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.
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I love your writing, but I can’t read it on a website with animation all over it.
I typically repurpose these on my FB page, so tomorrow you’ll be able to read it over there with no graphics.
You might be looking at the website through a tablet or phone? It looks just fine on my regular desktop computer.
Oh my goodness! Thank you for writing this blog. I feel the same. Because square breath makes me feel a bit anxious at times and the 4-7-8 feels impossible to me, I am really reluctant to teach them. Instead asking people to count their breath in and out and perhaps elongate by a count in and out if comfortable. And to pause. Never to hold. Thank you for writing this so eloquently. ❤️
Thank you for this explanation! The first time I went to a meditation class I was asked to step out after an anxiety attack brought on by the breathing activity. It triggered in me the sensation of suffocating, a memory of a medical emergency, and the sense that I could not get enough air. I have been wary ever since of breathing meditations and specific instructions in some yoga classes and now I have the explanation. I will be sharing your blog with my colleagues.
Thanks Kristine – I have been thinking a lot about this myself lately. Several of the classes i attend regularly have teachers that cue a hold – in fact one does it at the end of practice as a closing. I find it removes all sense of calm in me and so I don’t do it – I simply find a natural pause after my inhale and then exhale fully. I have been wondering if I was in the minority of folks who don’t enjoy this, but having this wonderful explanation of the biomechanics of the hold vs the pause really helps.
Yes Lawd! I can’t believe how ubiquitous box breath and 4-7-8 have become in the media. As a yoga therapist box breath makes little sense, and 4-7-8 breath even less. I’ve tried the latter after hearing Andrew Weil talk abt it so many times and it’s truly anxiety producing.
That is so wonderful .I have always struggled with the box breathing especially the hold after the exhale. I have been trying as you have suggested and it works so well for me.Thinking about it of course it should be unique for every person,we are all different.
Thankyou so much for that Kristine
Thank you for this blog, square breath is trending here too. I too love your writing by the way,
The use of breathwork is becoming more prevalent here in mainstream health care in the UK,
but, for a while now it’s started to bother me that the people facilitating it don’t understand it and aren’t familiar with pranayama, and have cherry picked particular breathing patterns that might as well be teaching some people how to hyperventilate, I love your quadrangle analogy.
Yes most of the time we’re looking to give the breath space, not confine it in a box, thanks for all you do Kristine 🙏
It’s hard to sit on my hands and not say anything when I see so much breathing being taught – so I write. Might be preaching to the choir, but I hope that folks get some ideas so that they can share in their communities. “I love that you are teaching breath work and would you like to know a little more about it?” may be a good conversation opener!
Thank you Kristine…..I loved reading this. A wonderful reminder that my yogis breathe to their own rhythm….not to mine. I always emphasize breathing…drawing energy on inhale and letting go on exhale.
I think you should put together some sort of course on pranayama do’s and don’ts. As a yoga teacher I feel I really need a more realistic assessment of pranayama practices. I think there is a lot of damage that can be done to our trauma population. It concerns me that there is not more teaching on all of its nuances in teacher training courses. So the ignorance gets passed on. Thank you for this blog. Very enlightening!
We’ll see. I’m all about teaching pranayama in a more methodical and thoughtful way than Tiktok for sure!
I don’t know if my comment got submitted. There seemed to be a glitch when I hit submit. Anyway, I wrote that I think you should put together a Pranayama course. There is not enough focus in teaching training programs. Therefore a lot of damage being done, especially to trauma survivors.
Thank you for this blog.
Just before I read this blog an early yoga teacher posted on you tube 4 count breath as a calming breath. Perhaps you saw it. Yes, I think a
pranayama course would be good but for now I’ll gather all the content I have from you on pranayama and review my Breath videos and books. I have begun putting a breath practice into every class with 5 count inhale, pause 5 count exhale pause to teach the relaxation response (Benson) with certain poses. Thanks.
I participated in box breathing at a class on Saturday and found the counting impossible to follow. The teacher counted out the 1 and ended up adding an extra count so it was really 5×5. I teach this in my own classes that I lead and let people take their own count. I have never had this problem on my own and as a teacher like I did with this this other instructor. It was very uncomfortable. I can see where 4 count could lead to exitation and panic instead of calming focus.
I will be looking at some other pranayama methods with my regular class and discuss the “hold” as well. No locking the throat, for sure.
This is SO so true! Such an assumption that everyone can fit into the same box! Always teach with options to take own count so that breath is never strained. I have to trust that people use their own common sense when watching these videos… but then I guess there will be a large proportion that don’t.