Healthy Divers = Happy Divers!
The Health Benefits of Yoga & Scuba Diving
As you may or may not know, Winnie and I are both keen practitioners of Bikram Yoga (for more info on what Bikram is, click here to see Winnie’s description) and we are clearly nuts about scuba diving.
|Standing Separate Leg Bow Posture|
Whilst both of these activities promote a healthier lifestyle, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the health benefits of practicing Yoga if you are a scuba diver. But remember, I’m not a Yoga Professional, just a regular Joe and I’m applying it to my profession – SCUBA DIVING!
Research suggests that one of the most noticeable benefits is the emotional and mental therapy that scuba diving provides us. When a diver is experiencing neutral buoyancy, gliding through the water in an effortless way, weightless they begin to feel relaxed and soothed by this activity. They can often feel their nerves calming as they dive beneath the surface. Excitement and curiosity can often lead to positive mental therapy. The feeling a diver gets when they see the various colours, textures, that the sub aquatic world offers can help to take the diver away from the rigours of living on the surface, of seeing the same cars, buildings and people. The underwater world offers a new experience, a chance to explore. This can really help divers who suffer from stress. These are all positive psychological affects of scuba diving.
The physical benefits are quite interesting too. Swimming is one of the best ways to combine aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The physical act of swimming will provide a cardiovascular and muscular workout as divers move against the natural pressure of water against their bodies. This physical activity will also have minimal impact against our joints, which can only be a good thing. Divers need to be both physically and mentally fit to be able to carry their own gear or to support their dive buddies, should the need arise. Whilst diving we are always trying to train our bodies to work more efficiently; by taking long slow, deep breaths we are trying to optimize the oxygen we are breathing so that our body tissues can remain oxygenated. Optimised breathing will therefore reduce our consumption rate, which will lead us to longer more relaxed dives – back to the psychological effects. Diving can actually motivate less active people to become more active and to lead healthier lifestyles so that they can enjoy more relaxed dives, which is an awesome reason to stay fit!
Now, the benefits of practicing Yoga are profound when related to scuba diving (in my humble opinion). Yoga teaches us to more effectively control our breathing – more on this in a minute. It also conditions our bodies and replenishes them by removing toxins as we perform the many postures. The list of benefits is huge and I plan to go over a few of the points related to health benefits for scuba divers (although they all kind of benefit divers in some way or other). So there are three main benefits that yoga practice develops and they include physiological, psychological and biochemical benefits.
You can find a huge list of benefits at:
From my research, I have noticed that of the huge list, the areas that seem most relevant to scuba divers are:
µ Respiratory rate decreases
µ Decrease in anxiety
µ Improved concentration
µ Improved learning function
µ Hemoglobin Increase
Improved Blood & Nutrient Transport
Our tissues need fresh oxygenated blood to work properly, and the more efficient we are at transporting this fresh oxygenated blood to our organs and tissues the more efficient those organs work. Sounds simple, right?
Well, it comes down to breathing. Breathing is the source of all living things. For humans we need to breathe oxygen to revitalize our organs and to naturally expel toxins and waste from our bodies. Humans need to breathe to inhale fresh oxygen, which can be transported in our blood to our organs. Since oxygen bonds with hemoglobin, the benefit of increasing our hemoglobin count through yoga practice is great. Think of it like this, hemoglobin cells are chauffeurs that carry the oxygen to our organs, through our bloodstream. If there’s more taxis waiting at the AIRport (do ya get it – air-port!!), then more oxy-passengers can be carried away sooner. The oxygen gets delivered to the organ-destinations sooner, without any delays.
So to speed up oxygenated blood flow we need to focus on breathing. The diaphragm is responsible for 75% of the work of breathing, and at the same time it is responsible for supporting the function of the heart and for stimulating the lower organs. If breathing efficiently, the diaphragm will flatten and descend – this will massage these organs (how thoughtful). The movement of the diaphragm works to move and massage the heart, and as de-oxygenated blood from the lower body returns to the heart, this diaphragm movement acts to exert a pressure that causes an acceleration of blood flow when the pressure is at its lowest. I guess the best reference is a tourniquet effect that rapidly accelerates blood to the organs.
The health benefits of increased oxygenated blood flow can be awesome, especially when you consider the benefits this will make toward improving your body’s efficiency when diving or exercising!
The various breathing techniques that we learn in yoga, such as “pranayama” can affect our breathing habits underwater, which can actually give us something to draw upon when we are faced with a less than perfect/comfortable situation (both a mental and physical benefit here) – especially when you consider a silt out scenario whilst penetrating a deep shipwreck!
As a passionate scuba diver and PADI Master Instructor I work with many divers of varying ability, but one thing I have noticed is that a heck of a lot of us divers over-breathe. This extends across the board from novice divers to professionals. This is when divers breathe too quickly, also referred to as Hyperventilation. Hyperventilation contributes in over 200 medical issues and diseases, such as asthma, arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure and stress – which can lead to a bad health situation in the long term.
