Deep breathing exercises such as box breathing, also known as square breathing, have been positively associated with everything from better sleep and improved heart health, to mental clarity, reduced anxiety and depression along improved cognitive function.
What is Box Breathing, aka Square Breathing?
Box Breathing Explained
Proper breathing practices still remain something that almost everyone struggles with.
Unfortunately, many factors seem to be against us when it comes to breathing correctly.
For example, consider how one looks when one chooses to breathe deeply. Appropriate technique dictates breathing from the stomach which means that the stomach will protrude far outward during each inhale. Clearly, this doesn’t match well with the tight abs everyone wants to have. As a result, many people “suck it in,” causing them to breathe shallowly and only use the air at the top of their lungs.
Deep breathing is further hampered1 as a result of not supporting the well-established norm that it’s impolite to show strong or bold emotions. Naturally, the act of feeling intense emotions — pain, anger, fear, frustration, or even sadness — engages the core and can cause tears and heavy breathing. But in an age when showing emotions is not celebrated, people end up stifling their feelings. This often results in irregular breathing and holding of the breath.
Box Breathing: A Simple Practice For Deeper Breathing
In this post, we’ll be going over a breathing technique called box breathing. This is useful for helping people breathe deeper, and better overall. It is also a powerful stress reliever and an excellent way to calm down a worried and anxiety-filled mind.
What Is Square Breathing?
Square breathing is also known as box breathing. It is a technique used in a variety of settings, from doctors’ and therapists’ offices to yoga studios and meditation centers. Even Navy SEALS use box breathing2 as it was created for them. To stay calm and improve their concentration in extremely tense situations. Mark Divine often talks about this during lectures about breathing, or tactical breathing as he sometimes calls it.
As the name suggests, the pattern of breathing it entails can be symbolized by a box or square. Each repetition or circuit of the practice has four parts (like a box):
This 4-part circuit should be repeated several times, depending on where you are, what you’re doing, and the goal you have — are you trying to calm down? Get to sleep? Focus on a specific task? etc.).
What Are the Benefits of Box Breathing?
There are a myriad of benefits associated with square breathing. Below, we’ve outlined a few of the most important.
Recent research supports that box breathing is beneficial for anxiety3 and stress. This study in China concluded that such breathing practices can “improve cognitive performance and reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults”.
In real life, you can see this for yourself. For example, you may have heard someone tell you to take a deep breath before a big performance or a presentation. In this way, breathing becomes a useful tool to quickly unwind your mind when you find yourself overcome with stress or intense emotions. It also helps with the immune system.
Breathing is an act that is both unconscious and conscious. Naturally, your body will continue breathing even when you are not thinking about the act. However, you can also control your breath, and in doing so (with deep breathing techniques like four square breathing), you will strengthen the connection between your body’s rote response to stress (which is often negative) and the part of your breathing that you can control. In effect, this helps you harness stress — and reduce it at will.
When meditating, it’s often a challenge to shift your mind and focus from busy day-to-day activities to the calm, slow activity of meditation. A good transition is a short breathing practice such as four square breathing.
To use this breathing technique before meditation, you need only take your position, and do a short iteration of the practice (see instructions below), before adjusting your attention and moving into the core of your meditation session.
There are functions in the body that take place consciously — with thought. And there are others that take place unconsciously — without any thought. Both systems are part of your body's autonomic nervous system.
Within your autonomic nervous system, there are two subsystems: The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. It is the sympathetic nervous system, activated through diaphragmatic breathing that is also called the fight or flight4 system. This is like a "gas pedal" for your hormones, often immediately and unconsciously activated when you are in a stressful situation.
The Fight or Flight response can make you sweat, breathe heavily, and experience a racing mind. If you’re in a seriously dangerous situation (for example, if a bear is after you), this fight or flight response may be a good thing. On the other hand, if you simply need to give a presentation at work and you are nervous about it, you don't want the fight or flight response to kick in.
Instead you need to take control of your nervous system and deep breathing techniques like the square breathing technique can help immensely. It can slow you down before your nervous system gets carried away with itself, and it can help you refocus and control even the most uncontrollable aspects of this vital system.
Long-term, stress can be extremely damaging to your body and to your mind.
Unfortunately, many people struggle with chronic stress. It plagues them from the moment they get up in the morning until they fall asleep at night.
Ultimately, this can cause physical symptoms that may permanently damage your health over time. Most notably, chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure, which can cause heart disease and eventually, a heart attack.
Square breathing and other breathing exercises can help mitigate the negative effects of long-term stress and high blood pressure. In fact, experts say5 that breathing exercises can actually lower blood pressure over time.
If you want to know how to relax your mind before bed, deep breathing is an essential trick for helping you sleep better. This is not only because square breathing is a great stress relief technique (and let’s face it: stress is often what’s keeping us up at night). It’s also because breathing helps you focus on something that your body is already doing, thus refocusing your mind much in the same way as counting sheep.
Practicing box breathing is better than counting sheep because your breath is physically connected to your body. It’s not a remote idea, like the mental image of sheep. Your breath is something that you always have with you. It’s a tool you can pull out and use any time. By aligning your mental focus with your physical breath through mindful breathing, you are connecting your body and mind, putting yourself in sync, and readying yourself for sleep. These are just some of the breathing benefits you could experience.
