Box breathing (Sama Vritti Pranayama) is a type of controlled, paced, rhythmic breathing technique that has been found to be an excellent stress buster. Its most well known advocates are the US Navy seals who are amongst the most feared special forces anywhere in the world for whom stress is a constant companion in every minute of every day.
Its biggest celebrity endorser is retired US Navy seal commander Mark Divine who is also the founder of theunbeatablemind.com and sealfit.com which seeks to enhance mental toughness. Two of his famous quotes are:
“Before you can take control of your mind, you must first calm it down. The fastest way to calm your mind, along with your body, is through slow and controlled deep breathing”.
“It is most important to control the things that are most important in your life; and control of breathing is right up there”
Box breathing has also been used by athletes, soldiers, fire fighting personnel, police officers, and many others who perform and work in stressful environments. Box breathing has described in the ancient Indian Yogic Sciences as “Sama Vritti Pranayama” or square wave equal ratio breathing.
Box Breathing Technique:
Sit upright either on a straight back chair or cross legged on the floor in a quiet place which can help you to focus your mind on your breathing. Keep your hands relaxed on your lap with your palms facing upwards. Never attempt box breathing in a swimming pool, whilst in the sea, whilst under a shower or while driving a vehicle.
Slowly exhale fully through your mouth so that you consciously push all the air out of your lungs.
slowly inhale fully through your nose while counting 1 2 3 4 slowly in your head. Your inspiration must be at its fullest at the count of 4.
hold your breath while counting 1 2 3 4 slowly (at the same counting speed as in the previous step) in your head.
exhale fully through your mouth while counting 1 2 3 4 in your head (at the same speed as in previous steps). Exhalation should be complete at 4. Inhalation, hold in inhalation, exhalation, and hold in exhalation all should be for 4 seconds. This is the box, and all four sides of the box are of 4 seconds duration.
The number four is not sacrosanct and can be gradually increased to 5,6,7,……. and so on with practice and maturity. Beginners can start with a count of three if four is too difficult. The important thing is to ensure that the four sides of the box are of equal duration.
If you feel dizzy at any time (which can sometimes happen with beginners), don’t panic. Just lie down (do not stand up!), stop the box breathing cycle and resume normal breathing. Dizziness can sometimes occur in beginners do to the accumulation of CO2 which causes blood vessels to dilate and can result in a lowering of blood pressure and result in a transient reduction of blood flow to the brain. Dizziness which beginners sometimes experience, almost always disappears with practice. If you faint, you’ve gone too far …… slow things down.
Breathing is of two types.
- “Chest breathing” occurs during exercise and stressful situations.
- “Diaphragm breathing” occurs during periods of calm, is more efficient, works the diaphragm (the main muscle of respiration which separates the chest and the abdomen) very well.
Box breathing must be practiced with “diaphragm breathing” for its benefits to accrue. Diaphragm breathing is characterized by an outward and inward movement of the abdomen (tummy), rather than the chest during breathing.
Box breathing can be done several times a day. Start with doing it for 5 minutes 3-4 times a day. The duration and frequency can be ramped up gradually with practice.
How does Box Breathing work:
The autonomic nervous system of the human body is requlated by two equal and opposite subsystems. They are the sympathetic system (the accelerator) and the parasympathetic system (the decelerator). Sympathetic hyperactivity is a simple definition of “stress”. Sympathetic hyperactivity increases the levels of adrenaline and stress hormones (such as cortisol) in the blood, while parasympathetic activity has the opposite actions and brings about a calming effect.
Parasympathetic activity also reduces the levels of pro inflammatory substances in the blood. High blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol increases the heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone and general state of alertness (lack of sleepiness). It decreases the efficiency of other bodily functions such as those of the digestive system and the immune system. It’s therefore easy to see what deleterious effects on the body would ensue when stress is chronic / protracted.
The benefits of box breathing (sama vritti pranayama) have been published in scientific journals:
A study by R. Bhargava, M.G. Gogate and J.F. Mascerenhas published in the Indian Journal of Physiology in 1989 demonstrated among other benefits, bradycardia, and reduction in systolic blood pressure with the use of this breathing technique.
Ujjayi pranayama which is similar to sama vritti pranayama (box breathing) has been shown to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system in an article authored by J. Mahour and P. Verma published in the National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology in 2017.
A recent study by A. Zaccaro and G. Pennazzi from the University of Pisa, Italy, published in the Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy suggests that deep meditative and altered states of consciousness are mediated by increased parasympathetic activity which could be upregulated by sama vritti pranayama.
The beneficial effects of many breathing techniques including box breathing have been described in detail by Andre Christophe in the journal – Scientific American in 2019.
Effects of box breathing:
The restoration of balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems induced by box breathing has numerous clinical benefits.
- Lowers blood pressure.
- Lowers the heart rate
- Reduces sweating
- Reduces muscle cramps
- Reduces involuntary muscle twitches.
- Enhances the digestive process
- Enhances functions of the immune system
- Promotes better quality of sleep.
Clinical uses of Box Breathing:
- Panic attacks
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic pain management
- Recovery after heart / lung surgery
On the world wide web, there are numerous downloadable apps (both ios and android), and youtube video tutorials to help you further in your practice of box breathing if you need more help. Here is one.