This will be a short post going over a breathing technique called box breathing. I’ll discuss where this practice came from, how to do it, and the effect it has in your body. If you have deeper questions about breathing, check out my previous post on the physiology of breathing and one highlighting the diaphragm muscle.
Where Did Box Breathing Originate?
Box breathing as a specific technique was defined and popularized by the Navy SEALs. SEALs use box breathing to remain calm and collected in the high-stress situations they encounter on a regular basis. Although the name box breathing is relatively new, the technique has roots in an ancient breathing practice called pranayama. Pranayama originated in India and is considered to be the “fourth limb” of yoga. Pranayama as a breathing practice was first mentioned in the literature around 300 BCE (2,322 years ago)! In fact, the original form of yoga was primarily focused on a combination of breathwork and meditation rather than a sequence of asanas (poses) as it is often practiced today.
How Does Box breathing Work?
Box breathing involves deep breaths drawn into the belly using the diaphragm. As discussed in more detail in my previous articles here and here, deep diaphragmatic breathing impacts the body in a multitude of positive ways. The ability to create calm and relaxation through box breathing primarily comes from its effect on the autonomic nervous system (read more on that here). Breathing in this way shifts the balance in favor of more parasympathetic nervous system activity, which helps your body rest, relax, and repair. It slows heart rate, stimulates digestion, and produces feelings of relaxation. Along with the direct physiologic impact on the autonomic nervous system, box breathing also includes focused visualization. This visualization further helps to calm your nervous system and allows you to sink into the rhythm of the breathing practice.
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How to Perform Box Breathing
Box breathing is so named because it consists of four distinct and equal stages. These four stages are visualized as the sides of a box. Although box breathing can be practiced in any position, I recommend starting either laying on your back or comfortably seated.
- Start by closing your eyes and visualizing a box. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four. Draw the air first into your lower abdomen, gradually filling your lungs as you expand into the rest of your belly and finally into your chest. As you draw in this breath, focus your visualization on traveling up one side of the box.
- With your lungs full of air, hold your breath for another count of four. Rather than clamping down and creating pressure, maintain a sense of openness and expansion almost as if still drawing in breath. While holding, focus your visualization on traveling across the top of the box.
- Now, allow the air to leave your lungs through your nose for another count of four. Emphasize the feeling of your belly hollowing inward toward your spine. Squeeze your abdominal and rib muscles at the end of the exhale to fully compress your belly and rib cage. Focus your visualization on traveling down the side of the box.
- Pause once more when your lungs are empty and hold for a final count of four. Relax your body and overcome the urge to take a breath. Focus your visualization on traveling across the bottom of the box, returning to the start.
The typical recommendation is to practice for at least five minutes per day. Longer practices of ten or even twenty minutes can produce an even greater relaxation effect.
Go try out some box breathing! Pay close attention to how your body feels before, during, and after this practice. If you have a heart rate monitor, see how your heart rate changes from the start to the end. There is solid science supporting the mechanisms at play here, so you’re all but guaranteed to get some benefit.
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.