This Breath Control Exercise Will Change Your Life
Published on: February 19, 2021

This Breath Control Exercise Will Change Your Life

As a kid, I grew up skin diving with my dad.  Following his lead, holding my breath and swimming underwater for long periods of time was something that came fairly easily to me.  From the beginning, I found the underwater world to be somewhat of a sanctuary; it was a place where I felt like I could fly, and it always seemed much easier to relax down there than in my normal life.   

As I got older, I started seeking out underwater adventures as an escape from everyday life, and it wasn’t until a freediving trip to the Bahamas that I learned how important learning to stay calm and relaxed underwater actually is. 

Cruising with Liz Parkinson

Liz Parkinson, one of my favorite friends and an ex-college roommate, had invited me to the West End of Grand Bahamas to tag along on a freediving trip with tiger sharks, something that I have always wanted to do. Liz swims with sharks for a living in the name of conservation, and while most people find them terrifying; swimming next to, and coexisting with, large fishy predators is her passion, and she is amazing at it.

Remember when I told you that being underwater was my happy place, and I find it easier to relax there than in most other places?  Cruising next to a 16-foot pregnant female tiger shark on just one breath quickly changed all that.  Trying to keep your heart rate down when an animal the size of a Volkswagen Bus is swimming at you isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do.

After the first day of the trip, I realized that if I was going to be able to hang with Liz (and her sharky friends), I was going to have to step up my relaxation game and get serious about preparing to hold my breath in an intimidating situation…it was time for the breathe-up. 

At its most basic level, the breathe-up is a cycle of diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, aimed at lowering your heart rate and preparing your body to stay relaxed underwater for an extended period of time.  If you ask 20 freedivers what their version of the breathe-up is, you will probably get 20 different answers, but the through-line is that they all are versions of a breathing pattern in which the exhale is longer than the inhale.  Pauses between the two help you slow your breathing and avoid hyperventilation. 

Here’s an example…

Inhale (this is a passive inhale, not a huge breath)

Pause for 2 counts

Exhale for 8 counts (try hissing like a snake to regulate the speed of your exhale)

Pause for 2 counts

Repeat for a few minutes.  Keep in mind that the breathe up is meant to help you relax.  If exhaling for a count of 8 is difficult for you, or if you find it stressful in any way, try to reduce the exhale to 6 counts instead.  As long as your exhale is longer than your inhale, you are actively lowering your heart rate, which helps you relax as well as optimizes Oxygen conservation in the body.

Not Just for Freedivers

The Breathe Up isn’t just for Freedivers…it can help Surfers prepare for hold downs as well. Photo: Larry Cole @zixaby.surf

As it turns out, the ‘breathe up’ technique isn’t just helpful for relaxing underwater, it has some everyday applications as well.  If you are a surfer getting ready to paddle out into heavy surf, spending a few minutes on the beach breathing will help your body adjust a little bit easier to hold downs.  Even if you are not an athlete or a person who likes to be in the water, implementing this breathing pattern into your everyday life can help you deal with stressful situations.

“I find that I can apply the ‘breathe-up’ to my life on a fairly regular basis,” Liz says. “It’s a great way to relax and it helps me get ready for a big event or anything important I have to do. Or, if I am just feeling stressed out in the middle of the day, I take five minutes to myself and I find that breathing through the cycle nice and calmly on my own somewhere really helps me out.”

In addition to its relaxation benefits, here are a few other ways the breathe-up will improve your overall health:

Stress reduction

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. In addition, practicing the breathe-up first thing in the morning can serve as a kind of meditative practice, helping you to relax, to stay calm, and to improve focus by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Rids lungs of residual toxic air and makes oxygenation more efficient

For the most part, a healthy human is only two deep breaths away from 100 percent blood oxygen saturation, so using the breathe-up has more to do with relaxing than actual oxygen saturation. However, relaxation does promote oxygen storage in the body, and belly breathing pulls air into the voluminous bottom of the lungs. The breathing cycle used in the breathe-up also helps rid the body of toxic air that has built up in the lungs throughout the day, or after exercising.

Balances out the nervous system

Breathing exercises in general help to balance out the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  When your sympathetic nervous system is activated, your body is in “fight or flight” mode.   By slowing down breathing, you will override this stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a variety of health benefits including lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure, increased energy, improved mood, reduced anxiety, improved sleep and better digestion.

So, whether you are trying to co-exist with big fishy friends, caught in a hold down situation, or just looking to manage stress in everyday life, the breathe-up will change your life.

Want to put the breathe up to the test?  We offer both adult and grom breath control courses in the Orange County area. If you are interested in joining us for breath control training, click here for more info.

**While breath hold training has many benefits not only in the water, but on land as well, it is important to mention that you should NEVER practice breath hold training alone. Drowning is always a possibility, regardless of your ability level, so make sure you always train with a buddy, especially when training in the water.

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