On most days, I go to work, put on my white coat, load my stethoscope in my pocket, and make visits in the hospital and my office as I’ve done for over 20 years. I am the “master of my domain” and it’s very unlikely that anything will disrupt my calm.
This day, however, is different. I am about to walk into court as an expert witness on a billion-dollar medical patent lawsuit. Each table has 15 lawyers from the largest firms in the country. My testimony will go on for hours and will be taken by Mr. S, famous for his loud red ties, his loud mannerisms, and his ability to make witnesses shake. I know my stuff cold but I need to steady my nerves. I lean against the wall, close my eyes, and go through a breathing practice that takes under 90 seconds and has served me well to bring balance back to the moment.
It’s the 4-7-8 relaxation breathing sequence. I learned the 4-7-8 breathing practice from the writings of Drs. Andrew Weil and Tierona Low Dog. The technique shifts the autonomic nervous system away from the sympathetic predominance (which makes our hearts race and our palms sweaty when we face a stressful situation) and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to shine.
Here’s how you do it:
- Sit up straight in a chair.
- Place the tip of your tongue up against the roof of your mouth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process.
- Breathe in silently through your nose to the slow count of 4.
- Hold your breath to the count of 7.
- Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making a slight audible sound.
- Repeat the 4-7-8 cycle another three times, for a total of four breathing exercises.
Does breathing really work to train our nervous system to find a calm place from which we can manage life more successfully?
Thousands of years of practice in many religious traditions say that it does. Recent scientific studies also confirm the benefits. For example, subjects taught to breathe slowly and deeply as a mind-body practice show beneficial changes in the autonomic nervous system favoring parasympathetic relaxation, document changes increases in skin temperature from better artery flow, and reveal reductions in blood pressure compared to control subjects. If you have children or teenagers, www.gozen.com has a terrific teaching video on the 4-7-8 breathing exercise that may be useful to share with them.
That day in court went well. After I used the 4-7-8 breathing sequence, I entered court, was sworn in, and performed at my peak testifying calmly for the next 5 hours. I think if you will practice, you can benefit from this important tool also. Svatmarama wrote in the Hatha Yoga Prakipika that “when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath”. This ancient wisdom still rings true today.