was.
Dr. Weil’s favorite breathing technique is called the 4-7-8 breath. I had learned about this breathing technique before, but never put it to practice like I did after he told me I should try it. You can do this breath in any position at any time. When you are doing this technique, keep your tongue in the yogic position, which is having the tip of your tongue resting lightly on the ridge of tissue right behind your upper teeth. This is supposed to complete an energy circuit that keeps the energy of the breath within.
On the in-breathe, breathe in quietly with your nose, and breathe out forcefully with your mouth making a sound. It helps if you purse your lips a little bit.
This is how the exercise is done:
- Begin by letting all of the air out of your mouth.
- Breathe in through your nose quietly to the count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 7
- Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight.
- Repeat this for 4-8 breath cycles.
Breath work is a practice. Dr. Weil said it can take 4-6 weeks of regular practice to notice dramatic differences, but I have to say in the several days I have been consistently doing this breath practice, I have already noticed a major difference. I do this technique at least twice a day – I try to do it in the morning before I start my day and I always do it in bed before I fall asleep. The change in how easy it is for me to fall asleep has been the most surprising and dramatic.
Last week I went on a quick trip to Portugal from South Africa. That meant I had 2 nights on a plane, and 2 nights in a shared hostel. Definitely not ideal sleeping conditions for someone like me who is VERY picky with my sleep. If it’s not cold in the room, warm under the blanket, pitch dark, with white noise in the background, I can find it difficult to fall asleep.
I decided I would put the 4-7-8 breathing technique to the ultimate test and use only this breathing technique to help me fall asleep throughout my entire trip. I didn’t even pack the pills that usually force my body into sleep submission.
Shockingly, IT WORKED! Despite the fact that I am a very frequent international traveler, sleeping on planes is always excruciating. Forget waterboarding, I think spending 14 hours strapped in a seat next to a snoring stranger is the purest form of torture. I was never able to sleep until a friend gave me some of their prescription medication (shh, don’t tell anyone.) That is until the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
I did not have high hopes when I started the breathing technique a few minutes into the flight. Shockingly within seconds, I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, I thought that it must be a fluke that I fell asleep so quickly. There was no way I could recreate it. Only pills could do that, duh. But sure enough, after I got back from the bathroom, I did a quick breathing exercise and fell asleep fast AF again.
I didn’t think it could possibly be the breathing exercise that was helping me sleep. I mean, Dr. Weil said it took 4-6 weeks to really see improvement and I had just started implementing the breathing in my routine. The real test would come the following two nights when I was sleeping in my very first hostel with strangers.
Fast forward several hours and I scope out the hostel conditions: top bunk, very warm room, and a very noisy bottom bunk mate. My tools to combat these conditions included: a sleep mask, earplugs, and my 4-7-8 breathing technique. The verdict: I slept reasonably well, and fell asleep pretty quickly after doing my breathing technique. As someone who is used to tossing and turning for hours in an unfamiliar sleeping environment, I literally couldn’t believe it.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique definitely worked for sleeping. Dr. Weil promised it worked to alleviate anxiety as well. Lucky for me, I was able to test this on my last day in Portugal when I went on a terrifying van ride in Portugal. Our driver was the 24 year old Fabio, who liked to listen to loud rap music and flirt with the two girls sitting next to him. We were winding up and down these small roads on a MOUNTAIN, and I was sitting there clutching the leg of my poor new friend who did not know what he got himself into when he sat next to me in this van. I really thought we might die. Remembering how well the breathing technique worked for sleeping, I decided to do my 4-7-8 breathing in the van. Did it work? Slightly. It did distract me for a bit while I was counting, but I could still feel the anxiety running through my veins. However, after doing several rounds, I did feel a bit better (and I think his driving got a little less risqué.)
However, Dr. Weil did say that it takes around 4-6 weeks of continual use to see anxiety related benefits, so I suppose I’ll have to pop back over to Portugal in a few weeks and ask Fabio to take me on a van ride.
Dr. Weil said you can do this breathing technique more than twice a day (I think I was doing it about 10 times a day or so in Portugal) but for the first month, you shouldn’t do more than 4 breath cycles at one time. After the first month if things are going well, you can bump it up to 8. Because I sometimes feel a little extra, I jumped right into 8 breath cycles, and I haven’t died…yet. So you can choose for yourself. I’m just telling you what the doctor said. He did say to never go above 8 cycles, which I have followed.
I just did a breath cycle now and I already feel better. Calmer, more centered, this thing somehow works. Who would have thought something like breathing could have such an impact?
Try it for a couple of nights and let me know how it works for you!