Before moving to Hawaii, I vacationed there. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean, I was amazed when I saw a group of free divers descend to 80 feet and interact with a pod of lazy-eyed spinner dolphins. Free diving is the art of diving deep without using tanks.
It’s a mental and physical discipline with many of the same skills as yoga, yet while yoga requires conscious breathing; free diving requires conscious breath holding. Breath awareness is the foundation for both disciplines, and both improve with training and calm, relaxed movement.
When I saw free divers gracefully bend, and smoothly propel themselves down with long fins and steady, full-bodied kick strokes, I thought I was participating in an interactive art gallery. And as I watched them roll and twist deep below while the dolphins imitated their fluid movements, I was captured.
Later that day, I asked one of the free divers if he would teach me how to swim into the deep. I wanted to dive like that; I wanted to interact with dolphins and other marine life. To my surprise, he told me he would, and we promised to meet again at the same beach in two years.
Two years later, when I met him to learn free diving, we started on the shore. My teacher led me through breathing exercises, meditation, and mental imagery. I remember him asking me if I did yoga. At that time, I didn’t. He said, “Yoga will help you be a better free diver.”
He went on by saying freediving aims to slow the heart rate, rid the body of tension, master breath-control, and stop the mind from over-thinking by bringing us fully into the present. Mental preparation and breath work is necessary, he said, to prepare the mind and body for intense underwater pressure. After I started yoga, I saw the parallels.
But I was eager to get in the water and start diving. I didn’t want to sit on shore talking and meditating. Today, I realize this mental preparation, like setting my intention and grounding for yoga, is perhaps the most important part.
When yogis and free divers are well prepared and present with all their faculties, their practice can reach heights or depths unforeseen. This is why many yoga retreats and teacher trainings prohibit alcohol or drug use. These substances influence the conscious state, but they also distract from the deeper unconscious state of Oneness, being-ness, and full presence in the now.
When divers descended to swim with dolphins, they did so in measured steps. Free dive guidelines call for most swimmers to pause briefly every three meters in order to equalize pressure in their ears. But as in yoga, progression guidelines are flexible depending on the person.
In the beginning stages, both yogi and free diver are struck by the difficulty of their pursuit. Beginners in yoga spend a lot of time splashing around mentally, like snorkelers on the surface who haven’t yet learned to trust their own buoyancy.
Observing inexperienced swimmers, I recalled a teacher from water safety saying that the main danger for lifeguards in a swimming rescue is the panic and resistance of a drowning person because they fight to stay afloat and will cling to the head of a lifesaver. In the same way, fighting to do yoga makes it more difficult.
Ideally, yoga asana also moves to depth in measured steps. Going into a pose, each yogi inhales and exhales as they inventory their body to detect pressure points. Paying attention to inner cues, they decide whether or not they can progress to a deeper level of resistance or take their asana into the next shape of expression. With time, yogis move deeper, but it happens slowly.
Learning how to pace yoga is the growing edge in a busy culture. I’ve observed people rush into class and treat the progressive asanas as if they were an aerobic workout. And I notice a growing call for “slowga.” We are beginning to learn that yoga is not like the rest of life, and while yoga practice is physically intense, it is not a race.
Both yogi and diver have learned that their bodies and minds can go further, but it’s wise to go slow. The swimmer descends and equalizes pressure in their ears, but they do not dive quickly or inefficiently. They are calm and steady, focusing on form, relaxation, and oxygen conservation.
A trusting diver listens to his/her body, and the deeper they dive when water pressure builds, more trust is required. When one goes too fast in asana, there is little time to actually trust the wisdom of yoga, little time to adjust to new pressure in the body, little time to take our practice to the edge without crossing a potentially harmful line.
Yoga’s wisdom was not earned quickly, neither is it learned in haste. In your next session, move slowly to feel the pose; find your pressure points, then continue mindfully into the resistance. When comfortable, take the plunge into deeper depth.
Yogis will do well to remember the lesson of free divers and equalization. The move downward in water requires skill, efficiency, and pace, but it has built in checks and balances for handling the increasing pressure. In yoga, the stress in your body is your equalization point. Pause when you feel it. Listen, and then proceed if you are able.
And while yoga helps free divers, so too does free diving have a lesson for yogis. Keep in mind the rules that guide free divers during their descent into the deep: slow, calm, and steady. With this in mind, yogis can move into the depth of asana with confidence and trust, patient to experience their moment of bliss and union.
To read the full article please download our Asana Journal App or purchase Issue 166 October 2016.