Learning to Exhale

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namaste mountain pose

The shuttle was late picking us up. We had waited until our second-to-last day in Australia to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and had been rewarded with pure blue skies, a mellow breeze, and zero indication of rain. But we—my mother, father, and I—had been standing by the front gate of the B&B for 30 minutes, and there was no sign of a bus. Afraid I would miss my long-awaited chance to dive, I was growing anxious and irritable. I pleaded with Kathy, our warm and absent-minded Australian innkeeper, to check on our ride. "We've straightened it out, dear!" she shouted extravagantly to me and my mother, who was sitting by the pool. "We've called a taxi!"

"I'm not worried," said my mother, the emergency room nurse. As usual, she wasn't. But worrying, that all-encompassing desire to order the world and prevent its catastrophes, has always come naturally to me. I was worried too, about diving, afraid of the simple, confounding act of breathing underwater.

Despite nearly a decade of yoga practice, I don't consider myself a good breather. Exhalations—the most basic act of letting go—are difficult for me. Glimpsing the truth in the traditional wisdom that practicing Pranayama improperly can lead to severe distress or even madness, I become agitated when asked to lengthen my exhalation and pause before the inhalation in pranayama—to take less yet give more.

Ready or Not

Once aboard the Seahorse, we were asked to fill out medical info and waiver forms. I went down the list checking the "No" boxes until I hit the question about fainting and put a little check under "Yes." When I handed my form to Craig, the blond, sunburned, Ray Ban-wearing dive instructor who had the requisite aura of fun about him, he said, "You going to go to sleep on me?"

"I faint," I said, "when I'm hot or nauseous..." and called my mother over to give Craig the right terminology. "Tell the doctor it's vaso-vagal-induced fainting," she said confidently. "If he were to examine her, he wouldn't find anything wrong."

I wasn't so sure. Until I saw Craig running back along the dock bearing the good news that the doctor had given me a thumbs-up, I passed the minutes trying to let go of my very desire to dive.

Despite the crew's spirited attempts to amuse us on the way out to Upolu Cay with jokes like "If the boat begins to sink, start negotiating with one of us for a life vest," I was completely focused on getting to Upolu, the coral atoll that was our dive destination. Two hours after leaving the harbor, we finally anchored.

I had planned to snorkel first to get my feet wet. But Craig had a different plan. A British woman in her 50s named Leslie and I were swiftly outfitted with masks, flippers, and oxygen tanks. One of the crew members helped me lift the bulky equipment and walk over to the platform where Craig—suddenly absolutely serious—instructed me to step into the water with one hand on my regulator.

When I rose to the surface, he put his hand on my shoulder and looked intently into my eyes. "Okay," he said as the waves jostled us around. "Put your face in the water and just breathe."

So I did this simple thing—and it was surprisingly difficult. The temptation to rise back into the familiar world of air was insistent, like the desire to back out of an asana you've never done before. Then Craig took my arm and pulled me down about a meter below the water's surface. He led me over to the anchor rope and left me among a school of yellow-tailed fusiliers while he ran through the preparatory routine with Leslie.

I faced the wooden underbelly of the boat, alone, listening to the hiss and bubbling sounds of the exchange between my body and the oxygen tank, feeling the cool, dry air pass over my throat and into my lungs. When Craig came to me holding Leslie's hand and reaching for mine, I wasn't certain I was ready to descend. But I suffer from attachment to my passions, and this usually wins out over my fears. I took his hand and down we went.

Coming to Your Knees

Only 20 feet below the ocean's surface, I approached samadhi: There is nothing like being submersed in the ocean, coming to your knees on its floor, and running your hand along the velvet interior of a giant clam to yoke your wandering mind to the world in front of you.

The world as I experienced it scuba diving is the way the world should be, where the principles and practices of yoga are innate. I touched only what I would not harm—the silky fingers of soft corals, the ink-blue limbs of a starfish. I was propelled by my fascination, and small, fluid gestures sufficed to take me where I wanted to go. My movements were slow, deliberate, full of gratitude. I was there not to plunder, force, or regiment, but to pay attention, my consciousness turned both outward and in, and everything I saw and touched presented the question, Who am I? I was a visitor on the ocean floor, but my inconsequence, rather than causing pain, was a source of bliss.

Craig took my hand and placed it in the center of an anemone where a school of clownfish hovered, trying to get them to nibble on my fingers. One kept darting at my index finger and backing away. Craig found a tiny pink and green nudibranch the size of a pencil shaving, spiraling in the water, and cupped it with his hands so that I could see. And he led us to a harmless whitetip reef shark resting on the ocean floor in a cave of coral. The shark's left eye spun around to look at me as I watched the shudder of his gills.

Breathing underwater, I was alert, open, and brave, my muscles and my mind loose. Halfway through the 40-minute dive, I let tension creep back into my face, and my lips peeled back from the regulator mouthpiece.

For a moment, when I tasted the salt and sensed water in my throat, I was terrified. I thought of popping out of the water, but Craig was right there, looking me straight in the eye. He puckered his lips softly around his regulator and pointed at my mouth so that I knew to do the same. He hit the purge valve, clearing the water from my mouthpiece, and my breath returned to normal.

Once again I saw where I was: this miraculous world that waits for us if we only cross over our fears to find our eyes and hearts wide open.

Internet Content Director Colleen Morton is not worrying about what her next yoga adventure will be.