How the ancient practice of yogic breathing can complement freediving.
A few years ago, I read this article on BuzzFeed and immediately wanted to experience the mammalian dive reflex. It was a fascinating idea, going underwater to let the pressure shift change the way my body works—never mind that I’m a terrible swimmer who has asthma. But the allure probably came from that condition to begin with. How can a single breath of air last up to 12 minutes and around 300 feet underwater? That’s the kind of bodily shift that needs to be experienced instead of described.
I shared my interest with a friend, who has since gotten certified for open-water scuba diving and has been to many dives since. Meanwhile, I have remained landbound, rarely on the beach, and reading about freediving.
Take a Plunge
For centuries, seaside peoples have plunged into the ocean for their livelihood: fisher folk and divers for pearls, clams, seaweed, sea urchins. In more modern times, this has also become a sport and a hobby, with divers gradually pushing their limits in terms of time spent underwater and how deep.
In my case, I would need to work on my comfort in being underwater, my breathing, and my ability to stay centered. As it turned out, I would learn some of these skills through an oblique path—through yoga teacher training.
Yoga is actually eight sets of practices. It is traditionally called the Eightfold Path or ashtanga—literally translated as eight limbs. The poses we associate with it are from the third set of practices, or asana. The rest involve ethical and moral restraints (yama), ethical and moral practices (niyama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), and various aspects of meditation (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi).
The fourth limb is pranayama, or breath extension. This includes a set of practices that control the breath. These are usually done seated on the floor, at the end of asana or physical practice, and right before meditation.
Breath Control, Extension, and Retention
In a pranayama class, students will generally breathe while a metronome plays 60 beats per minute, which helps them time their inhales and exhales. A basic pranayama practice is sama vritti, or equal parts breathing. A student picks a breath count they can easily maintain; for example, they inhale for three beats and exhale for another three, and they maintain this for three to five minutes.
An intermediate practice is vishama vritti, or uneven breathing. For example, a beginner could inhale for three beats and exhale for six. Exhaling for double the count is recommended for beginners; this has a relaxing effect, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. More advanced students can try inhaling for double the count of the exhale—this should be practiced with caution because its energizing effects may agitate some beginners.
Advanced students of pranayama can, with a teacher’s supervision, try kumbhaka, or breath retention. This is done after inhaling (Abhyantara kumbhaka) or after exhaling (Bahya kumbhaka). The breath is held for a few beats along with holding two bandhas or muscular locks in the pelvic floor and the throat—this seals the breath in the body.
Pranayama teachers are conservative in sharing these practices with their students. For perspective from my personal experience, I’ve been taking pranayama classes since May 2017, and my teacher has yet to let me try breath retention—which is fine, because I still need to work on lengthening my inhales and exhales. Anyone interested in trying this practice is advised to do this with a teacher first.
Into the Deep
From here, we can explore the connection between the two activities. Pranayama can help increase lung capacity, breath control and awareness, and centeredness while on land. These skills will become crucial once in the open water, with the random variables of ocean currents, weather, and aquatic wildlife. My pranayama teacher, Liana Romulo, is herself a freediver and has had a number of freedivers in her pranayama classes.
Personally, I’ve yet to try freediving, but there’s enough encouragement around. One of my meditation classmates is also a freediver. Like me, she often struggles with overthinking, which brought us to meditation in the first place. But it seems freediving has the additional effect of quieting her thoughts while underwater—a meditative effect, possibly part of the mammalian dive reflex.
I once told Liana I wanted to experience it. Her answer? “Put your face in a basin of water. That’s enough to experience the mammalian dive reflex.” I’ll take her word for it for now, but I’ll try freediving in the next twelve months. When I do, I’ll write about it.
For those interested in trying freediving, look up Freediving-Philippines.
For those interested in pranayama, inquire at the Romulo Peace Center.