Give Square Breathing A Try
Anyone can do square breathing. It’s an excellent practice for beginners to meditation and mindfulness practice. Many of Anahana’s yoga instructors use it as well.
As outlined earlier, the square breathing technique has four main parts: inhale, hold, exhale, hold. You can count to any number you please during each of these parts, but most people start with a four-count. That’s what we’ll use in the following step-by-step guide as well.
Before outlining the actual steps of the breathing practice below, we’ve included some notes on setting up your breathing space and how to sit for the practice.
Find a designated time and place.
While square breathing can certainly be practiced anywhere, anytime, it's best to do your first session at a designated time and place. That way, you can focus on learning the technique correctly, then later, you'll have it in your pocket for another time when you need to pull it out and use it.
With this in mind, find a quiet place to do your practice where you won't be disturbed. You'll need just 5 to 10 minutes to focus.
Get seated in the proper position.
Start by getting into a comfortable seated position. You can sit anywhere. If you have a meditation cushion that you use for meditation or mindfulness practice, this is great. You can also sit in a chair or even on the floor.
Just make sure that your back is straight and that you are indeed seated. Laying down for this practice is not optimal, nor is standing up. Neither of these positions allow for optimal expansion of your lungs.
What should you do with your hands during box breathing?
We get this question a lot — and it’s a good one! Simply put your hands in your lap, one on top of the other and palms up. If you're seated on the floor or on a cushion with your legs crossed, you can place your hands palms up on both of your knees.
Note: You can also gently close your eyes, if you like. Or, you can simply lower your eyelids and loosely focus your vision approximately 3 to 5 feet down and in front of you.
Before we begin, exhale all of the air out of your lungs.
Of the four parts of box breathing, the first is an inhale. Therefore, we want to start after you’ve exhaled. Do this by expelling all of the air that you can out of your lungs. Do so slowly and gently. Put your complete focus on the exhale.
Step 1: Inhale
Once all of the air has been expelled from your lungs, start by inhaling to a count of four through your nose. Say the numbers to yourself in your head. By the time you reach four, your lungs should be completely full of air. As you inhale, imagine the air pouring into your lungs and making them and your abdomen expand.
Be sure to practice abdominal breathing when you do this. Abdominal breathing means that when you inhale, your abdomen protrudes out and your shoulders should not rise up. If you notice yourself breathing with your shoulders, this means that you are taking shallow breaths and are not practicing deep abdominal breathing.
Step 2: Hold
Hold your breath in your lungs for a count of four. Again, say the numbers to yourself in your head, and count slowly. Picture the air filling up your lungs in your mind's eye.
Step 3: Exhale
Breathe out slowly to a count of four through your mouth. By the time you are at four, all of the air should be out of your lungs. Picture it moving up and out of your lungs, through your windpipe and finally mixing with the air in front of you.
Step 4: Hold
Finally, hold your lungs in an empty state for a count of four. Focus on the emptiness of your lungs and the smallness of your abdomen.
Step 5: Repeat
Repeat steps one through four for a total of at least five minutes. If you feel ready, you can increase the count. For example, you might:
- Inhale to a count of 8.
- Hold for a count of 8.
- Exhale for a count of 8.
- Hold for a count of 8.
- And repeat.
Varying the count number can improve your concentration and further improve your deep breathing practices; especially total concentration breathing.
Box Breathing: Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it called square breathing or box breathing?
Square breathing (or box breathing) got its name because the breathing pattern aligns perfectly with the sides of a square or box. There are four steps to the technique and four sides to a square. As a visual aid, some people imagine moving around the edge of a box as they do the breathing practice.
Why do we breathe?
Every function of the body requires oxygen — from digestion and movement to thinking and talking. Breathing is the manner that our bodies take in oxygen. It’s also the way the body rids itself of the waste product that is produced by our bodily processes. This waste is known as carbon dioxide, and it is the substance we breathe out when we exhale.
Why is a proper breathing process essential for the human body?
Many people do not breathe properly, and this can cause a range of challenges — from headaches and shortness of breath, to unnecessary anxiety and stress. To breathe properly means to exhale air completely out of the lungs (until they are empty) and to inhale air deeply enough that the air fills the lungs completely. The abdomen (not the shoulders) should move in and out as you breathe. This proper breathing process is essential for getting enough oxygen in each breath cycle.
Should you inhale through the nose or mouth?
When doing square breathing, inhale through the nose.
Should you exhale through the nose or mouth?
When doing square breathing, exhale through the mouth.
Can box breathing help manage stress?
Yes. To perform box breathing is one of the best techniques to assist with stress management. It helps blend a recurrent, autonomous action of the body (breathing) with the focus of the mind. This can distract you from ruminating worries and stressors, and it can help put your mental and physical concentrations in sync.
Is there a particular group that could benefit from square breathing?
Everyone could benefit but there are certain individuals that could stand to benefit more than others. Those that practicing martial arts, individuals that constantly see themselves in stressful situations, militaries such as former navy seal, police officers, and other individuals with a very active and/or stressful life.