Pundit Acharya once said, "only those who know how to breathe will survive". This might sound overly dramatic as the majority of us have all managed to get to where we are today giving very little thought to our breathing. But this lack of awareness of our breath does our health a great disservice. Considering breathing is something we do from our first cry to our last sigh, hundreds of millions of times (hopefully) throughout our life span, it begs the question: are we doing it as well as we could be? Most of us have dysfunctional breathing habits whether we realize it or not, but that’s a different article. This article is about how freediving improves your breathing. Helena Bourdillon explains.
Learning To Freedive Will Make You More Aware Of How You Are Breathing
"It was freediving that sparked my interest to learn more about functional breathing and how it can noticeably affect our wellbeing and health in the immediate moment both physically and mentally and how those benefits can then ripple forward into our future health. When I did my first freediving course back in 2013, I was told to lie down, relax and focus on my breathing. I was encouraged to do slow deep breaths down into my belly and to extend the exhale to help my body to relax and sink deeper into the floor. Learning to freedive will make you more aware of how you are breathing and how the breath can be manipulated to help you relax more deeply.
Relaxation means you have activated your Parasympathetic Nervous System response which is when the body is able to rest, digest, repair, and recover. Without spending a significant amount of time in this state every day and night, we are causing additional stress to our bodies physically and mentally as it struggles to keep us functioning properly in the here and now and it lays the groundwork for future illness and disease. I learned how to do a full inhalation using belly breathing to draw the inhaled air into the lowest part of my lungs first, then filling the mid-chest and finally the upper chest which reaches as high as the clavicle (collarbones).
Using belly breaths or Diaphragmatic Breathing, the Diaphragm which is the primary breathing muscle is exercised thus improving its strength and flexibility which is important and useful because a strong diaphragm draws the air down into the lowest part of the lungs where the most and easiest gas exchange takes place, meaning more available Oxygen with fewer breaths/less effort. Once I was thoroughly chilled (more so than I can remember having been before without the aid of some sort of massage therapy,) I was introduced to my first breath-hold and quite rapidly after that, the urge to breathe! These urge to breathe sensations, which for me start as butterflies in my upper abdomen followed by the onset of contractions (which feel like reverse hiccups,) don’t mean you are running out of Oxygen. They are in fact caused by the buildup of Carbon Dioxide in the body. The longer you are able to hold your breath, the better your tolerance to CO2 will become. The better your CO2 tolerance is, the more Oxygen is released from the Hemoglobin in the blood to the cells that need it to make energy resulting in better performance and endurance for less effort.
All of this was news to me at the time but I trusted in the process and found that as I progressed my breath-hold, I was able to relax more into the feelings of discomfort and could hold my breath for longer. Maximum breath-holds cause the spleen to contract and release more red blood cells which means better aerobic capacity. This contraction of the spleen causes further natural production of EPO (Erythropoietin) to replace the red blood cells the have been released from the spleen. The outcome is the same you would get if you trained at high altitude or took synthesized EPO (which is illegal if you are competing in sports). I began to notice a brief period during the breath holds where I felt totally at peace before the urge to breathe would start to kick in.
Stimulating the Parasympathetic Nervous System with calm breathing and a bit of breath-hold work can be a great source of anxiety and stress relief for some. The fastest way to cope with stress and anxiety is to focus on your breathing. By calming your breath not only are you focusing completely in the moment where it is not possible to be stressed but you are also activating the PNS which slows the heart rate, muscles relax, and blood returns to the prefrontal cortex and empathy circuits. All things that will make you feel better and more in control.
I was also taught how to do recovery breathing for use at the end of a breath-hold. The body has used a lot of the oxygen in the bloodstream during the hold and it is important to let out the high levels of CO2 and exchange them for fresh O2 as efficiently and quickly as possible using the appropriate technique. The muscles we use to inhale are different from the ones we use to exhale. Both are equally important for functional breathing so we need to make sure they are both strong and flexible through exercising them.
During my second freediving course, I was introduced to gentle lung stretching as a way of increasing available lung capacity and improving the flexibility of the diaphragm. More air in the lungs means more Oxygen gets into the bloodstream to be transported to the working muscles, where it is needed for the metabolic processing of energy which translates to longer breath holds and dives below the water and better aerobic capacity on solid ground too. Freediving is an excellent introduction to improving your breathing. It is a way to bring awareness to your body and breath. To learn to slow yourself down to stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System which has a whole host of immediate health benefits as well as improving your endurance, performance and mental focus.
However, there is so much more to functional breathing that isn’t covered in freediving, like the importance of nose breathing which is impossible to do while wearing a mask or a nose clip and yet is the foundation of functional breathing due to the numerous and essential benefits it gives us that mouth breathing simply does not and as a result is extremely detrimental to our health if done unconsciously for any length of time. Learning to freedive will certainly improve your breathing and I hope it also sparks your interest to learn even more about it so you can further improve your health and wellbeing in the moment and for your future.