Proper breathing is a foundational skill in diving. It affects everything from your bottom time to your buoyancy. Breathing is so natural that most of the time we do not even think about it. Yet, sometimes that means that we do not take the time to pay attention to how our breathing changes with our emotions and activity level. For example, everyone knows that you breath harder when you are working hard but did you know that most people also tend to hold more air in their lungs when they are stressed or concentrating? Everyone is a little bit different in their breathing, so it is important to figure out how your breathing changes.
To get started, let's talk about what is "proper breathing" in diving. You might have heard the breathing used in diving as "yogic" or "meditative" breathing. While that is not wrong, it is not entirely right either. In diving, generally, we are looking for slow, deep, even breathing. That means you are breathing at a relaxed pace to a comfortable lung volume and your exhales are the same length as your inhales.
This style of breathing often appears in yoga or meditation exercises. However, some of those practices also include what is known as "skip breathing" where you pause for a few seconds between your inhale and your exhale. In these terrestrial activities, that pause is meant to allow your blood more time to oxygenate. However, in diving it violates the number one rule - Breathe continuously and never, ever hold your breath.
If you have ever wanted to improve your air consumption rate or master your buoyancy, awareness and control of your breathing is vital. Throughout your dive your breathing will change as you relax, get excited, or get focused. This in turn will either cause you to use more air or less air, sink, float, or hover. Luckily, there are a couple of simple things you can do to help.
Mood Affects Breathing
First is to be aware of your breathing. The mindfulness techniques taught in meditative practices can be very helpful here but in essence all you need to do is slow down enough during your day to pay attention to how you are breathing and how you are feeling in that moment. Is your breathing slow or fast? Is it shallow or deep? Is it even or ragged? Are you stressed or relaxed? Are you frustrated or happy? Noting how your breath relates to your how you feel may seem a little silly at first but awareness of how those two factors influence each other will help you improve your breathing (and mood) underwater.
For example, let's say you are on a drift dive and struggling with your buoyancy. You are frustrated because this should be a comfortable coast along a vibrant coral wall, but you keep rising above the group and having to dump air from your BCD. Then once you dump enough air descent you sink below the group and must kick to stay level. You cannot seem to find a hover no matter how hard you try. Is the issue your weighting? Or the current? Maybe. More commonly though, it is your breathing. Having a hard time getting your buoyancy perfect caused frustration and stress which in turn caused you to hold more air in your lung. That caused you start to float. When you dumped air and started to settle down into what you thought would turn out to be an easy hover, you relaxed a little which caused you to hold less air in your lungs. That meant the air in your BCD was no longer sufficient and you began to sink which caused you more frustration and the cycle began again.
A vicious cycle like that is hard to break if you do not identify how your mood is affecting your breathing. In this example, simply taking a few moments to focus on establishing slow, deep, even breathing before fine tuning your buoyancy would have made a world of difference, leaving you free to enjoy the grandeur of the coral wall.
Slow, Deep, Even Breathing
Once you are aware of how your mood affects your breathing, the next step is to practice slow, deep, even breathing. Do not worry you don't have to carve an hour out of your day to sit on the floor surrounded by smoldering incense - unless you want to! Practice is simple and you can do it anywhere at any time. All you have to do is sit/stand up straight and inhale while you slowly count to five. Then exhale while you slowly count to five. Repeat. Practice that throughout your day until your breathing falls into that rhythm automatically.
Once this feels natural and easy, it is time to add in belly breathing. Belly breathing is exactly what it sounds like; when you inhale your belly expands first, followed by your chest. When you exhale, your belly contracts first, followed by your chest. Practice that with the same five count rhythm as before until it feels completely natural.
Mastering this technique will extend your bottom time and improve your ability to hover. Slow, deep, even breathing will give you more out of your tank and help you stay level in the water column. But diving does not happen all on one level. What if you want to rise above a coral head or sink down to a porthole on a wreck? This same technique can be easily modified to handle this too.
If you want to rise above a small obstruction in your path, like a coral head, all you need to do is extend your inhale and shorten your exhale. Instead of counting to five for both inhale and exhale, try counting to six on the inhale and four on the exhale. This will give you a slow controlled rise. Depending on how far you ascend, you may still need to adjust your BCD, but less adjustment will be required. You will also exert yourself less because you will not have to kick as hard.
On the other hand, if you want to descend a bit, you just do the opposite; shorten your inhale and extend your exhale. Again, try inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of six. Similarly, this will give you a slow controlled descent to start but, depending on how deeply you descend with this technique, you may still need to adjust your BCD.
Proper breath control is a simple technique that makes a huge difference in your diving. By become aware of how your breathing and mood are linked as well as mastering slow, deep, even breathing, you will be well on your way to getting the most out of every dive!
Rob Currer is PADI Course Director, world traveler, and returned Peace Corps Volunteer. He has been diving for over 15 years and counts the Maldives as one of his favorite dive destinations.