Over-breathing leads to guzzling through a tank of gas in next to no time – we get called “Air Pigs” and “Gas Guzzlers” to name but a few. So how do we overcome this issue? In my own personal experience (I am a former “Air Hog”), I have found that Yoga delivers a solution to this issue. Here is my description of how…
Over breathing depletes the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood and this reduction in CO2 has various negative effects on our bodies. Primarily, the lower than normal levels of carbon dioxide can actually suppress the urge to breathe. Next it causes the arteries (including the carotid artery that goes to the brain) to constrict. Constriction of the arteries will reduce blood flow throughout our body. This makes the task of carrying the oxygenated blood to our cells much more difficult, and time consuming. Due to reduced blood flow, slower transportation of oxygenated red blood cells and no desire to breathe, the body will very quickly experience a shortage of oxygen – this is very bad. At this point, no matter how much we breathe, our lungs will not be able to do anything with the oxygen. The lack of oxygen causes a little emergency panic alarm to occur in our brains – this is a reflex that many technical experts have called the “fight or flight” reflex. It is the activation of our sympathetic nervous system, and it makes us anxious, irritable, and generally stressed out. It also reduces our ability to think clearly and this can lead to us being vulnerable to panic – a major contributing factor with divers bolting to the surface.
More bad news is that chronic hyperventilation can be caused by poor posture, excessive muscular tension and a poor diet. Another thing we need to be aware of is that to breathe effectively we must breathe naturally and with our whole body. This is more clearly seen in babies and animals. For us grown ups, the best way to practice good breathing techniques is to maintain a flexible, unrestricted ribcage and a supple belly. Our belly needs to have the ability to expand fully on inhalation and retract on exhalation.
Step Up Yoga
Regular yoga practice develops control over your breathing, there is a definite technique to the “yogic breath” and it is essentially a fairly simple concept that any one can try. Although introduced to this breathing style in Bikram Yoga, it was also very interesting to see the technique demonstrated during one of the technical diving courses I assisted on in
. Dahab, Egypt
Essentially, the Steps to belly-breathing are:
- Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly
- Practice breathing into your belly first. The hand on your stomach should rise and fall as you breathe into it. You’ll notice this may feel unnatural at first, then deeply relaxing – this is because when we are in a deep sleep we actually use abdominal breathing! J
- On the next inhalation, continue to fill your lungs some more by extending the belly breath into your chest. You want to fill your belly and then your chest. You will feel your belly hand rise first, then your chest hand rise second.
- Finally you want to try and squeeze a little more air into the top of your chest (around your collar bone), by raising your arms and allowing your lungs to fill to their capacity.
- Hold that breath for just a moment and slowly exhale. The exhalation needs to be controlled. You will feel the air release from the top of the chest, then the chest itself and then the belly. To really squeeze out all of the air you can curl over a touch.
This breathing exercise will help to remove all of the stale air from your lungs and replace it with fresh clean air.
Other physical benefits of yoga include the increase in strength, flexibility and endurance of our muscles. Also the increased range of movements in our joints and skeletal systems is a major added bonus for divers carrying heavy scuba gear – especially since yoga has been proven to improve dexterity skill too!
An advantage of scuba divers participating in yoga is that it has been proved to reduce anxiety. It is also a useful tool to help improve concentration and learning function. Let’s talk about Anxiety; if we can reduce this psychological barrier then we are less likely to make uncharacteristic errors in judgement and therefore we are less likely to panic. Having this up our wetsuit sleeve can help us to feel more confident before, during and after diving. It will contribute to that relaxed feeling we get when diving in perfect and comfortable conditions and we will feel happier, and less stressed.
|Relaxing before a deep dive|
My own practice of Bikram yoga has definitely contributed to my diving. It has reduced my Surface Air Consumption (SAC) rate dramatically. I was breathing at around 22 litres per minute 2 years ago, before practicing Bikram. After a year of regular yoga it dropped to 18 litres per minute and then again to 16 litres per minute. You gotta be happy about that! I also noticed that after having a year away from practicing yoga (whilst we’ve been travelling) my SAC returned to around 18 litres per minute. I was gutted! Before I talk about present day, I would also like to point out that Bikram Yoga also contributed to my skin improving – less dried and cracked feet, my mental attitude changed dramatically, I was more positive and open to new ideas. Yoga has also reduced my stress levels, and subsequently my blood pressure dropped too! On top of all this, whenever I regularly practice yoga my eating habits improve, my body weight begins to stabilize and I gain muscle tone and definition…which is awesome!
After such a long break, Winnie and I researched Bikram yoga studios across the globe, and found a location that served our diving needs and has a studio. Since returning to Bikram yoga for just one month, whilst in
I have again toned up, lost weight and I’m sleeping better at night. We went for some dives the other day and my
SAC is now averaging between 14-16LPM!!
This was exactly what I had been hoping for! Mexico
One thing I do want to point out, and you should be aware of is that it is not recommended to practice yoga after diving, especially deep, or technical deco dives. The increased blood flow that you’d experience may contribute to possible symptoms of decompression illness.
It is however prudent to train yoga on non diving days, and before diving if you are doing it on dive days too. I personally avoid yoga on dive days.
Some dive centres and resorts around the world offer yoga-diving packages that incorporate yoga sessions to your diving package. Perfect!
Personally, I’ll be practicing Bikram yoga for years to come, and that will only benefit my diving career too.