Dharma Series Part 2: Pranayama & Diving Yoga
By: Ashley Rossy
This is a condensed portion of the "About Pranayama" chapter of the book I'm writing. If it seems a bit formal, that's because it is! I try and get down to the nitty-gritty of how incorporating Pranayama into Dive-Yoga is absolutely vital. Hope you enjoy the read :)
You may read the word 'Pranayama' and think, "What course did I sign up for again?" I assure you, you're in the right place! This word holds a very important puzzle piece in your Dive-Yoga experience. We'll explore four questions that will bring you a better understanding of Pranayama. These four questions are:
1) What is Pranayama?
2) How does Pranayama help when practicing Diving?
3) How does Pranayama help when practicing Yoga?
4) What are the Physical and mental benefits of incorporating Pranayama into your Dive-Yoga practice?
Lets dive in...
Starting with the question everyone wants the answer to, "What is Pranayama?" If you pull Pranayama apart, you'll find two smaller words, prana and ayama. Prana literally means, "to breathe forth." It's derived from the prefix pra, "to breathe forth" and the verb an, "to breathe" or simply, "to live." Ayama literally means, "to stretch or expand."
The origin of Pranayama comes from the beautiful ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, which has reached the western world through yoga. Pranayama is the expansion of our breath, we quite literally need it to survive. Take a moment to pay attention to your own breath. You're probably at ease, relaxed, breathing slow and calm, correct? Keep that in mind as we continue learning.
How does Pranayama help when Diving?
If you're a more experienced diver you may think to yourself, "If Pranayama is the expansion of our breath then whilst diving this practice is vital in mastering your buoyancy control." And that's correct, when it comes to Diving, your breathing is the difference between a good dive and a great dive. With your breath, you're training your body and mind to not feel overworked or anxious. You're slowing everything down by controlling your breath and wether or not you knew this already, you've been practicing Pranayama since you began your diving journey.
Let's look at an example... When it comes to Diving, some of the first skills you're introduced to are buoyancy skills. Think back to your open water diver course. Do you remember learning the Fin Pivot skill? The objective of this skill is to master buoyancy control using your breath. In this skill you're lying flat on your stomach, with your hands off the floor by your chest. When you inhale your upper body rises and when you exhale your upper body sinks back down. You continue repeating this cycle until you're comfortable controlling your movement with your breath.
Think of your lungs underwater like a balloon, the more you inhale, the more positively buoyant you will be (your body will begin to float up). If you exhale slowly and deeply, the more negatively buoyant you will become (your body will begin to sink down). These slow, deep, controlled breathing patterns are a type of Pranayama practice that are important for divers to grasp to be able to control their buoyancy underwater and have a more enjoyable dive.
How does Pranayama help with my Yoga practice?
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice, that combines the mind, body and spirit. Yoga has helped people for thousands of years cure ailments, injuries, and sicknesses both physical and mental. If you have ever attended a yoga class you will always hear your teacher reminding you to breathe! They will tell you to be mindful of your breathing when moving in and out of your poses (in Sanskrit, the word pose translates to asana).
But why is it so important to be mindful of our breathing? Better yet, how can we be mindful of our breath? Join me in an interactive example... Stand with your feet hip width apart. Bring your attention to your toes, spread them nice and wide gripping into the earth. Now think about the rest of your feet, is your body weight evenly distributed from your heels, to the balls of your feet and your toes? Now lift your knee caps up (flex your thighs) and create energy. When you feel that energy rising bring your awareness to your tailbone and tuck your tailbone in by pushing your hips forward slightly.
This will create a strong and sturdy center for your body to balance. Continue to draw your focus up to your core and engage (flex those abs). Move your focus up to your chest and lift it proudly as if you're trying to show someone your heart. Now roll your shoulders up and back and allow your arms to be at your side, keeping your palms open in front of you shooting energy through your fingers. Close your eyes and focus on your breathe. Deep, filling inhales, long, slow steady exhales. Stay here for several breathes in this strong pose (asana) focusing only on breathing in and breathing out. Congratulations!! You've just learned your first yoga pose (asana) of this course.
This pose (asana) is known as Mountain pose or Tadasana. This is a foundational pose you can always come back to any time in your practice to reset, refocus, and revitalise your mind and body. Coming back to our original question, how does Pranayama help with my Yoga practice? Pranayama helps my yoga practice because it enables me to be mindful of my breathing, allowing me to move through my practice without feeling stressed or anxious, which also allows the body to strengthen and stretch muscles to their full potential.
To grasp a better understanding come back to Tadasana with your deep, steady breathing. Observe how you feel. Maybe calm, relaxed, focused, strong - all of the above? Now I want you to shift your technique of breathing to panting like a dog. Fast, rapid, uncontrolled. How do you feel now? Possibly anxious, tired, out of focus, not as enjoyable right? Combining Pranayama and yoga is as vital as water is to living. If you keep your breaths mindful, deep and steady you will be able to move fluidly in your yoga practice or any other physical activities you take part in.
What physical and mental benefits does Pranayama bring to Dive-Yoga?
In order to answer this question fully we first need to think about how an inefficient breather breathes...She's inclined to take shallow breaths, often through her mouth, making her unable to exhale fully and in turn she hyperventilates (shallow, fast breathing), which makes the flow of the breath turbulent. Under extreme stress she'll tend to hold her breath.
Hyperventilation reduces the carbon dioxide in the body, which constricts blood vessels and slows the circulation of blood and oxygen to the body and brain. Oxygen starvation excites the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response. The heart beats rapidly or irregularly and she's in turn forgetful or confused, anxious or fearful, tense or irritable, and she's tired and emotionally drained.
Now let's observe an efficient breather.
She breathes slowly through the nose engaging the entire torso (truly the entire body). Nose breathing naturally slows the exhalation because the nostrils offer more resistance to the breath than the mouth and gives the lungs enough time to extract the maximum amount of oxygen and energy from each breath.
With the correct proportion of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, the blood vessels dilate, which enables blood and oxygen to circulate smoothly and easily through the efficient breathers’ body and brain. The full movement of the diaphragm and well toned abdominals massage internal organs, like the heart and intestines, and so improve digestion.
Efficient breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and the relaxation response. In all, the efficient breather is much calmer and more clear headed, and probably healthier and happier than her inefficiently breathing friend. I know some of you may be focusing on how you can efficiently breathe underwater whilst only being able to breathe through your mouth, but I assure you, with a bit more focus and practice, it will soon be as natural and efficient as breathing through your nose.
Ashley grew up outside of Atlanta Georgia always having a passion to travel and explore. After college she became a flight attendant with Delta Airlines and her life forever changed. Exploring all the beautiful corners of the world she decided she wanted to live like of all the vagabonds she had encountered on her travels. She then quit flying and became a dive instructor and Yoga teacher and has now traveled to and lived in over nine countries making her dreams a reality. Ashley graduated from the 300 HR Yoga Teacher Training with the Kula Collective in Peru this past August in which she received a Dharma Grant to support her. She has hopes of finding a new path in life where she can combine her passions of diving and Yoga. Beginning her journey in South America, she's intrigued to see where life takes her with this next direction. Follow Ashley on Instagram @yogadivergirl!