Please Don’t Put the Breath in a Box
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | February 10, 2023
Square breathing (or box breathing) is trending.
This is the “breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4” technique. Sometimes it’s taught with higher numbers.
It’s supposed to be a simple, effective way to work with your breath to calm down. And for some folks it is.
But it’s no cure-all.
If someone loves square breath and it helps them sleep better or feel less anxious, that’s great. But the idea that everyone will benefit from this is…well (I’m sorry I have to do this)…full of hot air.
Sometimes square breath gets introduced as part of a junk drawer of take-it-or-throw-it-back-in breathing techniques that include things like pursed-lip breathing, 4:7:8 ratio, and/or belly breathing. Offering a suite of breathing practices is better than offering only one, of course. But it’s also a problem, because approaching breathing practices as if they are items in a $12.99 all you can eat smorgasbord of techniques ignores the history and tradition of breathing. Pranayama is a nested system that resides, intentionally and systematically, within the wider system of yoga practices. Like asanas, it can take many years to learn it well, and even longer to teach it.
The TikTok-ification of breathing practices means it’s sort of a free for all out there, and that’s a problem for many reasons.
Let’s take a moment to unpack this box.
First, your lungs themselves don’t really work – it’s the muscles around your lungs that do the work. Which means that if you know how to help folks prepare the respiratory musculature through asanas, they are going to have better breathing experiences.
The kind of asanas you will do depend on the breathing practice you are working up to. When your respiratory muscles are prepared with asanas, then the breathing practice is going to be significantly more effective.
A second point is that in terms of the physiology of breathing, most people exhale 1.5 times as long as they inhale. So a 4 count inhale and a 4 count exhale could potentially cause a little sympathetic nervous system arousal for some people. Which is fine, if that’s what you are trying to do. But square breath is typically sold as a way to downregulate the sympathetic nervous system. Doesn’t it make sense to understand something about the tradition of pranayama before teaching a practice?
Which leads me to a third point: people 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.
No. 4: Let’s talk about the pauses after the inhale and exhale. These are often called “holds.” But, in pranayama, there should be no breath holding at all. Rather, the space between the inhale and the exhale, or the exhale and the inhale should be a pause. After your inhale, that pause should feel as if you are still inhaling. Your epiglottis should stay open. The same thing with the pause after your exhale, it should feel like you are still exhaling, never holding.
When you tell people to hold their breath without further explanation, many will end up holding their breath like Agnes in Despicable Me, and that could be a problem, particularly if you don’t know the state of someone’s cardiovascular health or their trauma history.
Additionally, for many people, trying to inhale to 4, then pause for 4, then exhale for 4 is (for them) a breathing feat of Olympic proportions (let alone being asked to bump that up to 8 or 10). But then, on top of it, you’re asked to pause for another 4 after your exhale. Yikes! That can be downright anxiety producing. I have worked with plenty of people who would be completely overwhelmed psychologically and physiologically if they tried to do any kind of square breathing – it would not be remotely relaxing for them.
My fifth point is this: of the four parts of the breath, the inhale and the exhale are, obviously, the most important. So, if you take your time and slowly build up to comfortable numbers, they are probably a good place to start your pranayama. I’ve worked with folks with ranges from 3 to 15. It can be that different. Similarly, I’ve worked with folks whose comfortable exhale is 3 to 18.
Longer is not better, it’s just different and since your breath is as unique as you are, it’s never all that helpful to try to do someone else’s ratio, to live in someone else’s box – because you haven’t lived their life.
The way you get into the inhale, the exhale, and the pauses is complicated, and I can’t really teach it in a blog post. Suffice it to say, that it is much more nuanced than square breathing. However, if you have a fairly clear idea of a comfortable length for your own inhale and exhale, then you can add some pauses – maybe 1, 2, or 3 counts. And these can certainly be appropriate and helpful for nervous system regulation – in the moment as well as resilience-building over time. The main thing is that your breathing practice should feel comfortable, easeful, and pleasant. Symptoms like lightheadedness, dizziness, a headache, or nausea are telling you that you are pushing your breath, and that’s not good.
So please, don’t put the breath in a box, it deserves much more space. For a few thoughts about how to use asana to prepare the breath for a squarish (more quadrangle really) breathing practice, please check out this video.