Here is a simple breathing technique that has been immensely helpful to many during this last year when we have all been battered by crises and uncertainty. It is known by various names — the Navy Seals call it tactical breathing, others know it as box breathing or yogic breathing. It is a simple technique that takes a few minutes at most, and has been proven to reduce stress and get one centered on what is actually happening around them.
John Stanton, co-founder of Chōsen Experiences, explains: “Box breathing or, how I (and the Navy Seals) like to call it, tactical breathing is a highly effective tool that I use every day to leverage the power of breath on my nervous system. It is my go-to before meetings to help me focus, when I am feeling overwhelmed to reset my calm, and even when I wake up in the middle of the night to fall back asleep.”
This is how it is done.
- Inhale through the nose for a count of 4.
- Hold the breath for a count of 4.
- Exhale for a count of 4.
- Hold for a count of 4.
The breath should come using the abdominal muscles and the chest should remain as still as possible.
If you do this 4 times you get 4×4, which is where the name box breathing comes from. I have done variations of 5×5 or 4×6; and all work great. If I wear a heart rate monitor while practicing, I can see my heart rate drop 5-10 beats/minute as my mind becomes focused on the breath, rather than projecting out some fear of the future.
“One of the reasons the Seals call it tactical breathing is that it helps you focus on what is actually happening in front of you”
“One of the reasons the Seals call it tactical breathing is that it helps you focus on what is actually happening in front of you at that very moment. So even in the case of impending danger one can actually be safe … and you need that mental space and acuity and calm to make clear decisions,” says John. So if the Navy Seals, who may be in a situation that a normal person would correctly diagnose as being imminently life-threatening, can use this ancient breathing technique, it will work for those of us faced with what is probably not actually all that bad.
The truth is that we are almost never in an actual life-threatening situation; it is that our fight-or-flight responses get activated by all manner of what is just noise. There may be a group of foolish people behaving badly on the other side of the world, but do you really want to allow them the opportunity to hijack your focus and live rent-free in your mind? This box breathing is a great way to get that sort of racket to quiet down, allowing us to focus on the things we can have an actual effect on.
I learned this breathing technique, and the science behind, it at Chōsen Experiences Resilience Class this past spring. They are running another session starting January 31.