If you’re a reader of warrior.do, you know I’m a huge proponent of transformative technology to sync into peak mental states – whether biofeedback training to induce relaxation, brainwave entrainment to enhance focus, or floatation tanks to reset your mind.
From everything I’ve shared, the breath stands alone as the most practical tool in our consciousness hacking toolbox. Like other mind-shifting technologies, the breath can be used to tap into a wide array of mental states. Yet unlike the other transformative technology, the breath is with you at all times, its always on in the background of your life, its free, and backed by thousands of years of trial and error experimentation in various eastern cultures.
Square breathing (also known as box breathing) is one of the best breath techniques I’ve come across that I’d like to talk about today. It’s recently been made famous by Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL whose special operations team would use it to stay calm in the high-pressure, chaotic environments they found themselves in.
It’s a dead-simple technique that will allow you to quickly:
- Focus better
- Relax your body and mind
- Think more clearly
- Relieve pain
- And much more
A few years back, when I was suffering from a concussion and my mental health plummeted, square breathing was one of the tools I depended on to get me through the hurricane of stress, anxiety, and depression the injury threw at me. Within seconds of practicing it, the tension that once paralyzed my mind quickly released, allowing me to find shreds of peace amidst the depression. It’s a tool that helped save my life and for that reason, I can’t recommend it enough.
In this article, we’re going to explore square breathing – its history, its science, and most importantly how to practice it for maximum benefits.
The History of Square Breathing
When you hear stories of Navy SEALS using square-breathing to hack their mind, you’d imagine that the cutting-edge technique was developed recently. In reality, it’s an ancient practice with roots from the Indian Pranayama tradition, a system dating from the 5th century which manipulates the breath to allow Prana (life energy) to better flow throughout the body.
Within this tradition, square breathing is formally referred to as Sama-Vritti. In Sanskrit, Sama can be thought of as equanimity, calming, or centering. Vritti, literally means “whirlpool”, which can be thought of as the fluctuations of the mind. So Sama-Vritti refers to the calming of the mind.
Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” Sama-Vritti (or square breathing) allows you to do just that.
The Science of Square Breathing
The practice of square breathing involves equalizing the length of inhalation and exhalation of the breath. By breathing slowly, deeply, and evenly, a number of amazing things happen in the body.
For one, the body’s parasympathetic nervous system gets activated. Why does this matter? The parasympathetic nervous system is what controls the body’s “rest and digest” response. It’s job is to turn various systems of the body off and rejuvenate energy reserves. Studies have found that deep, even breathing increases parasympathetic activity, allowing practitioners to decrease effects of stress and strain on the body.1
Secondly, square breathing trains your body to take deeper, fuller breaths. Musculature systems such as the intercostal muscles between your ribs and the diaphragm in your belly constricts and expands, allow your lungs to take in oxygen. square breathing tones and stretches these muscles, allowing you to take in fuller breaths at rest.
Down below are a few additional, evidence-backed benefits this practice can bring to your life:
Benefits of Square Breathing Backed By Science
Increased Attention – A study that examined the effects of slow, diaphragmatic breathing on cognition followed forty participants, half of whom were assigned to either a breathing intervention group (BIG) or a control group. The BIG group showed a significant increase in sustained attention after their slow breathing training compared to the control group.2
Blood Pressure Regulation – Several studies have explored how effective slow breathing can be on lowering the blood pressure in hypertensive sufferers. Findings show slow breathing increases “baroreflex sensitivity”, which is in charge of regulating blood pressure through the heart rate7 8.
Pain Reduction – Slowed breathing has shown to significantly reduce feelings of pain from sufferers of chronic ailments such as fibromyalgia. Participants in a study by St. Joseph’s Hospital reported less pain when their plans were introduced to heat pulses while practicing slow breathing exercises.
How To Practice Square Breathing
Now that you know a bit of the history, the science, and clear-cut benefits of square breathing, you’re probably wanting to know how to actually do it. One of the reasons people rave about this technique is how damn simple the practice is. It involves four easy steps:
- Expel the air from the nose for a count of four
- Hold and keep your lungs empty for a count of four
- Inhale air from your nose for a count of four
- Hold and keep the air in your lungs for a count of four
As you can see, each step involves a count of four, making the breathing style resemble a square:
Keep in mind that for inhale, you’ll want to continuously breathe throughout the count of four (and not take a quick breath in). The same is true for the exhale.
Also, I typically breathe through my nostrils, but others prefer breathing in through their nostrils and out through their mouth. Do whatever works for you.
As you get more experienced with square breathing, you can experiment with a count of five or six. But for most people, a four-count will work just fine.
As you’ve just read, square breathing is a dead simple technique that allows you to quickly shift your state of mind to perform better, think more clearly, and generally feel awesome. Try it out and let us know your results.
The beauty of square breathing is your ability to practice it almost anywhere you go. Whether sitting in hectic rush hour traffic, winding down in bed at the end of your day, diving into a complex project at work, or even reading an article online.
So try it out now, what are you waiting for?
- Jerath, Ravinder, et al. “Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system.” Medical hypotheses 67.3 (2006): 566-571.
- Ma, Xiao, et al. “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in psychology 8 (2017): 874.
- Tsang, Hector WH, et al. “Effect of a qigong exercise programme on elderly with depression.” International journal of geriatric psychiatry 21.9 (2006): 890-897.
- Descilo, Teresa, et al. “Effects of a yoga breath intervention alone and in combination with an exposure therapy for post‐traumatic stress disorder and depression in survivors of the 2004 South‐East Asia tsunami.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 121.4 (2010): 289-300.
- Manjunath, N. K., and Shirley Telles. “Influence of Yoga & Ayurveda on self-rated sleep in a geriatric population.” Indian Journal of Medical Research 121.5 (2005): 683.
- Brown, Richard P., and Patricia L. Gerbarg. “Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: part II—clinical applications and guidelines.” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 11.4 (2005): 711-717.
- Joseph, Chacko N., et al. “Slow breathing improves arterial baroreflex sensitivity and decreases blood pressure in essential hypertension.” hypertension 46.4 (2005): 714-718.
- Elliott, William J., et al. “Graded blood pressure reduction in hypertensive outpatients associated with use of a device to assist with slow breathing.” The Journal of Clinical Hypertension 6.10 (2004): 553-559.