Ashtanga Yoga and the Circulatory System (part 3)

How to improve the breath

I didn’t know what drowning was at 2 years old, but I knew I didn’t like it.

I grew up on, in, and above the water. My parents set off cruising in a sailboat when I was about 6 months old. In first grade we took a sailboat through the Panama Canal. At 35 I bought a sailboat of my own and lived on it. I love the water.

It’s also holds my most deep seated fear, drowning. When I was about 2, maybe 3 my mom was playing with me at the beach and took me deeper than I could stand in the strong surf. A wave swept her off of her feet and she wasn’t able to hold me and keep herself above the water. In that moment she pushed me to the surface, but I couldn’t swim. I remember the panicked look on her face distorted underwater. I remember not being able to breathe, seeing red, and then nothing. I don’t remember what happened next or how I got to the beach. But I did, obviously, and I was quickly enrolled in swimming classes.

I took to the water like a fish. I spent time jumping off of bridges into water, swimming to the bottom of the pool, holding my breath and swimming back and forth multiple lengths of the pool. My first ‘real’ job was swimming with sharks in the Bahamas, tagging them for behavioral research. Even my birth sign is water.

There is a sport called free-diving where the diver holds their breath and dives down to a depth without the use of a breathing device like a scuba tank. The current depth record is 214m (702.1 feet) where Herbert Neitsch held his breath for 4 minutes and 24 seconds. Most of these athletes hold their breath for 9 to 11 minutes. And scientists are still a bit puzzled by the physiology of it. Physically, according to some calculations at 30-40m the lungs would collapse, but we know that this isn’t the case.

There is an element of physicality but it’s mainly mental. That’s what is incredible about free diving. It’s not about your physical ability, but about your mental skills and mental training basically. You need to let go of everything that you know and everything that makes you feel good or bad. And so it’s a very liberating process. But equally you need to stay completely aware of your body and where you are, entirely in the moment.” Martina Amati

As the sport of free diving has evolved so has their training. These athletes use CO2 and O2 tables as a guide that pushes their bodies tolerance of dealing with high CO2 or low O2. High levels of CO2 in the blood are that STRONG burning feeling of needing to breathe. The feeling I felt as a kid drowning in the ocean. The same feeling in pranayama class with Sharath.

But Sharath is in India and I’m sitting on my boat in Los Angeles and I want to continue improving on the skills that he shared with us in a summer class in 2015.

There are a few apps you can download to improve your diving breath holds. I use Low2 and Eddie Stern’s breathing app. They are not a substitute for a teacher. I will say that again. They are NOT a substitute for a pranayama teacher. But they can give you a decent idea about pranayama, and you will be a better free diver from practicing.

But how is holding your breath going to improve your health?


That’s the real question.

Apps can be fun. Yoga practice can be fun. Heroin can be fun too. But are they contributing to your overall well being? What is the point of holding your breath and being able to transport more oxygen in your blood?

In the event that a scuba diver surfaces too quickly without depressurizing his body to the change in atmosphere, they get a condition know as ‘the bends.’ Dissolved gas in the bloodstream come out of solution and form bubbles that get stuck in joints causing paralysis or even death. The method used to treat the bends is to place the diver in Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. This involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber or room. In those conditions the lungs can take in more oxygen than at normal air pressure. In an oxygen rich environment a substance in the body is released that stimulates the growth of living cells like stem cells, and the body can easily fight off infections. Some infections that are commonly treated with Hyperbaric O2 Therapy are skin or bone infections, gangrene, diabetic ulcers, and there are claims that it can help with HIV, Asthma, Cancer, and Allergies.

Because the cost of a hyperbaric chamber is about $5,000 to $35,000 and most of us don’t have that laying around to condition our bodies and improve our daily use of oxygen. Through a pranayama practice or dive training, the body is being conditioned over time to increase the available O2. The idea behind breath retention and improving the CO2 hold is that the body makes better use of the available oxygen in the blood. Essentially we are squeezing every ounce out of the breath. Every ounce out of life.

Pranayama breathing is different than the type of breathing we do during the asana practice. There are som similarities where the breath is sometimes held to bind the hands or getting the foot behind the head. (Not correct method, but effective.) In the case for asana practice and those difficult binds, the body is being physically restrained. The lungs are not able to expand to their full capacity when in the deep binds of the asana, and in those instances we are clearing parts of our lungs that do not get used in the normal breathing cycle outside of practice.

Typically the lungs can hold 6L of air. In a normal breathing cycle we only take in 3.5L keeping 2.3L in reserve.** When we are twisted in those ‘fun’ asana, the reserve volume physically changes and is being used because of the physical restraint on the body. Asana in effect cleans the reserve volume of our lungs ever day in practice, like brushing our teeth everyday to prevent plaque and bacteria buildup. 

* Aversa, Raffaella and Petrescu, Relly Victoria and Apicella, Antonio and Petrescu, Florian Ion, The Basic Elements of Life's (December 17, 2016). American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Volume 9, Issue 4, Pages 1189-1197, DOI : 10.3844/ajeassp.2016.1189.1197. Available at SSRN:


Morgan LeeComment