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Dr. Andrew Weil’s Favorite Breathing Exercises

"Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing, and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders."


                                                       Andrew Weil, M.D.

          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.

The Stimulating Breath

          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. 

Please Note:  If you have high blood pressure, it’s best not to use this technique. 

          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:

  • Breathe in and out through your nose, keeping your mouth closed

  • Your inhalation and exhalation should be equal in length and strength 

  • Both inhalation and exhalation should be forceful

  • Try for about two in-and-out breath cycles per second

  • After about 15 seconds, stop and rest

  • If you’re just learning, you can do one more round of 15 seconds, and then stop

  • If you’ve been practicing for a while you can keep going for 2-3 minutes



          If you’re doing it right, you’ll likely feel highly energized.  You might even find you don’t need that extra cup of coffee to wake you up!

          (You’ll notice as you practice that the movement of your belly resembles a bellows. You’ll also notice that it’s pretty noisy – not a breathing exercise you’ll want to use when you get sleepy during a business meeting, a lecture, or a funeral.)

        When done correctly, the Bellows Breath involves forceful inhalation and forceful exhalation. Although we find it a great energizer when done briefly, it can be hard to do without creating tension if you try to do it for a whole minute or two.   

       When we want to use an energizing form of breathing for longer than 15 seconds, we prefer "Fast Belly Breathing" which involves forceful exhalation with a natural, relaxed inhalation. You can find the instructions for Fast Belly Breathing here.

* About Time Limits *

       Breathing exercises are very powerful and have very powerful effects. They impact our autonomic nervous system, which generally is not subject to conscious control.  

       Scientific studies have shown for decades that there have never been problems doing breathing exercises within the recommended time limits.  But the autonomic nervous system is not meant to be under our control for long periods - and if we try to control it with certain breathing exercises for longer than the recommended limits, problems can occur.  

       Some breathing exercises, like breath counting, have no time constraints.  We will clearly specify whenever there is a recommended limit.

The Relaxing Breath

          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:

  • To start, exhale through your mouth, making a gentle whooshing sound

  • Then close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for 4 counts

  • Hold your breath for 8 counts (Weil teaches holding for 7)

  • Exhale through your mouth, making a gentle whooshing sound for 8 counts

  • That's one complete "relaxing breath."  Do it 3 more times for a total of 4 cycles

A Note on Variations

          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!)

Breath Counting

          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:

  • As you exhale, count “one”
  • On the next exhalation, count “two”
  • On the next exhalation, count “three”
  • Continue this way until you get to "ten"
  • Then start over again with “one”
  • When your mind wanders and you lose track of the count, start over again at “one”

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 you like. 

Very Important

           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. 

Simpler 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.)

Effortless Breathing


         Ideally, breathing exercises should done with a minimal amount of effort.  If you’re feeling tense or being too “effortful” when doing a breathing exercise, you may actually be creating more tension, which will make it harder for you to breathe.  So in order to get the full benefit of the breathing exercise, think of it as a relaxing and enjoyable experience. (One reason we’ve created the breathing videos with calming images and relaxing music is to help create that sense of ease and relaxation.)

       

        Rather than thinking of breathing exercises as just one more item on your to do list, try doing them when you really want to relax or have more energy.  And let it be fun. Experiment with incorporating ocean breathing, spinal breathing, and other breathing exercises into your life in ways that are specially tailored to your needs and circumstances.