Andrew Weil on the Power of Breathing

Would you like to access a mind-expanding and stress-reducing treatment — one that’s simple, safe, effective, free, and always available? 

You can, because it’s literally right under your nose. 

That treatment is breathing. 

In his audiobook Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 1999), Andrew Weil explores the subtleties of breathing. 

He also presents a series of breathing exercises to promote physical health, regulate emotional states, and directly experience our spiritual nature.

About Andrew Weil

Weil directs the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. 

Integrative medicine seeks to combine the best of mainstream and alternative medicine. It’s based on the idea that the body can heal itself if given a chance. Dietary change, herbal remedies, and stress reduction are some of the recommended strategies.  

Stress, says Weil, is a primary or aggravating cause of most illness — even disease with clear organic roots. 

Fortunately, we can change our breathing in specific ways to reduce stress. 

Weil’s patients use breathing techniques as part of their treatment plan for problems with digestion, circulation, insomnia, anxiety, and more. 

“The single technique that I get the most positive feedback about in a positive way is the breath work that I’m going to teach you in this program,” Weil adds. 

Ironically, it is a technique that he was never taught in medical school. 

Breath as a metaphor for spirit

In several languages, Weil notes, the words for breath and spirit are the same. 

Spirit refers to something that’s immaterial and yet powerful enough to change matter. 

Breathing has that kind of power. Even though it’s invisible, we can regulate it to create measurable changes in our physical and mental state.

Weil also makes a fascinating comparison between spirit and spirits — as in distilled alcohol. 

As originally practiced, distillation concentrated the essence of wine to produce whiskey — a beverage with a higher alcohol content. Through distillation, something with less material substance gained more power to affect the mind and body. 

In a similar way, we can see breath as the “distilled” essence of our being. Simply by paying attention to our breathing, we can calm our nervous system and experience altered states of consciousness.   

Buddhist tradition even holds that the breathing can take you all the way to enlightenment. For more details, see the sutra on the Foundations of Mindfulness.

The dual nature of breathing

Breathing offers a bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds. By meditating on your breath, says Weil, you might gain surprising insights and remember more of your dreams.

Breathing can also be voluntary or involuntary. We can intentionally change its depth and rhythm. Or, we can simply let breathing proceed without our conscious awareness.

Nature will continue to breathe us, whether we choose to intervene or not. 

What’s more, breathing gives us a felt sense of expansion and contraction. This is the primal rhythm of all living things — of all creation, in fact. Nature cycles between poles of expansion and contraction: Day and night. Warm and cold. Birth and decay. 

Even stars can expand and contract. And the Big Bang was the radical expansion of a contracted seed of matter. 

Through breathing, in short, we connect to a dynamic that transcends ourselves. And by paying attention to our breathing, we discover a place where many dualities are harmonized. This in one aim of many spiritual practices.  

The physiology of breathing

Breathing directly affects two part of our nervous system — sympathetic and parasympathetic. 

The sympathetic nervous system is the one that gears us up for the “fight or flight” response. The resulting changes — including increases blood pressure and heart rate — shunt blood away from general circulation and directly to the brain. 

As the sympathetic nervous system revs up, our breathing also becomes more rapid and shallow. Our thoughts tend to race as well. 

Welcome to stress.

Over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system underlies many common disorders — high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, digestive problems, and anxiety, and more. 

For many of us, this system is chronically overactive. It’s as if we’re constantly preparing to run away from a mysterious threat. 

In Japan, Weil says, autonomic nervous system imbalance is an accepted diagnosis.  Western medicine, however, tends to overlook this imbalance and tries to suppress the sympathetic nervous system with drugs. This strategy can lead to a rebound effect and drug dependence.

Breathing offers another option. 

By changing our breathing, we can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This system decreases  stress by reducing heart rate, slowing our breathing, and calming mental disturbance. 

Over time, breath work improves “parasympathetic tone,” as Weil describes it. 

This offers many advantages. Breathing techniques are free and non-toxic. And rather than trying to suppress symptoms, these techniques get to the root of nervous system imbalance. 

