Should we breathe in a box?

Box breathing…am I right?

Maybe you’ve heard of box breathing from a therapist or counselor…perhaps you were told about it from a breathwork facilitator…maybe you’ve seen it on instagram or pinterest…it could be that you googled ‘breathing for anxiety’ and box breathing is what came up…OR MAYBE you’re like, “box breathing!? what in the world is she talking about?”

Box breathing, or square breathing, is often touted as ‘the’ thing to do for anxiety or panic attacks. It is often said to inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4 to calm your nervous system; however this is not always the effect that it has for folks, and unfortunately sometimes has the opposite effect making their anxiety or panic worse. In ancient yoga practice, this particular breath was actually never meant for this purpose. 

Let’s talk about why…

When it comes to prāṇāyāma, or breathing practices/exercises, there are many different techniques with differing effects. Today we are going to focus on breathing ratios. For clarity, you will see me reference ratios throughout this blog post with numbers referring to each part of the breath. It will look like this: INHALE:PAUSE:EXHALE:PAUSE. Box/square breathing is a 1:1:1:1 (or 4:4:4:4, etc.) ratio, meaning that the inhale and exhale are the same length along with pauses after both. This falls into what we call a Samana (meaning all equal) ratio. Creating a, you guessed it, balancing effect. Now, you might read ‘balancing effect’ and think to yourself, “well if I’m stressed isn’t balancing what I need?”

Well, not exactly…

When we look at the spectrum of energetic effects of yoga (this includes both movement and breathing along with much more), we see that samana (balancing) is in the middle of the spectrum with langhana (reducing, eliminating, calming) and brmhana (nourishing, expanding, increasing) on either end. Given this spectrum, we can see that if we want to reduce anxiety, a langhana practice would be a better fit. Now there are many different ratios that would be considered langhana, but generally the simplest version is to focus on increasing your exhale so that it is longer than your inhale. Now, we never want to force or push on the breath, so if you are forcing your exhale to extend, this will not help anxiety to reduce. We want to gradually extend it over the length of several breaths. You might try finding an equal breath of inhaling for 4 and exhaling for 4 then every couple of breaths add an extra count to your exhale so that it becomes an exhale of 5, then 6, then 7, and so on, all while keeping your inhale at 4. The slow and controlled extension of your exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, shifting you from fight/flight/freeze over to rest and digest and can bring feelings of calmness. Counting not your thing? Let’s try bee breath instead!

Bee breath, or Bhramari prāṇāyāma

Bee breath, or Bhramari prāṇāyāma, is a great way to slowly extend your exhale when counting feels too challenging.

Let’s try it, hmmmm?

Take a typical inhale through your nose, then as you exhale through your nose begin to hum (“hmmmmmm”) and continue humming until your exhale is complete.

You might notice that you sound like a bumblebee buzzing around!

You might also notice that with little thought or effort, your exhale became much longer than your inhale, and hopefully you feel much calmer.

If you’ve given this a try, I’d love to hear how it went for you in the comments below!

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