What Is Box Breathing, and What Are Its Benefits?

Spoiler: The Navy SEALs rely on this technique, and so should you.

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You’ve probably heard of mindfulness and meditation before, but what about box breathing? This breathing technique, commonly known as “square breathing,” has been shown to help relieve anxiety and promote a state of relaxation. Whether you’re stressed about a work presentation or have more general anxiety, box breathing can be a helpful tool to keep in your repertoire of mental health coping strategies. It’s also an effective tool for relaxing at bedtime.

What Is Box Breathing? 

One of the easiest ways to stay present is by focusing on the breath. Box breathing takes this life-sustaining action to the next level by adding in a timed element.

“Just like a box has four sides, in box breathing, you practice breathing slowly and evenly through the four different parts of your breath: inhaling for four, holding your breath for four, exhaling for four, and holding after your exhale for a count of four,” says Lindsay Monal, meditation director at YogaRenew Teacher Training. “This practice is derived from a yogic breathing technique called Sama Vritti Pranayama, which requires you to balance the length of your inhales and exhales.”

What Are the Benefits of Box Breathing?

Box breathing can benefit practitioners mentally, physically and emotionally. While you may not feel the full benefits after one session, if you’re consistent just like with any exercise, then you’ll start to notice its staple benefit: relaxation. 

Box breathing helps calm your nervous system, shifting you from sympathetic dominance, the ‘flight or fight’ response we feel in times of stress, to parasympathetic dominance, or the ‘rest and digest’ state, where our bodies can restore and come back into balance naturally,” Monal says.

In addition to feeling relaxed, box breathing can help lower blood pressure and reduce levels of cortisol, she adds. For those who have trouble sleeping, if you practice before bed, you may find that you have an easier time falling asleep. Not sold yet? Monal adds that the U.S. Navy SEALs use this technique to relieve stress and stay calm in high-pressure situations.

Box breathing can be emotionally intense for some people because you’re focusing on the breath, and it provides a space for buried thoughts to come up. With that in mind, it’s important to practice it in a way that’s helpful for you. To come up with a routine that works for you, Monal suggests working with a meditation expert and discussing any uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up with a licensed therapist.

How to Do Box Breathing

Whether you’re trying box breathing for the first time or need a refresher, here’s how to do it: 

  1. Find a quiet place where you can focus, free from distractions.
  2. Sit either in a chair with your feet planted on the floor or on the floor with a cushion under your seat. 
  3. Bring your attention to your breath for a few rounds and just start to notice the length and speed of your breath without changing anything. Use this time to connect with yourself and notice how you feel before beginning box breathing
  4. Exhale and release all the air from your lungs.
  5. Inhale through your nose for a count of four.
  6. Hold your breath for a count of four.
  7. Exhale from your nose for a count of four.
  8. Hold on empty for a count of four.

Monal suggests practicing this breathing at the 4-4-4-4 ratio for three to five rounds. If you start to feel lightheaded or you’re gasping for air, stop the practice and return to your normal breathing pattern. 

If you need a little more guidance, there are several apps that offer guided breathing and meditation sessions — check out Calm and Headspace to start. 

How Often Should You Do Box Breathing? 

The great part about box breathing is that you can do it anywhere for as much or as little time as you have. Plus, there’s no perfect time to practice, whether that’s morning or night, while you’re stuck in traffic or while your 2-year-old is having a tantrum. 

“It’s great to do this practice when you are already calm, so that when you are experiencing stress or anxiety, you have this technique in your back pocket to slow you down,” Monal says.