Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four. Repeat. Those are the simple rules of box breathing, a breathwork technique I’ve been trying for the past week. While I’m familiar with the many benefits of deep breathing, this particular method — which supposedly has de-stressing powers — was entirely new to me. And I had questions.

Turns out that the box breathing technique, also known as square breathing, is meant to balance the length of your inhales and exhales, says Dr. Ingrid Yang, an obVus Solutions advisory board member, certified yoga therapist, and author of Hatha Yoga Asanas and Adaptive Yoga. While it sounds simple, balancing your breath actually allows your body to make full use of the oxygen exchange so that it can more effectively chill the heck out — something I often need to do.

“Box breathing works directly on your nervous system by turning down the ‘fight or flight’ response and activating the ‘rest and digest’ part of your nervous system,” Yang tells me. It’s a trick you can utilize at any given moment to combat a specific stressor, or whenever you just want to meditate or relax. You can truly do it any time: when you wake up, before going to bed, whenever you’re anxious — you can’t go wrong.

Personally, I found myself box breathing for the first time while working at my desk. I was typing away, holding my breath in gritty concentration, when I suddenly realized it’d been a minute since I’d taken an actual, deep breath. Since I was intent on testing the square breathing method, I inhaled for a count of four, held it, exhaled, then briefly held my breath again. And you know what? I did feel a little less stressed. Read on to learn more about the healing powers of box breathing, below.

What It’s Like To Use The Box Breathing Technique

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For the past week, I’ve done a few rounds of box breaths each day, taking the time to do it while at work, on the phone, if I woke up in the middle of the night, and whenever I experienced a rush of anxiety — all instances where I’d typically take shallow gulps of air, almost as if there wasn’t enough to go around. (This is common during times of stress, BTW.)

The main benefit I’ve noticed when using the technique is that counting serves as a nice distraction. Whenever my mind was racing, I found that it really helped to focus on counting to four as I inhaled and exhaled. (You can even draw a square with your finger as you breathe, Yang says.) Once my nervous system got the message — which only took about 60 seconds of breathing — my thoughts became less scattered and my body felt way less tense, all of which made it easier to relax, fall asleep, or focus on work.

While there does seem to be something to the four/four/four/four pattern, I did find myself wanting to inhale for longer. When I asked Yang about it, she said there’s nothing particularly magical about the number four, but that it’s simply considered a good place to start for breathwork beginners. “Counting to three may be too short and five may be too long, especially for the breath-hold part, because holding one's breath can also induce anxiety,” she says. Fair point.

She added that it isn’t unusual to crave a deep inhale when you’re stressed, but that it’s actually the exhale that’s been shown to assist in activating the relaxation response, thanks in part to the way it slows your heart rate (this is also why fitness trainers tell you to exhale during the hard part of exercises). “Part of the efficacy of the box breathing is also to teach us to come out of our default of focusing on the inhalation, and put more thought into our exhalation by making it the same length as the inhalation.”

With that newfound knowledge, I stuck to the four/four/four/four breathing pattern, returning to it on average about three times a day. According to Yang, there isn’t a prescription for how often you should try square breathing, though it is possible to overdo it. Take too many breaths and you can get lightheaded or dizzy, so it was entirely up to me to know when to stop. “If it feels good, keep going. If you don't feel well or see yourself become bored or ready to move on, finish your session and start up again tomorrow,” Yang tells me.

The TL;DR

Unlike meditation, which I often try and then quickly abandon, I didn’t feel bored while box breathing. And it didn’t feel like such an undertaking that I’d ultimately drop out of my routine, either. It was so easy to add to my day, and the benefits were noticeable enough that I actually wanted to do it. Even though it’s only been a week, I already know I’ll keep this box breathing technique in my stress-reduction toolbelt to pull it out whenever necessary.

Studies referenced:

Gibbons, CH. 2019. Basics of autonomic nervous system function. Handb Clin Neurol. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-64032-1.

Magnon, V. 2021. Benefits from one session of deep and slow breathing on vagal tone and anxiety in young and older adults. Scientific reports. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-98736-9.

Zaccaro, A., 2018. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience. doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353.

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