Box breathing—Or boxed in?

With the internet—and particularly social media—any idea can become a trend in days or even hours. Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about a yoga technique called box breathing or square breath (which yogis know as sama vritti pranayama). Box breathing, according to Web MD, has a wide range of positive and desirable effects:

  • It can help you cope with panic and stress when you’re feeling overwhelmed. 
  • It can help you to sleep when you are dealing with insomnia.
  • It can help to control hyperventilation, as you can “instruct” your lungs to breathe rhythmically.
  • It lowers blood pressure and decreases cortisol (a stress hormone), which can improve your mood.

These and similar claims about box breathing are now ubiquitous in cyberspace, and they often come with a how-to. These instructions are usually simple, such as breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, then repeat. (The count varies among sources.) Kristine Weber, C-IAYT, recently covered box breathing on her blog, and lots of folks commented about how the technique had induced anxiety, not calm. As Weber details, any one person’s breathing is subtle and complex, and learning to manipulate it takes skill, practice, and time:

[P]eople need different things. Your breathing pattern is a reflection of your biography. It is influenced by your genes, epigenetics (whether or not certain genes have been turned on), disease processes, your mental health, your mood in the moment, your environment, your culture, your sleep, the quality of the air you breathe, and more. So putting everyone into the same box for breathing is not taking any of those factors into account. Like everything about human beings, breath is biopsychosocial-spiritual. And a breathing practice should take your own personal, rich history into account.

In Light on Pranayama, a well-known yoga text on breathing practices, the instructions for sama vritti pranayama are 18 steps long and only gradually work toward the four-part breath so often shared on the internet as the starting point of box breathing. To understand more about this kind of breathing practice—and why you need a well-trained guide to help you get the most from it—visit Weber’s post, “Please Don’t Put the Breath in a Box.”

To find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist to guide you through breathing practices and other tools of yoga, search our database.