On learning to breathe again, with Dr. Andrew Weil and Thich Nhat Hanh

Seventeen months into this worldwide pandemic (if we consider it to have begun in March of 2020) and the world is very stressed. Even if we could bracket off the imminent collapse of our hospital system in Saskatchewan, under the strain of the fourth wave of the Delta variant, everyone who’s honest will admit to feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, burn-out or even panic. These words have passed nearly everyone’s lips, whether to describe their own state of mind or that of their loved ones.

Evidence-based policies and the need for earlier interventions (lockdowns) went ignored by some provincial governments.

Some eligible adults continue to refuse vaccination, while kids under the age of 12 do not yet have that choice and are falling ill. ICU nurses must attend inadequately to two or even three patients at once, whereas in non-Covid times, s/he’d have only one. Daily case counts on the day of writing have reached nearly 500, in Saskatoon alone. Five or more patients in our still relatively small city are dying, daily.

The province is seeing per capita a rate of new cases more than three times the national average; and a death rate of four times that. Important surgeries have been postponed; organ donation suspended. People are lonely and dealing—or dying—with their fears and worries, alone.

And, as medical science tells us, the surge will not end soon.

Those of us who heeded medical science and sought full vaccination continue to follow Covid protocol (masking up, keeping to small bubbles, etc.) while our government refuses to reinstate a much needed lockdown.

Some Covid patients, who are lucky enough to be successfully treated and discharged, must use oxygen at home. As one CBC story detailed, they “have to learn to breathe again.” The province of Ontario has developed a home oxygen therapy program for patients, post-discharge, since their recovery continues for months (or longer) after leaving the hospital.

But those of us who do not contract Covid and so do not need oxygen therapy, also need to remember—or to learn for the first time—how to B-R-E-A-T-H-E.

Integrative Medicine Specialist, Dr. Andrew Weil, who leads the “Center for Integrative Medicine” at the University of Arizona, advocates for the 4-7-8 breathing technique–a simple, efficient exercise that can be done anywhere, in any physical position (although sitting with one’s back straight is best to facilitate air flow).

During a particularly chaotic day for me, recently, I returned to my practice of this exercise and found, within five or six minutes, a noticeably calming effect. The exercise can be done in public spaces (e.g. doctor’s offices, public transit, before public presentations, etc.), although then one might inhibit the “whooshing” sounds of exhalation that Weil recommends.

If you haven’t tried this particular exercise, please try it to deal with pandemic life!  Here are its five, simple steps:

  1. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue that lies just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there for the duration of the exercise.
  2. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to the mental count of four.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  4. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath.
  5. Inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Weil writes that the tip of one’s tongue should stay in position the whole time and that “exhalation should take 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’re unaccustomed to breathing deeply and holding your breath, Weil recommends speeding up the exercise, until your strength increases, but keeping to the ratio of 4:7:8 over three cycles.

The goal is to “slow [breathing] down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.”

Of course, this American “physician to the stars” has popularized breathing practices that stem from centuries-old Buddhism. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, on whom I have blogged in the past, observes something important for our crisis ridden world: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

Feelings and even this pandemic, will pass (or eventually so).  What we can control is how we cope with these things–for which there is no better strategy than breathing.

For further information, including videos of breathing exercises by Weil, and healthy diet and eating that counters inflammation and upset, see his website:  https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

And now it’s your turn. Are you breathing deeply through these trying times? Please share your best practices on my “contact” page. I’ll breathe easier by hearing from you!