Box breathing is a simple (yet potentially powerful) breathing exercise used by various high-performers, movement practitioners and everyday people attempting to mitigate stress, improve performance and bring about a sense of calm & focus.
Also referred to as ‘four square breathing’, box breathing is often touted as one of the most effective ways to down-regulate the nervous system and manage high-stress situations.
Because it’s so easy to implement and can bring about an immediate shift in our mental & physical state, it’s perhaps no surprise that box breathing is a favoured breathing technique of Navy Seals and other military personnel. In fact, I first stumbled upon it through Commander Mark Divine.
While most people are fortunate enough not to be in the throes of warfare, our fast-paced modern world still presents mental challenges aplenty. With all the craziness going on lately, any tool that could help us chill out and hone our attention span is worth investigating – particularly if it’s free and readily available.
So in this article, we’ll explore some of the potential benefits of box breathing, how I’ve used it, and how to get started with a follow along box breathing GIF and meditation video.
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Some of the potential benefits of box breathing include:
Studies suggest that by slowing down our breathing patterns (as we do with box breathing) we can increase Heart Rate Variability, stimulate the vagus nerve and shift the body towards a more parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest’ state [*].
From here, we’re typically more able to deal with potentially stressful experiences and meet the demands of our environment. There’s a little more space to be proactive, as opposed to being purely reactive.
The above mention changes in the brain from breathing exercises like box breathing can bring about numerous psychological and behavioural shifts, including:
“Increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigour and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion“[*].
Anecdotally, I began experiencing panic attacks out of nowhere during my recovery from COVID-19, which wasn’t ideal. Interestingly, box breathing was the only thing that seemed to help pull me out of the darkness.
I’m not saying that’s going to be the case for everyone, but it really served me when things got challenging.
You’ve no doubt noticed that it’s much easier to concentrate and digest information when you’re relaxed, compared to if you’re completely stressed out.
A 2017 study showed that as well as reducing cortisol levels, focussed, diaphragmatic breathing resulted in a significant improvement in sustained attention after training [*].
There are times when I’m writing an article or putting together content and I start feeling overwhelmed and brain-foggy (that’s a legit term right?).
Invariably, a few minutes of box breathing helps bring things back into focus.
As we’ll touch on in the next section, the standard box breathing technique involves a 4 or 5 count breath. You can expand this to 6, 8, 10 and beyond as you get used to slower breathing patterns.
Any breath hold that stretches you a little past your norm can potentially improve your CO2 tolerance – an important factor when it comes to performing any activity for a prolonged time period.
In other words, breathwork will most likely compliment pretty much any sport and physical activity you currently enjoy taking part in. I’ve found box breathing pairs particularly nicely with Zone 2 training when building your aerobic base.
⚠️ Caution: Consult your physician before performing breathwork drills and never perform breathing exercises or breath holds when driving, operating heavy machinery or near a body of water.
As the name suggests, box breathing involves an equal part inhale, hold, exhale and hold, forming a box or square if represented in a diagram.
The typical box breathing technique uses a 4 or 5 count (but this can be reduced to a 2 or 3 if it feels too challenging):
You can follow along with the box breathing GIF above to get started, or check out the full length video below for accompanying audio.
Find a quiet spot. When you first practise box breathing, it’s best to find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted, and adopt a relaxed position – seated, standing, or lying down. Much like you would with a guided meditation. As you become more familiar with the drill, you can then take it out into the big wide world – walking through busy places, sitting on public transport, prior to an important meeting – it’s a tool you can use in most environments.
Use your diaphragm. Begin by placing your right hand on your chest and your left on your belly. When you inhale, the aim is for you to feel your left hand moving the most – expanding the belly, followed by the ribcage, and finally the chest. It’s a three-part breath, using the diaphragm and filling the ribcage in three dimensions. It can take a little getting used to, but like anything, you’ll improve with practice.
Breath through your nose. If you can, I’d advise you to endeavour to breathe in and out through the nose. The nasal passageway acts to filter and humidify incoming air, and breathing out through the nose means you’re less likely to blow off too much carbon dioxide (certain CO2 concentrations are required for optimal oxygen transfer into the cells, as described by the Bohr effect)
That’s the Hero Movement lowdown with box breathing! I hope you take something useful from this article.
If you follow along with the box breathing GIF or video, let me know how you get on, and of course feel free to reach out if you have questions.
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