In and Out of the Water, Exploring Breath

24/02/2020, Samahita

For hundreds of years humanity have had a fascination for exploring breath underwater. As an example, Ama divers in Japan have used prolonged breath-holding techniques to collect shellfish and seaweed below the surface for over 2000 years.  Another skilled set of divers being the 'Bajau Laut' who live a semi-aquatic existence in the Indonesian archipelago. In a typical day, they may spend up to 10 hours in the water. The people of Baju also give birth in the water and their children learn to dive before they walk on land. In todays age natural freedivers, armed with a spear, they fish at depth for minutes at a time, all on one breath. In order to achieve the ability to skilfully move underwater on one breath, all of these people have had to prepare physically and mentally. One must focus the mind on the experience of the breath, or absence of breath for that matter, and be completely relaxed while making these extended holds.

Research has shown that there are no specialised genes held by the Ama divers in Japan or free divers in Sweden as we modern humans share the same physiological qualities necessary for long breath-holds under the sea. The diving response can be practiced and trained.

Physiological Effects of Freediving

Once our face goes underwater, your vagus nerve triggers a series of adjustments in your autonomic system. During this period of time your heart rate slows down, a process known as bradycardia, as does your metabolism, both allowing your body to conserve much needed oxygen. Depending on the temperature of the water, if it is colder there will be a stronger response. Furthermore, your blood vessels also narrow, a process known as peripheral vasoconstriction, which diverts blood from the hands and feet towards the heart and brain. As you dive deeper and deeper, there is an increasing amount of pressure placed on your spleen to produce extra hemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen in the body. Additionally, as you increase in depth, past eighty meters, a surprising physiological discovery starts to occur, which defied the reasoning of physics. Some of your blood shifts and forms a thin layer around your lungs, making a protective barrier, which prevents your alveoli from collapsing down.

When holding your breath, blood oxygen levels also decline  while carbon dioxide levels rise. This stimulates a small cluster of chemoreceptors located in your bilateral carotid bodies, which runs along your neck. These chemoreceptors send messages about the state of he circulating blood to the brain centers regulating neural outputs to the heart and circulation, further establishing the parasympathetic, slowing effects on the heart. 

As babies these changes to our physiological system underwater, called the mammalian diving reflex, is something that we do. It is also what gives us the ability  to swim underwater until we are 6 months old. This ability is also something that we share with aquatic mammals, such as: dolphins, seals, otters, muskrats and beavers; as well as diving birds, like ducks and penguins.Due to the fact these animals are ble to conserve oxygen so well, many of these species can breath-hold for up to an hour at a time. 

Introspective Side of Freediving

But why would anyone want to explore the world in just on breath? Some free divers talk about the way in which it calms them mentally, by giving them a greater awarness of the body, breath and mind. There is a relaxing quality to feeling buoyant and weightless while defending in the ocean, especially when one goes past their buoyancy and starts to experience the sensation of free fall. 

As in pranayama, commonly known as breath work, when exploring the nature of breathing, in freediving you want to have the body feeling as relaxed and effortlessly supported as possible. Being submerged in water can allow you to identify areas in the body which may be unnecessarily tense. This focused mental state, where you are fully in tune to the present moment you are in. In this moment, you an give insights into your mind’s inner workings.

Increased Breath Awareness

Once you have left the water, this heightened state of presence can last throughout the day. Back on land, you could be able to appreciate the nourishing effects of breath on another level. By taking time to tune into your breath and simply slow it down, you can achieve many parasympathetic, relaxing, effects on your body. If you notice your breath becomes short, shallow or rushed, at any point, simply taking in a slow, deeper inhale and exhale can provide an immediate change to your system.

Try to slow down your breath rate to six breaths per minute as this may trigger the body to widen blood vessels and calm the heart rate. A long, slow exhalation also stimulates the vagus nerve, which links your brain to your lungs, heart, digestive tract and internal organs, and so subconsciously soothes you after a stressful, fearful or dangerous event. When you begin to breath slowly, the nerves inside your nose can fire signals in a slower rhythm, which prompts different parts of the brain to do the same. In reecent research, it has been shown that slowing your brwath to just three breaths per minute can increase theta brainwaves, which mimics a state of deep, slow-wave sleep. By being in this state you may feel at ease, calm and ready to repsond to life.

Breath is such a vital function. So taking a few moments to regain yourself, relax, slow down, tune in, readjust and center, is well worth it, whether on land, or when you are about to dive deep.

If this blog has got you interested in starting your wellness journey call our wellness advisors at 020 7843 3597 or enquire here.

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