Andrew Weil, a widely respected practitioner of integrative medicine,
says that of all the things he’s recommended to people over the years, breathing exercises have been by far the
most popular and the ones they've found most helpful. And of all the breathing exercises he’s taught, three
have been especially popular.
Below we offer our own versions of those three exercises – altered in small ways that we found to be helpful for ourselves and the people we’ve worked with. If you’re interested in seeing Weil’s original versions, they’re easy to find on the web.
In yoga, this is referred to as “Bhastrika,” a Sanskrit word meaning “bellow,” and it is also referred to as Bellows Breath. When you try it, you’ll understand why.
Even without high blood pressure, it’s best to start out with not more than 15 seconds at a time, and never do more than two or three minutes at a time.
Here’s how to do it:
The yoga tradition has many breathing exercises with many different ratios of inhalation to exhalation, and some that include breath holding between the two. For example, you can breathe in 3 counts and out 6 counts, or breathe in 4, hold 8, breathe out 4, etc.
Generally, if you have high blood pressure, it’s not a good idea to hold your breath. However, Dr. Weil insists that his patients with high blood pressure have practiced the Relaxing Breath – never more than 4 times in a row – without any problem, and have found it to be very relaxing. He also says that this exercise has been the most popular of all the breathing exercises he teaches.
Here’s how you do it:
Weil follows the yoga tradition and recommends that you keep the tip of
your tongue placed just behind your upper front teeth throughout the
exercise. He admits he doesn’t know the purpose of this, but concludes
that since it’s been done this way for many centuries, there must be
some wisdom behind it. He also warns that it will feel awkward at
first. It does, in fact, feel very awkward to us, so we think if you’d
prefer doing it without the tongue behind the teeth – go for it!
Also, given that there are hundreds of variations in breathing rhythms, we don’t see a problem with changing the 7-count hold to an 8-count hold, which we think makes for a smoother and more pleasant rhythmic flow. Research shows that exhaling twice as long as you inhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the whole body. So whatever rhythm you choose, as long as you’re exhaling twice as long as you inhale, it will have a strong relaxing effect.
Weil recommends doing the Relaxing Breath at least twice a day for 4 cycles each time (but not more than 4). As far as the speed at which you do it, as long as you keep the 4-8-8 ratio (or 4-7-8 in Weil’s version), you’re doing it properly. (Having said that, you don’t want to take it to extremes – like trying to inhale for 16 seconds, holding for 32 seconds, then exhaling for 32 seconds!)
This exercise comes from the Zen tradition. It’s incredibly simple, but
a gentle and very effective way to develop your concentration. It’s a
great preparation for meditation, it can be really helpful with physical
pain, and you might find it to be one of the best ways to help you get
to sleep when your mind is very busy.
As with all breathing exercises, start by checking to see that you’re breathing diaphragmatically.
Here’s how to do it:
Throughout the exercise, let the breath flow on its own, without making any effort to control it. Really let yourself feel the sensations of the breath in your body as it flows:
That’s it. That’s the whole exercise. Try it for 2 minutes the
first time, and then you can gradually increase the time to as long as
Don’t be discouraged when you first try this exercise.
Unless you’re someone who’s spent years cultivating your concentration,
without a doubt, you will lose track of the count – and more than once!
When this happens the tendency is to feel frustrated, or even get seriously self-critical and stressed out. Please don’t. There are people who have practiced this technique every day for months – months! – who never even get to “ten.” And that’s perfectly okay. The aim of the exercise is not to get to 10. The aim is to let go of all concerns, be present with the counting, and be willing to start over at “one” as often as necessary – without getting frustrated or discouraged.
Having said that, there are simpler versions of this exercise you can start with, working your way up gradually to the more challenging versions.
The simplest option is to count “one” on the inhale and “two” on the exhale, then “three” on the inhale, “four” on the exhale, etc., up to “ten.”
An intermediate level is to count the exhalations up to “five,” and when you reach “five,” start again at “one.”
(The advantage of focusing on exhalations only is that each time you exhale, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body. So by focusing your attention on your exhalation when you count, you’re potentially enhancing the parasympathetic nervous system and encouraging relaxation.)