THE SIX BASIC SKILLS: Number One, Breathing

Part of a lecture given to trimix instructor candidates in September 2007

“Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind: the element which reconciles out body and mind, and [thus] makes possible oneness of body and mind. Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist Monk, The Miracle of Mindfulness

If I had to limit my advice to prospective technical divers to just one tip, it would be for them to learn how to breathe correctly. Correctly being deep, controlled, abdominal breathing… exactly as taught in yoga or martial arts classes… but for reasons that escape me, rarely in scuba classes. Odd that because breathing and breath control is one of the Six Basic Skills associated with diving, and regardless of its absence from so many classic and otherwise useful diving texts — finding any reference at all is as rare as seeing a good haircut at a Star Trek convention — it seems that there’s a compelling argument suggesting that we invest some effort into learning proper breathing and breath control for an activity that takes place in water too deep to stand up in.

The long-term benefits to health and well-being aside — and these are considerable so that’s a lot to ignore — correct breathing will help divers to focus on the tasks at hand immediately prior to their dive. Done during a dive, it will increase their energy levels while decreasing their CO2 levels. And at the end of a dive will be a useful part of a structured plan to optimize decompression prior to surfacing. But the most compelling argument is surely that practicing correct breathing techniques is the simplest and possibly most important thing that divers can do to improve their overall chances of survival in a situation that‘s gone completely pear-shaped… because controlled breathing helps to control and prevent panic.

Learning to Breathe Correctly
Let’s start at the very beginning with a simple exercise designed to teach the basic technique. Sit on a comfortable chair or if you prefer, cross-legged on the floor. Sit straight backed and erect, with your hands in your lap. (You may also lie on the floor for this exercise but the likelihood of you falling asleep after a couple of minutes is greatly increased!) Now close your eyes, relax and imagine you are getting ready to drift off to sleep. Let your concentration focus on breathing and let your breathing become deeper and slower than normal.

Be aware of nothing but your breathing and try to ignore any thoughts that drift into your mind except those about breathing in and out. Count the number of seconds (or heartbeats) it takes for you to fill and empty your lungs.

Think of these as two distinct halves of a complete cycle and make each last the same number of seconds. At this point, when you have some control over your breathing and the length of your breath cycle, concentrate on deep breathing.

Visualize filling the lower part of the lungs first, then the middle and upper portions. When exhaling, reverse the process and begin by emptying the upper part of the lungs, then the middle, and last of all the lower part. Each inhalation and exhalation should be an uninterrupted, smooth action, each phase flowing into the next without pause. Breath slowly and with no effort or strain. It is very important not to force anything. Also important is to keep your mouth closed.

OK, now to refine the mechanics of breathing. The goal here is to involve fully your diaphragm and not just your chest muscles. Start by pushing your stomach out as you breathe in and “engage” your diaphragm.

During this action imagine the air filling the lower portion of your lungs. Next, push your ribs sideways and continue breathing in. The stomach will automatically go inwards slightly. Visualize air now rushing into the middle portion of your lungs. Lastly continue to inhale as you lift the top of your chest and collar bone while you visualize air filling the very top portion of your lungs.

Reverse the steps, starting with the top of your chest and collar bone and end by drawing the stomach in. You may find a temptation to pull your stomach muscles in rapidly… avoid doing this. Every movement, every action and thought must flow into the next.

Work at keeping the transitions from one step to the next smooth and seamless with no jerkiness.

Your Goal
What I have outlined above is based on the Taoist therapeutic breathing exercises taught to me in my first martial arts class more than 30 years ago. I’ve probably misremembered bits and added my own interpretation — such is human nature — and it is only the first and most basic form of breathing exercise. But it’s a good foundation, and will serve you well.

Your aim is to learn the technique well enough to slip into deep breathing whenever you wish. You can add your own visualizations to the basic technique.

One visualization is to direct the energy created by each inhalation to a different area of your body… your hand, a foot, or shoulder joint. And during the exhalation, complete the visualization by imagining the outgoing air carrying away toxins. I imagine bubbles of gas being washed out during deco by doing this. Of course it’s all fantasy but it helps pass time!

Put aside ten or 15 minutes twice a day to practice. Do the exercises on an empty stomach, and wait at least two to three hours after a heavy meal, and about one hour after a light snack.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that a full stomach makes it physically harder to actually do the exercise and the second is that a full stomach makes it harder to concentrate… something about blood (and oxygen) demands to aid digestion.

As with learning any new skill, it will seem somewhat artificial and may be difficult for some people to get on to at first. Persevere. What you are working towards is a process that requires no real effort and that puts zero strain on your body. This type of breathing will get you “into the habit” of filling and emptying your lungs properly… something regular shallow breathing does not do. Keep your chest passive during the entire cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Do not strain or exert yourself and keep things smooth.

Deep correct breathing is the foundation of good health and is required for full concentration. There are several intermediate and advanced steps that build on the basic technique outlined here and you can research these for yourself. Yoga and Tai Chi books will probably have a chapter or two devoted to meditation, breathing and its benefits. I suggest ongoing study. It’s worth it.

But for now, let’s work on what’s outlined here. Once your body has built up some muscle memory, you’ll be able to turn on deep rhythmic breathing anytime… sitting in your car, walking through a shopping mall, and while scuba diving.

It will help make you a better, happier open circuit diver and is — in my opinion — 100 percent necessary for diving closed circuit rebreathers since the breathing gas in these systems has to be driven through the scrubber bed by force of a diver’s breath.

Why it’s useful
Apprehension before a dive pushes divers off-routine and makes them forget or rush pre-dive checks. This always has serious repercussions. At very least, it greatly increases the likelihood of a crappy dive where nothing gels and the diver is constantly playing catch-up with his gear and the dive.

Panic kills divers. Things go wrong underwater. A diver reacts poorly and there is a domino effect as that reaction and its fallout pulls him further and further outside his comfort zone until he loses control and his fate is in the hands of a most unforgiving environment.

Carbon dioxide kills divers. This is certainly the case with CCR divers but all divers over breathing their equipment run a greatly heightened risk of what C.W. Shilling in his 1984 book, The Physician’s Guide to Diving Medicine describes perfectly as: “… overexertion, fatigue, exhaustion, respiratory embarrassment, panic and resultant accident is the repeated sequence of events leading to a fatality.”

Deep controlled breathing is the closest thing to a magic bullet. The research of Thomas J. Griffith, Arthur J. Bachrach and Glen H. Egstrom, David Colvard and other scientists studying human behavior and stress underscores the effectiveness of what Griffith calls “The Calming Breath Response.” In that work, he states that breathing and breath control are critical elements in controlling diver stress and panic. “Erratic respiration greatly increases the probability of panic and a dangerous situation.” Now in all fairness, Glen H. Egstrom, co-author with Bachrach of the authoritative study Stress and Performance in Diving, and professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that “…relaxation and other techniques aimed at reducing over stimulation appear much better suited to the pre-dive condition than to handling stress underwater under high arousal.” But in conversation agreed that the application of practiced deep breathing during a dive “coupled with mental visualization and cognitive rehearsal would be an appropriate response to sudden stress.”

So armed with that encouragement, I suggest a few minutes of deep breathing anytime you feel stress. Do it before kitting up for a dive. Do it for a few minutes immediately before jumping into the water (pre-breathing the loop on CCR is the perfect time). Do it at depth, not just when something stressful occurs but anytime. And do it during decompression. I find this last helps me to put the dive into perspective and order ready for the debrief.

Remember, the number one rule of diving is don’t hold your breath and the codicil to that rule (#1b) is breathe correctly!

Thanks for your attention.