Known as “relaxing breath,” 4-7-8 is a simple breathing pattern which involves:

  • inhaling for 4 seconds through the nose
  • holding/retaining for 7
  • exhaling for 8, mouth open or lips sealed
  • repeat

It’s the most effective calming breathing technique I have ever used. And it works immediately.

I was thinking about why.

Firstly, simply counting the breath helps direct your focus on it more easily than breathing without a count. That is, your mind is less likely to wander…

Achieving fixation a single object, in this case the breath count, is a core principle in Yoga known as one-pointedness (or ‘ekagrata’ in Sanskrit). One-pointedness is important because when you are intently directing your attention to one thing you are not directing your intention to the external sensations of your environment, i.e. the reactive state we spend most time in.

So it helps draw the senses within, providing a refuge from the external world, and a prerequisite for meditation.

Slow to slow

Secondly, breathing is an automatic process with a direct relationship to the nervous system. When we voluntarily slow it down, we decrease nerve activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which arouses the body for physical activity and exertion, and increase the influence of the more quieting parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the relaxation response.

Any controlled breathing exercise works this way, by influencing automatic responses in the body via its impact on the nervous system.

4-7-8 works particularly well because you are including a retention (holding for 7) almost double the length of the inhale, and you are exhaling for twice as long as the inhale.

In my experience, this ratio somehow helps me control and maintain the slowing down of my breath much more than ‘even’ breathing (inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time). In this latter technique I tend to end up speeding up with each round.

The practice of breath control, generally, is described as ‘pranayama’ in Yoga philosophy. You can read more about its place in the Raja system of Yoga from which the modern practice derives here.

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