Pranayama, Life, and Freediving
Written by Owen Costello, 8/20/21
Edited by Nathan Vinski and Rae Ward
Pranayama is often translated in the West as “breathwork,” or “breathing exercises,” but literally it means ‘to extend Life Force.’ Prana is our Life Force, or breath and ayama means ‘extension.’ Our minds and our breathing are seamlessly interwoven. If our mind is racing our breathing is most likely rapid, shallow, erratic or all three. If our mind is calm our breathing will reflect this as well. A calm mind produces calm, steady, deep breathing which creates a positive feedback loop with its reciprocal nature. What I mean by that is that it goes both ways. If we consciously breath rapidly or strongly, using certain techniques, we can stimulate the mind and energize the body. If we deliberately slow the breathing, taking deep slow breaths with the diaphragm rather than with the upper chest (clavicular breathing) we can watch our mind begin to settle.
Human beings are unique in our ability to consciously influence our autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for unconscious functions such as metabolism, heart rate, and tissue repair. We do this by taking control of our breathing. The yogis knew this thousands of years ago and only recently has the power of breathing reached the mainstream as an effective alternative or supplement to traditional western methods of mental health care. In this article, you will be exposed to the relationship between your breathing and your mental and emotional wellbeing. You will also see how freediving serves as a perfect platform for introspection, self-awareness, and can lay the foundation for mindfulness in day-to-day life. The reciprocal is also true. You will see how developing the aforementioned qualities, mindfulness as an approach to all areas of life, and the application of ancient yogic teachings can serve to make your diving more mindful, more transformative and serve the greater purpose of your life and happiness. It should come as no surprise that we best serve others when we best serve ourselves. From this place, we can be more present, speak with joy, purpose, and enthusiasm – which comes from ‘en theos’ which means ‘to be filled with God (Spirit, Life Force, Energy, whatever, etc.) – and be fully engaged with whatever we are doing. “By regulating prana, we regulate our minds, because the two always go together. If one is controlled, the other is automatically controlled,” Sutras II.50. “As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed,” II.52. The veil that Patanjali is referring to is comprised of your fears, limiting beliefs, doubts, ignorance (mistaking the mind for who you actually are,) anger, jealousy, insecurity, and egoism. So what is holding you back in life? What is making your dives stressful? or the thought of freediving seem completely out of the question? Fear of the unknown and this underlies so many of the others. For example, ignorance will remain as long as you hold to a fear of what you do not know. Anger will remain as long as you hold on to a fear of what you do not understand. Jealousy will remain as long as you hold on to a fear of what you may lose, or of what you don’t have. A life lived in the shackles of depression will remain that way if you are afraid to live the life you’ve imagined, believing it to be a fairytale and not your highest potential and best life. The knowledge from yoga is largely experiential and the benefits and insights cannot come from study alone or sporadic classes when they fit the schedule. However, more recently, scientists have begun to show exactly what is going on in our bodies when we practice pranayama. By now, it has been proven that deliberate, slow and controlled breathing effectively manages things like depression, anxiety, and fear. To understand how, we need to understand the stress response. Our frontal lobe is the part of our brain responsible for visualizing projections into the past and future, analyzing, discerning, and choosing one thing over another. This works both in our favor and against us. So, you want to compete in a freediving competition? Well, that will take months of training and designing a specific plan on how to achieve it. You want to go for that deep, long swim-through with the tiny entrance? Spend more time with manta rays or dolphins? Increase your depth and bottom time to spear that choice fish to feed yourself, your friends, and your family? Same thing. If the present moment calls for planning, then focusing on the future is being present so fire up that frontal lobe and get to it! However, this is also to blame for the “ceaseless chatter ricocheting around, distracting us from the present moment, sometimes creating catastrophes that will never materialize,” (Skillicorn, 91) and at others that lead to bludgeoning self-criticism or exacerbating fear of how other are judging us. Whether this area is left to run amok and ruin our lives and our dives or to be used to our advantage is up to us. We therefore need to learn to learn to employ our keen discernment, or viveka, to not be brought down into despair and depression nor made anxious or fearful. If our present discrimination is based on our past experiences and traumas which leave behind a sort of “karmic residue,” or samskaras, our limbic system will be on overdrive and constantly ready and waiting for the worst. Depending on our discrimination between stories, our brain and limbic system team up to activate the fight, flight, or freeze response, more formally known as the parasympathetic nervous system. “This primitive part of the brain is preverbal and cannot be calmed down with words, no matter how hard you or somebody else tries. It speaks the language of the body and breath.” Because it is part of the primitive brain, there is no distinction between the actual cause of stress. It could be a car accident, anxiety around the water or a new depth, or too much scrolling on social media, leading us to comparison, self-judgment, depression, and FOMO… it’s real. The end result, as far as the limbic system is concerned, is the same: STRESS! If you are carrying this tension in your body and your breathing is quick and shallow, your limbic system responds to this like a threat, regardless of whether the threat is real or imagined, present, long gone or has yet to happen. Certain pranayamas that I teach in my Freediver course as well as the breathing I teach as a PFI (Performance Freediving International) Instructor “act as a limbic lullaby” shifting you towards a calm, aware presence from a frantic, disturbed mind. As humans, we have a unique ability to take conscious control over unconscious functions in the body. By controlling our breathing we can directly influence our autonomic nervous system which is responsible for things like our heartbeat, metabolism and recovery. At any given moment, our breath can tell us exactly what our emotional state is. We are then presented with a clear path to shift our inner state. Deep, slow belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which tells the limbic system to relax and that the threat has passed. For these reasons, the breath is our most fundamental tool for evaluating and managing our inner world, regulating our nervous system and moving us from reaction to creation, with more evolved, uplifting thoughts. However, as is true for any tool, it is only good if the one wielding it knows how to use it. A blowtorch in untrained hands would be a disaster, but in the hands of a skilled welder or artist can provide immeasurable value to the lives of others as well as their own. The same is true for knowing how to breathe and, sadly, there are countless examples of people unaware of how to breathe properly leading to a litany of global health problems including chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD, ulcers, poor digestion, and hypertension, just to name a few. Arguably even more tragic is the fact that this universal, free tool goes largely unnoticed by the dominant healthcare system. In her book, Healing Depression Without Medication, Dr. Jodi Skillicorn says, “each inhalation brings in fresh air, oxygen and energy into our bodies. Each exhalation releases toxins. Yet nine out of ten people breathe improperly. This affects every system in the body, resulting in fatigue, mental fogginess, poor digestion, poor sleep, impaired immunity, sluggish metabolism and a buildup of toxins, which all lead to emotional and physical distress,” (93.)
