Why 4:7:8 Breath is not the Golden Ratio (and what to do instead)
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | February 10, 2024
The other night I was watching an episode of Ted Lasso and at one point, while Ted is having a panic attack, he calls his therapist who tells him, “You’re okay Ted, remember your 4-7-8 breath.”
Wow. It really is everywhere.
The 4-7-8 ratio has been popularized by physician Andrew Weil and while it may be helpful for some, to be frank, it’s a weird ratio. And the fact that it’s become ubiquitous is ever weirder.
4-7-8 is a simplistic, reductive approach to prāṇāyāma. And unfortunately, repeatedly trotting it out as the golden ratio for anxiety, stress, and insomnia, obscures the deeper possibilities for healing that arise from the study and practice of the art and science of breathing.
So here is my advice to Dr. Weil: please learn and teach a few basic principles of prāṇāyāma:
- If you are going to pause after inhale, get there slowly.
If you are going to teach a ratio breath with a pause after inhale, get there slowly. Take several breaths to gradually build it up.
- For most people, short pauses after inhale are sufficient.
Building up to a short pause after inhale is easier and more useful for most people. All you’re trying to do with the pause after inhale is convince the stretch receptors in your lungs to signal the medulla to send a message to the sinoatrial node in your heart to lower your heart rate. You don’t need 7 counts to do that. 2 or 3 are just fine (and much safer) for most people. For some folks pausing for 7 after they inhale may put unnecessary amount of strain on their heart.
- Gradually increase the length of the exhale.
This is actually where the real benefits lie, in gently, slowly, and progressively increasing the length of the exhale. You want to use several breaths to gradually get your exhale long and slow. And then you can continue with that longer exhale for several breaths, as long as it feels relaxing, comfortable, and easeful.
For some folks, counting is not the right breathing technique at all. They may do better with pursed lip exhales, falling out breath (open the mouth softly on the exhale), Bhrāmarī, (humming) exhales, or even singing a song that they like to help them lengthen their exhales.
If I could wind back the clock and have a conversation with Dr. Weil 20 years ago, I would advise him to popularize a 4-2-8 or even a 4-2-6 breath. I would advise him to tell folks that if they feel like increasing the pause to 3 or 4, and increasing the exhale to 9 or 10, that’s fine as long as it feels comfortable and relaxing. And I would advise that he emphasize the importance of getting into the ratio progressively, and suggest to folks who want to use breathing practices that they study with a yoga teacher who understands prāṇāyāma and ratios.
Everyone is different Dr. Weil, there is no golden ratio when it comes to breathing.