It’s odd to think of yoga and freediving as complementary activities, for it’s accurate to identify yoga as bodily movement led by breathing and freediving as bodily movement while breath-holding. Yet yoga practice can help improve freediving by expanding lung capacity and improving tissue flexibility; and lessons learned beneath while moving under pressure can improve yoga practice.
Living in Hawaii provides me with the opportunity to practice both yoga and freediving as often as I like. These activities are intimately related and both connect to the same core principle: breath work.
But the subject is important to anyone taking 20 to 30 thousand breaths a day, and that’s a big group, including everyone living.
But since practicing yoga, I’ve noticed a big improvement in my ability to hold my breath while diving. In yoga, I do breath-work to make yoga practice satisfying and my dives into the Pacific extraordinary.
It’s not so much the depth to which I can go in either the asana or the dive, but the satisfaction of getting the most from my potential as a diver, a yogi, and a breathing and grateful sentient being.
Growing up in the Midwest, I never dreamed that someday I’d be freediving in the ocean and swimming next to sharks, dolphins or rays. But it’s happened. Neither would I have thought that one day I’d be bending like the palm trees outside the yoga studio, experiencing the depths to which yoga would take me. But that happened too.
BREATH, YOGA’S FOCUS
Anyone stepping into a yoga class learns immediately that the first action focuses on breathing. And while the freediver may be interested in practicing breath holding to raise their efficiency of oxygen use in their blood, yoga breath work deliberately focuses on cleansing body and mind in order to improve life energy.
Men and women have been holding their breath and diving deep (freediving) for a long time; evidence from shores of the Baltic Sea points to the practice of apnea – or diving with one breath – going back between 7,000 – 10,000 years* Yoga too has a long history, some scholars believing its been practiced at least that long.
Diving well below the surface without an air tank requires a calm mind in the midst of a pressurized situation. The obvious mutual benefit for yogis and freedivers is turning tense nervous energy into relaxation and surrender. It happens with practice.
RELAXATION IN YOGA
This kind of softness underwater allows one to move efficiently in an environment 8 times denser than air. If an underwater swimmer is not relaxed and fluid in their movement, they are wasting energy and precious oxygen. It’s that way with yoga too.
Have you ever noticed someone practicing yoga with furrowed, forward-bending brow? Maybe they clench their teeth or grimace when holding Garurasana, Eagle Pose.
Tense facial expressions are obvious signs of an inner bodily tension and when one is taught, fluid movements in and out of asana or through water are nearly impossible.
Perhaps the best advice I’ve read about swimming was that the swimmer ought to think of moving through water as if he or she were a liquid rather than a solid. This is mental counsel, more than advice on a swimming stroke or finning technique.
It applies to yoga instruction too, when a teacher will remind the class to relax their faces, drop their shoulders, soften the muscles or send breath to the places where the yogi’s body is holding tension.
YOGA’S FLUID CORE
The yogi can benefit from freediving advice to move fluidly as if in water; and the diver can benefit from yoga’s counsel to soften face, shoulders and muscles. Following these complementary pieces of advice from both schools of thought can lead not only to improved asana or more time underwater, but a complete life makeover.
By following the swimmers advice of not pushing against – but rather yielding to – the yogi activates deliberate movements between muscular and skeletal systems with ease. But like freediving, this happens only with time and practice. And this means lots of time and practice.
At our core, we are fluid. Certainly we leave behind a small collection of ash in our final turning to dust, but the mutual lessons of freediving and yoga are intended to remind us of that fluid core.
Relax, move like liquid in and out of water. And while you’re at it, in the words of Ricardo Montabalan from a long-gone television program, “Smiles everyone.”
*Pelizzari, U., & Tovaglieri, S. (2004). Introduction: The History of Apnea. In Manual of freediving: Underwater on a single breath (Rev. and updated. ed.). Reddick, FL: Idelson-Gnochi.