Visualize with me for a second and see if this sounds familiar to you or someone you know: You wake up and immediately check your phone. Shoulders hiked up to your ears. Hurriedly, mind on the day ahead, you go to brush your teeth. Neck stiff and rigid, arm and shoulder frantically scrubbing away, the breath is shallow and quick. Maybe it stops entirely intermittently and unconsciously. Building tension. On the way out the door you stop to put your shoes on. Each time you bend down you stop breathing again then resume with a gasp. Ready for the day, I guess? How and where we breathe determines our inner state. When I say “where we breathe” I’m referring to a region in the body, not differentiating between breathing in the car, in the airport, or in line at the grocery store. If we are breathing into the upper lungs, this results in tension, the limbic system interprets this as a threat and responds accordingly, not distinguishing one cause from another. If our shoulders are moving up and down and our chest is puffing out while the belly stays flat, this is what is known as clavicular breathing and will trigger our “fight, flight, or freeze” response of the sympathetic nervous system. On the other hand, if we breathe deeply and slowly into the belly, we can move two thirds of the TLC (total lung capacity) and stimulate the vagus nerve, triggering our “rest and digest,” or parasympathetic response. Belly, or diaphragmatic, breathing also oxygenates the blood six times more than clavicular. It is easy to understand why breathing would not be promoted as an effective alternative to prescription medications. No one would make any money if the people knew that their best weapon in the fight to contain the monkey-mind, overcome depression and anxiety, and create personal meaning rests within each individual and has been there since birth and will be there until death. If it has not become abundantly clear, the breath is our anchor to the present moment. It is the remedy for many problems, and we can use it to shift from restlessness and unease to awareness and tranquility. Inherently, when we experience depression we are focusing on the past. If we are anxious, we are focusing on something that hasn’t happened yet. In the present moment, depression and anxiety cannot exist, and freediving is an experience that brings us to the now like no other. Worries about the future and trauma from the past cannot affect us here if we are truly present.
In yoga, the proper structure of a practice begins with movement (asana,) then leads to breathing (pranayama) to bring our focus within for the ultimate practice of meditation. Suspending the breath, both on full lungs and empty lung, has been a powerful tool to calm the mind for yogis since its beginning. For me, freediving has become a form of meditation in that the richness found between breaths is ripe for personal transformation. I see myself and my life clearly. I see whatever is truly on my mind and not just noise on the surface and resolve to take the appropriate action. Most often, that means I need to let something go like tension in my belly or worrying about a lingering parking ticket or a rigid viewpoint of mine that has caused conflict between myself and another. I use the quality of my dives as a barometer for the other areas of my life. Even if I am not by the water, like right now, as I’m writing this while visiting family in Connecticut, I use the breath to ground me. The calmer and more consistent my practice is, the calmer my breathing is moment to moment. I find that this benefits all areas of my life, not only my freediving. Eventually, conscious breathing becomes habit and by now diaphragmatic breathing has become my default. When I slip out of this awareness and catch myself brooding, depressed, fearful or whatever, I quickly resort to my breath and that puts distance between whatever mental or emotional disturbance is present at the time and my actual being. If there’s been an argument with a partner, the breath puts distance between the thoughts and the physical symptoms on my body like tension, and shallow breathing. When I come back to address the problem, I can do so in a calm, honest and realistic way. The problem does not go anywhere but my reaction to it is much more likely to produce a better result instead of making things worse.
The information I’ve just shared with you applies to any area of life and I’ve used these methods personally to overcome my own depression without medication and keep it that way. Freediving came into the picture later when I was, to a certain degree, freed from the stories and beliefs that had been keeping my mind in discord and my life unfulfilling. If you are interested in learning these techniques and experience the underwater world on a single breath but have never taken a formal course, I strongly encourage that you do. You have the tools to master your mind but only with proper instruction can you use them effectively. I offer entry-level PFI Freediver courses to ensure you are a skilled, knowledgeable and competent freediver with a very thorough understanding of safety practices. Each course also includes yogic techniques and lifestyle approaches to facilitate inner peace and mental and emotional balance. So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive in!
Namaste and aloha,
About the author:
Owen Costello is a new competitive freediver and an instructor for Performance Freediving International (PFI.) He started his freediving in 2018 in Koh Thao, Thailand with Apnea Total just before his first 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training. He had trained through the Master Freediver level with Freedive Utila before moving to Hawaii where he crossed over to PFI. He is currently enrolled in his 300-Hour Yoga Teacher Training online with D’vine Yoga in Rishikesh, India. In Kona, Hawaii, USA he offers courses combining freediving and yoga through Ocean Deep Yoga.