Dr. Andrew Weil, famed wellness guru, has been teaching the yogic-based 4-7-8 breathing method to his clients for many years. Over the last few, however, the technique has spread through social media like wildfire as people seek quick cures for stress, insomnia, anxiety, and pain. No fewer than 50 YouTube videos outline the practice, with a combined viewership of more than 15 million.
In short, the method outlines a breathing cycle of four seconds in, holding the breath for seven seconds, then breathing out for eight seconds. An important component is touching the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, called the Kechari Mudra in yoga. (Mudras are spiritual poses in Hinduism and Buddhism.) Weil suggests repeating the cycle four times to begin, though the practice is safe to repeat as many times as necessary.
Counting Sheep, Counting Breaths
Meditation and breathwork have long been evidence-based practices for managing insomnia. According to the American Sleep Association, between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder, resulting in suppressed immunity, higher incidence of accidents, and loss of productivity. Most will remember being told to count sheep as a method of calming the mind at bedtime, and it turns out this was good advice. Weil’s 4-7-8 method also relies on counting as a key component.
Counting is one way to focus the mind. Racing thoughts and/or obsessive thoughts are common symptoms for insomniacs. Both the activity of breathing and of counting breaths provide deliberate distractions from daily worries. One YouTube user comments, “I had trouble with insomnia and anxiety for about 2 weeks. I tried sleeping pills, tea, and working out before sleeping. Nothing worked because my mind kept thinking and running off to different thoughts. I tried this technique for the first time last night and it worked! The most impressive thing was that every night I would wake up at 2 in the morning and not able to sleep again. Well I didn’t wake up at 2 and I slept all night! Thanks!”
Breathe Out Stress
Insomnia can compound existing stress or be caused by stress. The 4-7-8 method has gained popularity because it addresses both factors. Like insomnia, stress can cause illness, but stress also contributes to a compromised self-image, strain in relationships, and has been linked to a shorter than average life expectancy. According to University of Michigan Medicine:
Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.
Deep breathing as a stress relief technique has been prescribed for centuries. However, as our exposure to technology, artificial light, the 24-hour news cycle, and traffic jams — to name just a few triggers — increases, so does our stress. Simply regulating your breath can give you a sense of control in an out of control world. It’s also an activity that doesn’t require any gadgets or technology, a welcome change if exposure to those things is partly responsible for underlying stress. Weil underscores the method’s simplicity on his Facebook page, stating, “Since breathing is something we can control and regulate, it is a useful tool for achieving a relaxed and clear state of mind. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere.”
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