This time in „Take a Minute to Relax“ we present coral reef life in the shallows (Wakatobi, Sulawesi, Indonesia) and invite you to breathe. As we have been writing about „The reefs of Wakatobi“ in episode XI and „Coral Reef Protection“ in episode XXV of our series, we focus on the power of breathing. After all, it is a minute to relax. Enjoy!
The power of breathing
We as humans don’t need to think about breathing, we even continue to breathe when we are unconscious (involuntary breathers). Dolphins, on the other hand, are voluntary breathers, meaning they have to decide when to take a breath. Becoming aware of how we breathe and how breathing is connecting our body and mind is useful not only while diving. Our breath is controlled by the respiratory centre of the brain.
Automatically, we don’t need to do anything – but we can. When we feel stressed, our breathing pattern and rate change, also automatically as part of the evolutionary “fight-or-flight response”. We are taking shallow and rapid breaths into the chest rather than all the way into our bellies. That’s a natural response to be ready and alert. It can, however, increase the level of stress if we start to feel uncomfortable with this breathing pattern itself or have the feeling of not getting enough air.
All too often this process happens without us even recognising the connection to breathing, after all, there’s something else on our mind at that moment. At a time like that, body functions such as the response of the immune system or digestion, are having a lower priority. So, not a healthy state to be in for very long. We all have been overwhelmed by situations and emotions one way or another. Madly crying, highly agitated or simply furious, all have an impact on our breathing.
Just breathe to relax
Maybe somebody told us to “take a deep breath” or “just breathe slowly” and hopefully you noticed that focusing on breathing in and out deeply and slowly, actually calms you down. The connection between body and mind works both ways. As soon as we start to change our breathing pattern consciously, we signal the brain that we have the situation under control, resulting in feeling less stressed. Be kind and be patient.
Quickly and forcefully changing your own breathing pattern can lead to disruption, rather than the desired correction. Being able to lift yourself up is definitely worth working on. Breathing plays an important role in many relaxation techniques from yoga and meditation to mindfulness and other stress relief techniques and, of course, diving.
Note: For some people focusing on the breath is actually having the opposite effect (enhancing anxiety levels and panic).
Breathing and diving
If somebody doesn’t feel right underwater, it is the number one thing to do: Eye contact and making sure the breathing is under control. The easiest and most effective way is breathing together, deeply and slowly to get calm and relaxed. Place your hand in front of your regulator and move it away for exhaling and back towards the face for inhaling. If needed, signal slow/calm down by moving the flat hand (horizontal) up and down. Of course, breathing dry compressed air of a limited supply adds to the pressure to get the breathing under control. But what works underwater works also on land, where you can talk or count out loud for a rhythm.
In Open Water diving courses or any sort of try dives, you’ll often hear „breath deeply in and out“ or „breath normally“. But what is normal? In fact, we all breathe differently and our normal might not be the desired relaxed state the instructor is talking about. Deeply and slowly might even feel awkward and unnatural – in the beginning. Don’t worry. Most things feel awkward the first time. The more we practise the better we get and all of a sudden we can’t even remember what was the problem in the first place.
Ways to breathe
For starters, we look at ways to breathe. A good way to start is to actually get to know the different ways to breathe – on land. Lay down or sit comfortably with one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Just breathe in and out. Where do you feel a movement? There are two major ways to breathe: Using the diaphragm, a sheet of muscle underneath the lungs, or the muscles between the ribs. When breathing only into the chest, we are not using our full lung capacity. Subconsciously we might have trained ourselves to breathe only with the chest as flat bellies are considered to be more attractive. You can breathe with the diaphragm without moving the belly, but for full abdominal breathing, also known as belly breathing, the belly expands (partially) with the inhalation and contracts with the exhalation.
We have a detailed description of how to experience the different areas of the lungs and how to train the full power of breathing right here (just scroll down to „Experience different ways of breathing“).