I’m sure you have heard of the fight or flight response. That’s when your adrenaline spikes, sending superhuman power to your arms and feet and razor sharp focus to your mind set to one thing: survive. Your breathing speed and heart rate go up. Blood flow is redirected from some of your organs to your extremities. You are alert and your body is tense, ready for action any moment.
The relaxation response
Now compare that to the other, less well known but equally valid state: the relaxation response. In this state, the body rests and digests. Muscle tension is low, blood flows to the digestive organs, energy levels are replenished and cells are being restored. Our heart beats slowly and the breath is slow, gentle, sometimes hardly noticeable.
Using the breath, we can induce and/or sustain both these states. The 4-8 relaxation breath induces (you guessed it) the relaxation response.
There are multiple methods for relaxation breathing. I like this one because it doesn’t require a holding of the breath. We can do this type of breathing in one continuous flow, which has its own amplifying benefits by shifting our consciousness to a more expanded awareness.
Pain free birth
The 4-8 relaxation breath is the breath that carried me painlessly all through the 13 hour birth of my daughter. Needless to say I am in love with it. The power I felt was grand. The surges were deep and consuming and had me moaning, yes, but at no point did I feel any resistance to the process. I believe it was the 4-8 breath that carried me (and us) all the way through, along with the strong, loving presence of my beloved and the competence of the midwife.
The 4-8 relaxation breath technique
It’s very simple: breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8.
On the in-breath, relax the jaw and shoulders. Use your diaphraghm for a nice and full chest-and-belly breath. Soften your belly, solar plexus and heart area.
On the out-breath, make sure that some air remains in your lungs. Don’t press. Explore how to use your belly, chest, throat and lips in a healthy way to guide the duration of the breath flow.
I like to breathe this breath to the count of my heartbeats. One thing I notice within two or three breaths is that my heartbeat slows down, an immediate effect of this breathing pattern. When you notice this, you also know that your blood pressure is dropping and your body is entering the restorative relaxation response. This also means that the breathing will take longer and longer every time.
Stay connected with what feels right for you and don’t hold on to the counts when your body tells you otherwise. For example, when I was pregnant, breathing out for a count of 6 was often better than 8. It’s your body, your breath. The wisdom of you being alive in your body in this moment is infinitely greater than any range of numbers will ever be.
From Harvard University’s Institute for Mind Body Medicine, there is a wonderful book about inducing the relaxation response and handy guide on how to apply it for healing various ailments: Relaxation Revolution.