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“Box Breathing,” a Simple Technique to Benefit Mind and Body

May 7, 2024

How often do you think about breathing?  Human beings breathe about 22,000 times a day, but we don’t give it much attention unless we’re ill or just sprinted up a steep hill.  We leave breathing up to the medulla oblongata, located at the bottom of our brain stem.  Of course, if you practice yoga or meditation, a focus on breath is integral to your practice.  And those of us who train to climb mountains also learn to regulate our breathing.   Still, Tobi Emonts-Holley’s tweet about “box breathing” sparked my interest, along with his reference to studies by Northwestern Medicine scientists that confirm the links between breath, brain function and behavior.

Box breathing is quite simple, but the effects seem to be powerful.  That’s why it’s employed by the U.S. Navy SEALS and others in high-stress professions like ER doctors or athletes with pre-game anxiety, who use the technique to become and remain calm.  In yoga, this conscious breathing technique is known as sama vritti pranayama, designed to connect and balance body and mind, allowing you to both relax and focus.

To begin “box breathing,” find a comfortable, upright seat exhale slowly, evenly and fully.  Next, start your breath cycle by breathing in slowly and gently through the nose to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of four, then exhale slowly to the count of four, and again, hold your breath for four counts.  Repeat for about four rounds.

If you’re new to box breathing (also known as four-square breathing), it may take a little time to get the hang of it. You may feel lightheaded after a few rounds.  If so, simply return to a normal, relaxed breathing pattern.  As you practice, however, you’ll be able to do more rounds without any dizziness.

Why does this practice work?  Retaining your breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood.  Increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which produces a feeling of calm.  In moments of stress or danger, the other part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—your sympathetic nervous system—drives the fight-or-flight response.  Box breathing can help move one out of that state of high alert by stimulating the PNS.

You may have noticed that intense anxiety results in quick and shallow breaths—hyperventilating—which raises blood pressure, causes the heart to pound and builds even more tension.  As a result, one’s physical or mental performance is likely to suffer as the ability to regulate emotion and focus the mind disintegrates.  Box breathing can be an effective tool to aid in maintaining a calm, clear mind.

If the subject is of interest, I’ve included some links below, including one to Stanford Medicine magazine which addresses other breathing techniques such as bellows breathing and cyclic sighing.