The 2-4-8 breathing exercise that helps you express yourself

I spoke to two people this week who both told me that learning to breathe had changed their life. It’s the same for me.

Breathing is unconscious, understated, something we all do, all the time. It’s an everyday occurrence. But proper breathing – breathing that soothes you, cares for you, lets your body know everything is okay? That’s a rarity.

Breath is our source of life. It’s also the source of our expression: what we say and how we say it. Proper breathing allows you to speak clearly and calmly, and to feel clear and calm – to fully express who you are in your words, actions and movements.

There are two main issues with breath when it comes to self-expression.

#1 Breathing too much

When our body is under stress or strain, our nervous system is activated and it can go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This involves prepping the body for action: energy is diverted to core systems and the heart pumps more blood round the body so we’re ready to move. There’s also an impact on our breath: it gets shorter and shallower because we are trying to get more oxygen into our system to allow us to act quickly.

This seems like a good thing, but it ends up being a vicious cycle:

Shallow breathing doesn’t mean you need more oxygen. It actually means that you’re over-breathing – you’re breathing out carbon dioxide too quickly before your body has a chance to make more.

Oxygen fills your lungs right when you breathe, but carbon dioxide takes time to develop, and when you shallow breathe, each expulsion of breath takes out more Co2 than your body has created.

If you do this for too long, you hyperventilate.

Abraham, M. (2020) Anxiety often causes shallow breathing. CalmClinic. Available here.

Breathing too much affects your ability to express yourself fully because you are likely to feel anxious and ungrounded, making it harder for you to be you.

#2 Breathing too little

Out of breathing too much vs breathing too little, the latter is definitely what I had to overcome to be able to fully express myself.

I remember having saxophone lessons as a teenager and nearly fainting several times because I didn’t know how to breathe in the right way to play the instrument.

Eventually I worked out what the issue was, and was able to intervene.

Whenever I concentrated on challenging or captivating tasks, I would forget to breathe. As a teenager, the puzzle of trying to play that jazzy bossa nova tune and breath properly at the same time was too much, and my brain chose one over the other.

This is a completely normal process: the brain’s focus on the task at hand causes subconscious activities to ‘switch off’ so that the task can be completed.

However, if the task that’s in front of us is one where we want to be fully present, not breathing enough is a real problem. You’re more likely to feel stressed (because you’ve not got enough oxygen) and tense, which doesn’t lead to a relaxed or genuine expression of who you are – only the expression of your stressed and tense self!

A simple way to support your breathing

Whether you find yourself breathing too much or too little, collecting some simple tools to help you breathe properly is important.

Finding my breath and learning how to use it has helped me express myself in many different ways: through my poetry performances, through movement, in teaching and in facilitation. Without a good relationship with my breath, I wouldn’t be able to be me, fully and authentically, with as much confidence or clarity.

One of my favourite exercises to support my breathing is this 2-4-8 method:

  • Breathe in for 2
  • Hold for 4
  • Breathe out for 8

Try and get as much breath as possible into your body when you breathe in for 2 – make it really big and ‘scoop’ the air into your belly.

The hold for 4 will give your body time to cook up some C02, and the out-breath will remind your body that you are safe and secure.

This is a great exercise to do before you are speaking in public or about to go into a big meeting. If 2-4-8 feels like a lot try starting with a 1-2-4 pattern and see where you can extend it.

Your breath is just one of the keys to self-expression. Follow along with the 2-4-8 exercise in this video to help you unlock another layer.

If you’re looking for more ways to learn simple tools to help you express yourself fully and confidently, take a look at my course – 8 drop in sessions sharing guided exercises in breath, movement and more to help you get back in touch with yourself. Find out more here.


Getting Back in Touch with Your Body

8 x 60m sessions of guided exercises in breath, visualisation, movement and journalling to help you get back in touch with your truest self

Join one of the live, ​60-minute online sessions to experience different ways of getting back in touch with your body gently but powerfully.
Each session will include knowledge sharing, breathwork, movement, visualisation, journalling and reflections from the group. The course is suitable for people new to these practices as well as ‘old hands’.

Book drop in tickets here

By Eleanor Snare

Eleanor Snare is a creativity consultant, art school educator, writer and speaker. Their mission is to help liberate the hidden artist within individuals and organisations so they can create more meaningful, imaginative and profitable work.

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