The relaxation breath

Breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have for promoting relaxation and calmness. So often we spend our days in short, quick rapid breathing. This is part of the fight-or-flight, stressed state that so often plagues our days.

The body is composed of two opposing neurological systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of the fight-or-flight reaction. If you are in a stressful situation, like the classic example of the encounter with a bear in the woods (who's met a bear in the woods? the textbooks should switch to using a more appropriate analogy: you have 4 days of laundry to do, pay the bills, respond to 8 message on facebook, pick the kids up from school, settle the argument with your spouse, try to get some sleep and do it all again tomorrow), it's the sympathetic nervous system that takes over. It increases your heart rate, dilates the pupils, stimulates short, rapid breathing to try and get as much oxygen in as quickly as it can and diverts blood flow from places like the digestive system to the muscles to give your body the best chance of escape.

The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, is in charge of balance and homeostasis of the body. It's in charge of digestion, sleep, blinking your eyes and breathing. Only two things driven by the parasympathetic system can be taken off of auto-pilot and done forcibly: blinking eyes and breathing. I have not heard of any relaxation techniques involving forced eye blinking, so breathing becomes the best way for you to strengthen the parasympathetic system in its never ending desire to match wits with the sympathetic, over-stimulating overdrive.

The bottom line is spending time breathing more slowly, deeply and regularly will have great benefit in promoting peace. In addition, Dr. Weil teaches a relaxation breath on his audio CD, Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing. This is a great guide in helping you use your breath for health. I have successfully used the 4-7-8 technique both in my life and those of patients I have worked with.

Here's is a quick guide for strengthening your parasympathetic nervous system:

  1. Find a quiet and relaxed atmosphere.
  2. Stand, sit or lie in a position that keeps the back straight.
  3. Clear your mind of all thoughts and focus only on your breathing. Imagine the air coming into and then leaving your lungs. Do this for several minutes, getting into a relaxed state.
  4. Try to make your breathing as slow, deep, quiet and regular as possible.
  5. The Relaxation Breath:
  • The tip of your tongue should be against the roof of your mouth, right behind your teeth, during this entire exercise.
  • Close your lips and breathe in for 4 seconds.
  • Hold that breath for 7 seconds.
  • Open your mouth and push your lips out, exhaling that breath for 8 seconds.
  • Repeat steps a-d for a series of 4 breaths.
  • Finish by breathing regularly, continuing to focus on your breathing.
  • You should notice an immediate feeling of peace after completing this exercise.
Contributed by:

Dr. Jeffrey Gladd


Dr. Jeffrey Gladd graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2001. He then went on to train in family medicine...

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Dr. Jeffrey Gladd
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