In short, breathing offers us a safe space. By paying attention to your breath, you “switch to neutral.” You divert attention from agitating thoughts to pure physical sensations instead. 

Four keys to better breathing

Weil suggests that you practice making your breath:

  • Deeper
  • Slower
  • Quieter
  • More regular

Notice the qualities of your breathing when you’re feeling calm. Chances are that some or all of the above terms will accurately describe your experience.

Also notice what happens when you feel angry, afraid, or otherwise upset. Your breathing is likely to be more shallow, rapid, noisy, and irregular.

As Weil points out, you can’t just command yourself to stop feeling upset. But in any moment, you can change your breathing to make it deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular. 

Over time, you’ll find that this practice can alter your emotional states. The changes might be subtle at first. But they can reduce your suffering enough to make a difference.

Breath work supports behavior change, too. 

Suppose that you’ve sworn off desserts as a way to lose weight. Then you go out to eat, see a dessert menu, and suddenly feel an urge to devour a piece of chocolate cake.

Just notice the urge and breathe into it. Make your breathing deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular. Use your breath to “surf the urge” until it passes away.

Preparing for breathing exercises

If you take yoga classes, you’ll probably do some pranayama — breathing exercises. Over the last couple thousand years or so, yogis have developed pranayama into a high art with complex practices. 

Pranayama teachings are powerful. They’re best transmitted in person, directly from teacher to student. Without proper guidance, says Weil, pranayama can lead to psychotic breaks with reality. 

Weil recommends starting with the simple and safe exercises described below. As you begin, keep these points in mind:

Find a posture that promotes relaxation and alertness. The full lotus posture is not required. If you sit for breathing exercises, just find a comfortable chair with enough back support to keep your spine straight. Wear loose clothing. You can keep your eyes open or closed. 

When you inhale, move your belly outward. Full abdominal breathing moves more air through your body than shallow breathing. Place a hand on your belly once in a while to make sure that your abdomen expands with each in-breath.  

Do breath work consistently. Set aside a regular time for daily practice. Also find a place that’s quiet and free of distractions. 

Breath work doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Consistency matters a lot, however. 

Over time, new breathing habits can produce big changes in your energy level, sleep pattern, digestion and circulation. 

Experiment with doing breathing exercises first thing each day and again right before going to sleep. Also do these exercises throughout the day as needed to manage stress. 

Exercise: Following your breath

To begin, just pay attention to your breathing. Do not try to change it in any way. If you notice that your attention wanders, then just gently bring it back to your breath. 

This exercise is a form of meditation. The essence of meditation is directing your attention to an object. And in this case the object is breath — the most natural object for meditation. 

You’ll discover that the mere act of observing your breathing tends to make it deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular. 

Following your breath is something you can practice at any time. Doing this exercise for even a few seconds represents spiritual progress, says Weil. 

To take this exercise to a deeper level:

  • Notice where you observe your breath. You could sense the movement of air through your nostrils. Or you could notice air moving through the passages of the nose, the throat, or the abdomen. You can also notice your breath in more than one place. There is no “right” point of observation. Just choose. 
  • Notice how difficult it is to pinpoint the exact change between inhalation and exhalation. Weil describes it as an almost “dimensionless point that you pass through.” 
  • Notice also how the breath comes of itself. It simply flows through us without effort. Like the great Tao, its source is hidden in mystery.

For Weil, following the breath “is the most subtle and most powerful form of breath work — both terribly simple and terribly difficult.” 

Exercise: “Reversing” the breath cycle

There are two Chinese characters for the word breath, Weil says. One is for inhalation. The other is for exhalation, and it goes first.

We can take this linguistic cue to inspire another breathing exercise. Instead of assuming that the breath cycle starts with an in-breath, experience it as starting with an out-breath.  

And why not? “Breathing has no beginning or end,” says Weil. “It is a universal, continuous wave form. There’s no point at which you can say that a breath cycle begins and a breath cycle ends.” 

To do this exercise: 

  • Begin by observing your breath in the usual way — in, out, in, out. 
  • Then mentally begin each breath with an exhalation — out, in, out, in.
  • Again, just follow your breathing. Don’t try to influence it in any other way.

