I’m so envious of daily meditators. They are more calm and peaceful, less stressed out, and overall more content with their lives. I’ve aspired to daily meditation for probably 10 years, but I just can’t seem to find the time or mental space to slow down and do it. I guess my frequent runs, walks and yoga are a kind of “moving meditation,” but I wish I could do more.
Part of the value of meditation seems to lie in the deep breathing which calms us by its effect on our parasympathetic nervous system, triggering hormones that slow heart and blood pressure rates. Years ago I encountered a breathing exercise that, if not full-on meditation, does relax and quiet my mind and nerves. It even helps me fall back to sleep during the night. The exercise is from Dr. Weil, whose book, Spontaneous Healing, totally turned around my life when I read it a dozen years ago. He describes several beneficial breathing exercises on his website, but “4-7-8” is my favorite for winding down. Here are his instructions:
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
This exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count ofeight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.