Breathing for Scuba Divers: a blog by Steve Lewis

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Breathe in, breathe out, repeat as necessary; and by the way, don’t hold your breath because your lungs will explode and you’ll die!”

Sage advice from the gruff and taciturn ex-military type who was teaching us to dive back at the dawn of time. He was holding up one of those new-fangled, single-hose regulators as he spoke, explaining to a roomful of bright-eyed wanna-be divers the precise workings of scuba gear, and our role in making it deliver air at depth.

Any questions?” He asked, looking around the room, shaking the regulator like a ferret with a rat, perhaps to show his attitude towards dissension or curiosity. The audience was quiet. “Good,” he said. “Let’s move on…

So that was it. One of the first lessons on how to dive.

Trouble is, as far as teaching a critical skill — breathing underwater — it went no further than a fairy can throw a garden tractor. Memorable, yes. Informative, not so good; garden tractor in exactly the same spot as before.

Now fast forward a few years and let’s look at a student manual from a major sport-diving agency on the topic.

Breathing underwater is just like breathing on the surface…” Really?!

Anyone who’s used scuba gear underwater will tell you that statement cannot possibly be true. In fact, even if you’ve never used scuba gear, and unless you’re a genetic mouth-breather with a seriously plugged nose, two seconds with a mask on your face and a second stage shoved in your mouth will show just how much of an untruth it is.

Leafing through that manual, and then thumbing through most of the other student manuals and dive books laying around the house, does not turn up much more information… well, it turns up none really. Advice on how to breathe on scuba is conspicuously absent. Odd when one considers that breathing is important, getting it wrong could be fatal (thank you BSAC instructor), and the number of posted questions on scuba forums with breath or breathing in the subject line out numbers those about sharks.

People want to know. Moreover, the people with questions are not all new divers.

A few weeks back a local dive shop hosted a “how-to-breathe-for-scuba-divers” workshop. It attracted a capacity crowd, and more than half that crowd were very experienced divers with technical certs of one sort or another… certainly not beginners.

It introduced to the crowd the concepts of using yoga and Tai-Chi breathing techniques to relax pre-dive. And it suggested using modifications of those techniques during the dive itself. The intended outcome: controlled breathing, relaxed divers, and everything related to those two things.

This approach — the “let’s learn to breathe” approach — brings up a clash of ideals. On one side we have the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, all things Eastern and Mystical school of thought, and on the other it’s Bob’s bait and tackle shop, no-need for voodoo approach. It’s a sort of charcuterie from the meat department at Harrods vs packaged ham from Tesco Express argument.

I favour the thinly-sliced saucisson myself; and on that note, here are a couple of the techniques brought up and tried at that recent workshop.

The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise

As a relaxing exercise 4-7-8 breathing is effective and can be done anywhere. It’s my standard go-to before every dive, and on more complex ones, I use the modified version during the dive.

Place the tip of your tongue in the spot just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there. As you exhale through your mouth around your tongue the air makes a whoosh sound. This is correct.

  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Repeat the cycle as many times as you can.

Since holding your breath is NOT an option for scuba divers, the modified “diver’s version” replaces the breath hold with a pause, and of course all breathing is through the mouth.

Another pre-dive trick that is really relaxing is Breath Counting.

The Breath Counting Technique

This one is part of a bog-standard, no-frills, Zen Buddhist introduction to meditative and mindful practice.

You can do it anywhere, driving, walking, but the standard is to sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and head inclined slightly forward. Focus on a spot a couple of metres ahead or close your eyes and take a few deep breaths and try to clear your mind.

  • To begin, breathe slowly and deeply and count “one” to yourself as you release your breath.
  • The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on up to “five.”
  • Start a new cycle, by counting “one” on the next exhalation.

Don’t count higher than “five,” and count only when you exhale.

No need to modify it much for diving (keep your eyes open though), and I find it interesting to time my fin kicks — the thrusting action of my frog kick — with each exhalation.

The result of both of these will be better gas consumption, no CO2 build up, and a better dive experience.

And yet, in the final blow, one might ask: “Why bother?” The Tesco Express crowd are quite correct saying that there’s no secret to breathing… From their prospective, a slice of ham slapped inside a dinner roll is as satisfying as Pane Laterza stuffed with prosciutto crudo and cheese; a lot less bother to make too.

So, maybe the difference is all style and no substance; my viewpoint is admittedly too biased to be objective on that score. But a physiologist — a specialist in diving medicine as it happened — explained once: “You know, panic is virtually impossible if you can control your breathing… deep and slow. Control your breathing and the Flight-Flight-Freeze reaction is replaced by a kind of WTF! Let’s get this sorted, NOW! attitude; an attitude with a much better potential outcome.” She and I were talking about the best response to something hitting the fan while scuba diving.

I have always remembered that conversation. It made sense then and does now.

What do you think?


Steve Lewis’s new book, Death in Number Two Shaft: the underwater exploration of Newfoundland’s Bell Island Mine, is available now on Steve’s website or from Amazon UK

Find out more about Steve at www.techdivertraining.org.

Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis is an author, adventure travel writer, and generalist, who dislikes dive gear but who loves to dive. A specific interest is cave diving, which he regards as "the most creative way to learn mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation.” He lives in a converted schoolhouse in Ontario’s cottage country with coyotes, white pines, and the Great Lakes as neighbours.

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