One benefit of this exercise is deepening your breathing. By focusing on out-breaths, you can expand the powerful muscles that remove air from your lungs.

Exercise: Squeezing more air out of the lungs

“Most people use effort to inhale and very little effort to exhale,” says Weil. “And as a result, exhalation takes about one-third the time of inhalation.” 

The aim of this exercise is to deepen and lengthen exhalation. As it begins to match the length of inhalation, you move more air through your lungs:

  1. Inhale through your nose as deeply as possible.
  2. Exhale through your mouth.
  3. At the end of your exhalation, try to squeeze out a little more air.
  4. See if you can squeeze even a little more.
  5. Finally, inhale normally.

Note that this exercise prompts you to use the intercostal muscles between the ribs. You will probably feel the effort.

Exercise: The stimulating breath

The purpose of this exercise is to stimulate your nervous system, increase alertness, and focus your attention. Weil often uses it in the afternoon when he feels sleepy.

You might also feel warmer as a result. That’s because this kind of breathing is “real exercise,” Weil says — especially for the muscles at the base of your neck. It can be fairly noisy, too.

First comes some preparation. Yoga philosophy holds that our nervous system has two poles, variously described as positive and negative, solar and lunar, or male and female. To connect these currents, put your tongue in the “yogic position”:

  1. Touch the tip of your tongue to the back of the upper front teeth.
  2. Slide your tongue up just a bit until it’s on that ridge of hard tissue between the teeth and the palate. 
  3. Let your tongue remain there, touching lightly. 

By holding your tongue in this position, the yogis say, you conserve the prana (subtle energy) generated by breathing.

I don’t know if that’s true. But fortunately you don’t have to believe this idea in order to experience the benefits of this exercise.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Put your tongue in the yogic position.
  2. Inhale and exhale rapidly while keeping your mouth tightly closed. Make your in- and out-breaths as short as possible and equal in length.
  3. Do this for 15 seconds and then breathe normally.
  4. Practice these steps daily. Gradually add five seconds to the total time with each repetition until you reach one full minute.
  5. After you end the exercise, pay attention to any changes in your physical sensations and mental state.

Exercise: Letting the universe “breathe” you

This exercise involves some playful and active imagination. Weil likes to do it in bed, just before falling asleep and again right after waking up in the morning:

  1. Lie down on your back and close your eyes.
  2. Rest your arms alongside your body. 
  3. Let go of any control over your breathing. Just allow it to happen. With each in- and out-breath, imagine that the universe is filling you with air and then withdrawing it. You are simply the passive observer of this process as it unfolds without any effort on your part.
  4. Feel the breath as it penetrates your entire body, all the way down to your fingers and toes.

Exercise: The relaxing breath

Weil describes this exercise as his most powerful relaxation method. He teaches it most of his patients: 

  1. Put your tongue in the yogic position described above.
  2. Inhale through your nose quietly to a count of four. 
  3. Hold your breath to a count of seven.
  4. Exhale slowly and completely around your tongue and through your mouth to a count of eight. As you exhale, make a whooshing sound while pursing your lips outward.

Repeat these steps for a total of four breath cycles. Don’t worry about the exact length of each inhale, hold, and exhale. Just maintain the 4-7-8 ratio. 

With practice, you might find that you can slow each cycle down and hold your breath longer. 

Do at least four of these breath cycles — twice per day. After one month, try eight breath cycles, twice per day. Don’t go above that amount.

It’s common for people to feel lightheaded when they first do this exercise. This will pass with practice, Weil says.

After doing this exercise, you might also experience a pleasant altered state of consciousness. 

As a variation on this exercise, do the stimulating breath for one minute. Then immediately do eight cycles of the relaxing breath. This is an ideal way to prepare for meditation.

How to learn more 

I recommend listening to the full recording of Breathing. You’ll get to do breathing exercises in real time with Weil’s step-by-step guidance.

Also see this article about breathing practices. It includes links to videos of Weil demonstrating the exercises.