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, mental clarity, reduced anxiety and depression and enhanced cognitive function.
Box Breathing Explained
Proper breathing practices remain a concept that almost everyone struggles with.
Almost everyone still struggles with the concept of appropriate breathing exercises. Why?
Unfortunately, many factors seem to be against us when it comes to breathing correctly. For example, consider how one looks when they choose to breathe deeply. Appropriate technique dictates breathing from the stomach, which means that it will protrude far outward during each inhale. Clearly, this does not 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 hampered as a result of not supporting the well-established norm that it is impolite to show strong or bold emotions. Naturally, feeling intense emotions, such as pain, anger, fear, frustration, or even sadness, engages the core and can cause tears and heavy breathing. But in an age of showing emotions is not celebrated, people end up stifling their feelings. This often results in irregular breathing and holding of the breath.
Practice Box Breathing
In this post, we will 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 a worried and anxiety-filled mind.
The Method Explained
Box breathing, aka four square breathing, is a technique used in various settings, from doctors’ and therapists’ offices to yoga studios and meditation centers. Even Navy SEALS during their seal training use Box breathing as conceptualized for them to stay calm and improve their concentration in extremely tense situations.
Mark Divine, a former navy seal, often discusses this technique during his 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 four-part circuit should be repeated several times, depending on where you are, what you are doing, and your goal: Are you trying to calm down? Get to sleep? Focus on a specific task? etc.).
What are the Benefits of Box breathing?
There is a myriad of benefits associated with this square breathing technique. Below, we have outlined a few of the most important.
Recent research supports that it is beneficial for anxiety 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 conscious and unconscious. Naturally, you will continue to breathe even when you are not thinking of the action. However, you can also control your breathing. In doing so (with deep breathing techniques like Foursquare 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 is often a challenge to shift your mind and focus from busy day-to-day activities to the calm, slow practice of meditation. A good transition is a short breathing practice such as Foursquare breathing.
To use this breathing technique before meditation, you just need to take your position and do a short practice iteration, moving your attention and eventually transitioning into the core of your meditation session.
There are functions in the body that take place consciously. And others that take place unconsciously. Both systems are part of your body's autonomic nervous system. There are two subsystems within your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight4 system, activates through diaphragmatic breathing. This is like a "gas pedal" for your hormones, often immediately and unconsciously activated when in a stressful situation.
The fight or flight response can make you sweat, breathe heavily and experience a racing mind. If you are in a hazardous situation (for example, being chased by a bear), this fight or flight response may be beneficial and is triggered by survival instinct. On the other hand, if you simply need to give a presentation at work and are nervous, you do not want the fight or flight response to kick in.
Instead, you need to take control of the nervous system, and deep breathing techniques like Box breathing can help immensely. It slows you down before the nervous system gets carried away, and it helps refocus and control even the most uncontrollable aspects of this vital system.
Stress can be highly damaging to your body and mind in the long run. 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 cause permanent damage to your health. Most notably, chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure, which can cause heart disease and, eventually, a heart attack.
Box breathing and other breathing exercises can help mitigate the harmful effects of
long-term stress and high blood pressure. Experts say that breathing exercises can actually lower blood pressure over time.
If you want to know how to relax the mind before bed, deep breathing is an essential trick to help you sleep better. This is not only because box breathing is a great stress reliever (and let’s face it: stress is often what’s keeping us up at night), but it also helps to focus on a process that the body is already undergoing. Thus, refocus your mind the same way as you are counting sheep to fall asleep.
Practicing Box breathing is better than counting sheep because your breath is physically connected to your body. You will always have your breathing with you, and it is a tool you can pull out and use at any time. By aligning your mental focus with the physical breath through mindful breathing, you establish mind-body connection. These are just some of the benefits of breathing you could experience.
Give Box Breathing a try
Anyone can do box breathing. It is an excellent practice for beginners to meditation and mindfulness practice. As outlined earlier, the Box breathing technique has four equally lasting main parts: inhale, hold, exhale and hold. You can count to any number you choose during each of these parts, but most people start with a four-count. That is what we will use in the following step-by-step guide as well.
Before outlining the actual steps of the breathing practice below, we have included some notes on setting up your breathing space and how to sit for the practice.
Find a designated time and place
While box breathing can be practiced anywhere and anytime, it is best to have your first session at a designated time and place. That way, you can focus on learning the technique correctly. You will also have it in the repertoire for another time. With this in mind, find a quiet place to practice. It will only require 5-10 minutes.
Get seated in the proper position
Start by adjusting to a comfortable seated position. It is better to have a cushion to is on that you use for meditation or mindfulness practice. You can also sit on a chair or even on the floor. Just make sure that your back is straight once seated. Laying down or standing up for this practice is not optimal. Neither of these positions allows for optimal expansion of your lungs.
What should you do with your hands during Box breathing?
We get this question a lot, and it is a good one! Simply put your hands on your lap, one on top of the other and palms up. Seated cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion, you can place your palms up on your knees.
Note: If you like, you can also gently close your eyes. Or, you can simply lower your eyelids and loosely focus your vision approximately 3-5 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 exhaling. Do this by expelling all the air that you can from your lungs. Do this 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 to inhale slowly through your nose, to a count of four. Say the numbers in your head. By the time you reach four, your lungs should be full of air. Imagine the air pouring into your lungs and making them and your abdomen expand as you inhale.
Be sure to practice diaphragm breathing when you do this. Abdominal breathing means that your abdomen protrudes when you inhale, and your shoulders should not rise. If you notice yourself breathing with your shoulders, 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 in your head and count slowly. Picture the air filling up your lungs.
Step 3: Exhale
Breathe out slowly to a count of four through your mouth. By the time you are four, most of the air should be out of your lungs. Picture the air 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 to 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
Varying the count number can improve concentration and further enhance deep breathing practices, especially total concentration breathing.
Box Breathing: Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it called Box breathing or Square breathing?
Box breathing (or Square 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 with an equal amount of time. As a visual aid, some people imagine moving around the edge of a box as they do 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 in which our bodies receive oxygen. It is also how the body gets rid of the waste product produced by our bodies. 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, which can cause a range of challenges, from headaches and shortness of breath to unnecessary anxiety and stress. To breathe correctly means to exhale most of the air from the lungs and inhale air deeply enough that air fills the lungs. 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 Box breathing, inhale through the nose.
Should you exhale through the nose or mouth?
When doing Box breathing, exhale through the mouth.
Can Box breathing help manage stress?
Yes. 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 Box breathing?
Everyone could benefit from Box breathing. Those who practice martial arts constantly put themselves in stressful situations, as well as navy seal soldiers, police officers, and other individuals with stressful life.
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 with improved cognitive function.