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It was my first time breathing underwater, or scuba diving, in nearly two years, and rediscovering the reef was pure bliss—admiring the ubiquitous tube sponges, spying on a peacock flounder hiding in the sand, swimming amid schools of yellow-headed grunts, and following a spotted trunkfish in hopes of getting a better look.
I was just one of the divers participating in a new Underwater Breathwork Program, designed to harness the power of yogic breathing to enhance the scuba diving experience at Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort on the idyllic island of St Lucia. But, before I knew it, I had lost sight of my group. When I realized I was completely alone, I felt the grip of anxiety tightening around my chest. Logically, I knew I had not strayed far. But I still felt panicky, as I turned and swam in (what I thought was) the general direction of my colleagues. They were nowhere to be seen.
The more anxious I became, the more claustrophobic and discombobulated I felt, which caused more anxiety and continued the vicious cycle. It did not occur to me right away, but it was, in fact, the perfect instance to utilize pranayama, or breathing techniques, that we practice in yoga—even while underwater.
Underwater breathing as mindfulness
The very concept of underwater breathing seems like an oxymoron. But the new program at Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort teaches targeted breathing techniques to manage anxiety and increase mindfulness underwater, thus enabling a less stressful, more enjoyable dive.
Markeem Morrison, yoga instructor at Windjammer Landing, explains: “We wanted to take the mental and emotional benefits of yoga, meditation and breathwork, and bring them to a unique setting.”
I have been a longtime yoga devotee, practicing my asanas and vinyasas religiously for some 20 years. Scuba diving is a more recent passion, since I received my license six years ago. But I don’t get to pursue it as often as I would like, and the long hiatus between dives means that I am often anxious underwater. So I was intrigued by the opportunity to merge–and enhance–these two favorite pastimes.
The setting: St Lucia
St Lucia is a spectacular volcanic island in the eastern Caribbean, its rolling mountainous landscape covered with lush greenery. Two landmark pointy peaks, the Pitons, tower over the southwestern shoreline. As the dive boat departed from Windjammer Landing, our group took in the surrounding scenery: colorful villages dotting the hillsides and fishing boats bobbing in the surrounding azure.
We motored south to Anse Cochon, or Bay of Pigs, so named for the wild boars that used to roam the area. Tucked into this protected cove, towering palms dot the slender crescent of beach that is carved out of the rocky coastline. Calm, turquoise waters lap at the shore. One could say the scene is breathtaking.
Here, divemaster Eget Martyr gave us a brief introduction to the basics of scuba diving, since we had several novice divers in our group. Then, we moved on to the ancient art of pranayama, or yogic breathing. Eget explained that the goal of the breathing techniques is “to get rid of anxieties prior to diving and to mentally prepare for a more holistic diving experience.”
The breathing techniques
There are many types of pranayama, but we focused on three techniques in our session on the dive boat:
Kapalabhati, or “breath of fire”
This is a quick, forceful exhale, followed by an involuntary, natural inhale, repeated for a minute or two. In yoga, kapalabhati is an invigorating warm-up. But it is also useful for clearing the sinuses, which is important in diving for equalizing pressure while descending underwater.
Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing
In this practice, the thumb and ring finger are used to close one nostril or the other, causing you to inhale on the left and exhale on the right; then you pause and switch, inhaling on the right and exhaling on the left. This technique is a yoga favorite to restore balance and reduce anxiety.
Yoga breath, or abdominal breathing
The most important practice for our purposes was the simplest: deep abdominal inhales, followed by longer, slower exhales. This simple but effective technique physiologically calms the nervous system. We learned that it is the only technique that we can (and should) use underwater, where it will help to steady the nerves, reduce air consumption, and control buoyancy.
Afterwards, we practiced a few yoga poses that we might try underwater, including tree pose and half-lotus, as they are some of the easiest to execute underwater. Then we donned our equipment, took our giant step off the boat, and began to descend to the ocean floor.
The underwater breathing experience
Eget monitored our progress as we descended, making sure that everyone was able to equalize the pressure in the ears and maintain neutral buoyancy (both of which can be challenging for novice divers). She used her body language to remind us to continue to practice the yoga breath, consciously breathing deeply and slowly.
A diver has various tools at her disposal to help control buoyancy. In particular, the buoyancy control device (BCD) is a vest which inflates and deflates, causing the diver to ascend or descend underwater accordingly. But our own lungs also work as a more nuanced buoyancy control, causing a slight ascension with each inhale and a slight descension with each exhale. As Eget had explained “The goal is for divers to use the breathwork to fine tune their buoyancy, thus making their diving experience more comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable, while increasing their awareness of the underwater beauty and their overall diving experience.”
I was impressed that my fellow newbie divers seemed to get comfortable breathing underwater in a short period of time. “I could definitely see the connection between the yoga instruction and the overall diver experience, in terms of being conscious of your breathing,” recalled Bob Curley, a first-time diver from Kingstown, Rhode Island. “Even the difference between a deep and shallow inhalation can have an effect on your position in the water.”
Sharon Rigney of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania agreed that the breathwork was beneficial. “Once you remember, practice and master your breathing, the entire diving experience becomes easier and more relaxing.”
For my purposes, the breathing techniques were critical in a moment of crisis—that is, when I lost my group. My logical reasoning was doing nothing to calm my nerves, so I changed tactics. Remembering my abdominal breathing, I began to consciously slow my breath, inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of four, then inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of six. I focused on the counting, and immediately felt the tension relax. This simple technique allowed me to swim out of the reef with the same level of comfort as I had swum in. And within a few minutes, I spotted Eget and the rest of the crew.
Back under the boat, the other divers were practicing yoga poses while suspended mid-water. This exercise was mostly for fun and—I soon found out—an added challenge. On a good day on dry land, I can hang out in Tree Pose until the cows come home. But underwater, I found myself missing the groundedness of, well, the ground. Balance was more challenging without the pull of gravity, and every inhale and every exhale affected my equilibrium. No way was I waiting around for the cowfish.
Half Lotus was more accessible, although it was nearly impossible to maintain a “seated” position, since there was nothing under my seat. Instead, my body stretched out into a sort of elongated half lotus shape that tipped over and drifted around.
They weren’t the most graceful poses I have ever done. But one thing I have learned from practicing yoga is that it doesn’t matter what it looks like; it only matters what it feels like. And I felt like an underwater yogi, breathing through the challenging poses just as I would on my mat.
“In today’s stressful climate, we can all benefit from breathing a bit easier,” says Markeem. “It is designed to equip guests and divers of all levels to breathe through any situation they may face, in or out of the water.”
As a longtime yoga practitioner, the underwater breathing techniques were not new to me; what was new was that I could use them to stay calm during a tricky moment, whether during a dive or in any other challenging circumstance. Months later, I find myself calling on my pranayama to relax during bouts of insomnia-induced anxiety or to settle my nerves before a live performance.
And therein lies the takeaway from the Underwater Breathwork Program–that the breathing techniques we practice on the mat are just as effective off the mat. Even underwater. And in all aspects of our lives, if we remember to employ them.