Deep breathing exercises such as square breathing, also known as box 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.
Still, proper breathing practices remain something that almost everyone struggles with.
Unfortunately, many factors seem to be against us when it comes to breathing properly.
For example, consider how one looks when they choose to breathe deeply. Appropriate technique dictates breathing from the stomach, which, in effect, means that the stomach will protrude far outward during each inhale. Clearly, however, 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 deterred as a result of not supporting the well-established norm that it’s not polite to show strong or big emotions. Naturally, the act of feeling strong 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, which causes irregular breathing and breath holding.
Square Breathing: A Simple Practice for Deeper Breathing
In this post, we’ll be going over a technique called square breathing. This technique 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 breathing to stay calm and improve their concentration in extremely tense situations. This is something that Mark Divine often talks about during lectures about breathing, or tactical breathing as he sometimes calls it.
The technique is so named because 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 is meant to 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 benefits.
Recent research supports that box breathing for anxiety and stress is beneficial. A 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. You may have heard someone tell you, for example, 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 breathing. However, you can also control your breath, and in doing so (with a deep breathing technique like square breathing, for example), 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, therefore, is a short breathing practice such as square breathing.
To use this breathing technique before meditation, you need only take your seat to meditate, 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 other functions in the body 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 that is also called the fight or flight system. This fight or flight system 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 heavy, 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.
This means that 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 your nervous system.
Long-term, stress can be extremely damaging to your body — and, of course, to your mind as well. Unfortunately, many people struggle with chronic stress. It plagues them from the moment they get up in the morning until the moment they fall asleep at night.
Ultimately, this can cause physical symptoms — those that may permanently damage your health over time. Most notably, chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure, and high blood pressure can cause heart disease and eventually, a heart attack.
Square breathing and other deep breathing exercises can help mitigate the negative effects of long-term stress and high blood pressure. In fact, experts say that deep 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 deep breathing helps you focus on something that your body is already doing, thus refocusing your mind much in the same way counting sheep does.
Box breathing is better than counting sheep, however, 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, and 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.
Give Square Breathing a Try
Anyone can do square breathing. It’s an excellent practice for beginners to meditation and mindfulness practice, and many of Anahana’s yoga instructors use it as well.
As outlined above, the square breathing technique is one with 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 blow, 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 square breathing practice at a designated time and place. That way, you can focus on learning the technique correctly, and later, you'll have it in your pocket for another time when you need to pull it out and use it.
With this in mid, 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. For example, 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 I do with my 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.
Exhale all of the air out of your lungs
Of the four parts of box breathing, the first part 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 onto 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.
Make sure that you are practicing abdominal breathing when you do this. Abdominal breathing means that when you inhale, your abdomen protrudes out; 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. So, 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.
Frequently Asked Questions About Box Breathing
Why is it called square breathing? Why is it called box breathing?
Square breathing (or box breathing) got its name because the breathing pattern fits perfectly with the sides of a square or box. There are four steps to the technique and four sides to a square. Some people imagine moving around the edge of a box as they do the breathing practice as a useful visual.
Why do we breathe?
Every function of the body requires oxygen to be carried out — from digestion and movement, to thinking and talking. Breathing is the way our bodies take in oxygen. It’s also the way the body rids itself of the waste product that is a produced after bodily processes occur. 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. Box breathing is one of the best techniques to help 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.
Find Out How an Anahana Meditation Coach Can Train You in Anxiety-Reducing Breathing Practices
Want to get better at breathing deeply for improved stress management, sounder sleep, improved immune system and increased focus? Start a deep breathing practice today with help from an Anahana meditation coach or breathing expert.
Depending on your lifestyle, current levels of stress, and ultimate goals, your Anahana Wellness Advisor can connect you with the perfect expert to meet your needs. We take great pride and care in providing compassionate support for your journey toward improved health and wellness. We consider it our honour to be there with you as you tread this new path.
Take the first step today by getting in touch with us. A better you is waiting!
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Written by Clint Johnson
Clint teaches Yoga, Pilates, breathe, and mediation to students and teachers all over the world. Prior to joining the wellness world, CJ as his friends call him, started his career as a MBS derivative trader and portfolio manager on Wall St. Clint is the founder of Anahana, and holds an MBA from INSEAD.