Breathwork — which describes conscious, controlled breathing done especially for relaxation, meditation or therapeutic purposes — is a natural way to help manage stress. That’s because breathing is capable of influencing your mental, emotional and physical state. One example of a popular type of breathwork is called box breathing.
Box breathing is used by meditators, athletes and those looking to improve their concentration. It’s a simple exercise that involves inhaling and exhaling in a rhythmic way that naturally calms the mind — plus it can contribute to other benefits too, such as helping you fall asleep more easily.
What Is Box Breathing?
Box breathing, also known as square breathing or four-square breathing, is a breathing exercise that involves taking slow, controlled breaths.
It’s used for a variety of purposes, most often to help reduce symptoms associated with stress, improve alertness/focus and in some cases help with physical performance.
Why is it called box breathing? Box breathing got its name because it’s a technique that involves controlled, paced breathing with even inhales and exhales. It has a “4-4-4- ratio” in terms of the timing of inhales and exhales.
You first exhale for four seconds, then hold your breath for four seconds, then inhale for four seconds, hold and repeat. The evenness of your breaths in, holds and breaths out resembles the symmetry of a box.
How to Do It
For the best results, try repeating the box breathing technique described below three or four times in a row.
You can practice several times per day or do it any time you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Before meditating, prior to a big meeting or while you’re trying to fall asleep are all great times to use this technique.
As you practice, picture a box with equal sides, where the inhale, the holding of the breath, and exhale are all four counts. As you complete the breath cycle, picture the sides of a square filling up, which serves as an anchor for your attention.
Here’s how to do it:
- Exhale first: Sit in a relaxed position with good posture, meaning your spine is upright and you’re not hunching over. Place your hands in your lap, and keep them relaxed. Slowly exhale through your mouth while you count to four in your head. Picture emptying your lungs so you feel “empty.”
- Hold: Hold for four seconds with your lungs empty.
- Inhale: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose while you count to four in your head. Picture your lungs filling up with air as you sit tall and feel “inflated,” almost like a balloon.
- Hold: Hold your breath for another four seconds.
- Exhale and repeat. Exhale again through your mouth for the same slow count of four, then hold and repeat the cycle.
Deep breathing exercises can help you to cope with stress and naturally relax your body because they stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a calm feeling both physically and in your mind.
The benefits of deep breathing exercises are due to how they “put the brakes” on the body’s fight-or-flight response and stimulate the vagal nerve, which results in effects such as decreased heart rate, slowed respiration and reduced cortisol levels.
Below are some of the main benefits associated with breathing techniques, including box breathing:
- Promotes calmness/relaxation. It’s a great tool for preparing your mind for meditation or for feeling more tranquil in general.
- Helps reduce anxiety symptoms, including those triggered by social anxiety, phobias or generalized anxiety disorder.
- Can help lower blood pressure and slow down a racing heart (which is associated with anxiety).
- Helps improve focus and concentration. This makes it useful before a presentation or challenging task.
- May help make it easier to fall asleep and reduce insomnia. While it won’t necessarily make you feel sleepy, it’s a good way to put your body into a restful state that can make drifting off easier.
- Can improve your mood by making you feel more refreshed and grounded. One study found that it not only improved cognitive performance, but also reduced negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress.
- May help with pain management by reducing muscle tension. It’s even used during labor to help women cope with pain.
- Supports a strong immune system and cardiovascular system by reducing the toll of chronic stress on the body. For example, chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure and higher risk for other heart problems, plus headaches, pain and digestive issues.
How does box breathing compare to other breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or pursed lip breathing?
Different breathing techniques have various effects on the nervous system, with some more energizing/stimulating and others more calming.
Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) is mostly relaxing and involves engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles and diaphragm when breathing. It’s used to strengthen the diaphragm, decrease the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate and decrease oxygen demand.
Square breathing is used mostly as a natural stress relief technique. It can have similar effects to diaphragmatic breathing on your mood, although it may not be as good at improving breathing capabilities, such as for people with COPD another respiratory issues.
It’s similar to box breathing because it involves slowly inhaling and then exhaling for as long as it took you to inhale — however inhale is done though the mouth and not the nose.
While box breathing can be done just about anywhere and doesn’t require any equipment or training, there are some tips that can help you get the most benefit from this exercise:
- Remember to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
- To establish a practice, try to do boxed breathing around the same times each day. You might choose to practice first thing in the morning, before meditating, halfway through your workday and/or before going to sleep.
- At first, practice breathwork in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Dim lights and no loud distractions are ideal. Put aside about five to 10 minutes at a time to focus and learn the techniques, which you can then practice anywhere once you’re more familiar with the exercise.
- Consider using a cushion on the ground to help you get comfortable. You can also practice on a comfortable chair or couch. The goal is to keep your back straight so your lungs can fully expand, so sit however you feel most comfortable doing this.
- Try keeping your eyes closed at first and placing your hands palms up on both of your knees. You can also open your eyes if this feels better. It’s really up to preference.
- Some people feel dizzy after breathwork. If the happens, stay sitting for a minute, and resume normal breathing before getting up.
- What is box breathing? It’s a breathing technique that is used for stress management and to focus the mind.
- It can help to stop ruminating worries, put your body in a calmer state, assist in concentration, reduce pain and help with sleep.
- It’s called box breathing (or square breathing) because it involves even inhales and exhales that are four seconds long, with pauses between.
- To practice, you inhale through your nose, pose and exhale through your mouth. You can repeat this cycle three to four times in a row or more,and practice several times daily to mitigate effects of stress.