“Breathe.” Did you consciously take a refreshing breath or two or three just now? Okay, start reading to find out how proper breathing relates to sea kayaking.
Numerous articles and a plethora of books tell us what to eat. One day they exhort: “Eat soy!” The next day they admonish: “Don’t eat soy!” I sometimes wonder why we put so much effort into the food we consume, since it all gets broken down into nutrients needed by the body. A healthy human can go at least three weeks without food. So why all the emphasis on food?
What about water? A study out a few years ago said that Americans consume over 8 billion gallons of pricey bottled water a year. Though water is crucial for living things, humans can go at least three days without water. So why do we spend so much money on an essential that is practically free?
But after three minutes without oxygen, the brain can begin to suffer irreparable damage. Even in a controlled surgical environment, 10 minutes is the maximum time one can go without oxygen before permanently toasting the brain. In a sea kayaking situation, where a person is very active, perhaps scared, and using a lot of oxygen, one can lose consciousness in 30 seconds or less if upside down in a boat in cold, frothy water. The point is, regarding time passage, compared to water and food, air is many hundreds of times more necessary for human survival. So why do we not focus on oxygen, the #1 factor on human survival, and why are there not countless articles on how to breathe? It’s because breathing occurs on its own and there are not branded air products to buy, so we take it for granted. We don’t think about it, much less try to get the best air possible in the best way.
It’s true that we breathe automatically, so we shouldn’t have to use our minds to make it happen. But many people breathe shallowly. They could get a lot more air with each breath, and then they’d feel better, sharper, clearer, healthier. To get more air, breathe consciously; become aware of how you breathe and control it so oxygen intake and carbon dioxide exhaust increase. And yes, we’re talking about breathing clean air, not smog.
Certain disciplines advocate conscious breathing of one type or another. For example, one can practice Buddhist breathing, Taoist breathing, Feldenkrais breath exercises, or undertake the yogic breathing practice of Pranayama. Some law enforcement and military personnel engage in “combat breathing” or “tactical breathing” when in danger. The gist of all these breathing methods is that you intake prana (wind, breath, chi, energy) from the atmosphere and infuse your body with it via controlled breathing.
Every day I begin my morning by going outside, exhaling completely, and then taking three deep breaths, as I correct my posture and increase my awareness and energy. I do the “three-breath” routine off and on throughout the day, whenever I think of it. If I feel tired or my body doesn’t feel right, I take deep breaths. If I’m upset or anxious, I breathe deeply. Before I give a speech or do any athletic endeavor I take three breaths. Every night when I lie down in bed, I breathe deeply three times and say a mantra to help me sleep. It works.
Breathing and Kayaking
Just before we take off kayaking, especially if we’re paddling through big surf, the Tsunami Rangers stand in formation at the water’s edge and give a salutation to the sea, which includes deep breathing and a mantra. This has a calming effect on the nerves—at least it does for me.
While forward paddling, some boaters breathe deeply in a rhythmic fashion to increase stamina. Don Kiesling, who races in surf skis, says he inhales while paddling on his left side and exhales while paddling on his right. I typically don’t follow a left/right breathing pattern while kayaking, but strive to maintain an easy, steady flow of deep breathing, as I do when practicing tai chi. This slow, steady breathing works well when I’m doing ninja strokes in a rock garden, when my paddle action is rapid and non-rhythmic. My body does what it needs to do to meet the turbulence as it comes while my deep breathing continues on its own metric, unperturbed by the action surrounding me. For me, this is the Zone, the ideal state to be in while whitewater kayaking.
If I see a big wave ready to break ahead of me in 20 seconds, I often take 2 or 3 extra deep breaths, to calm me and give me a surge of pranic energy before dealing with the breaker. Just before I get hit, I take a long, deep breath in through my nose; and as I burst through the wave, I exhale strongly through my mouth. Then I resume my deep breathing pattern.
Contrast this with what some folks do. They get increasingly more agitated as the wave approaches, which inhibits the breath (a bad cycle starts: more agitation = less breath and less breath = more agitation), then actually stop breathing and hold their breath as they contact the breaking wave. That is the opposite of what I’m advocating, and if you get tipped over, you are instantly out of breath and in trouble. This is panic breathing, not pranic breathing!
How does one breathe when upside down in the water? Typically, you don’t. If you have taken three deep breaths before you got in the predicament, then you probably still have oxygen in your system and can wait the few seconds needed to roll back up. So just relax, tune into the wave action around you, and roll up as soon as you can, exhaling on the way to the surface. If you fail to roll, at least gulp some surface air as you make your attempt, and then relax and repeat the process until you roll up. If you feel like you must breathe, don’t fight it. Wet exit your boat and get to the surface and breathe. Passing out is not an option when underwater.
Sometimes, you may be broaching in a foam surfwich. Your head is enshrouded in foam, yet you can still breathe if you clench your jaws shut, keep your lips open ¼ inch, and suck air through your teeth. In effect your teeth act like crude gills, stopping the water yet allowing the air to pass through into your lungs. I have done this several times, and it works. Try it for yourself in a safe little surf zone.
What do you do when you’ve been hit by the mother of all waves, been torn out of your boat and thrust to the bottom and held down by an angry Neptune? You completely r-e-l-a-x, conserve energy, and await an opening to dash back to the surface. If you have been pranic breathing before you got hit, you should be oxygenated enough to pull this off. But how do you prepare for this possible eventuality? It’s easy; just do this little exercise.
A Pranic Breathing Exercise for Sea Kayakers
Go to your local pool and prove to yourself that pranic breathing, coupled with relaxation and efficiency, is the ticket for safely staying underwater longer. No, I’m not talking about the sport of free diving, which takes years to master. Here’s what you do. Go to the end of an uncrowded pool. Take in one breath and see how far you can swim underwater before the urge to breathe forces you to the surface. Then, go back to the end of the pool, breathe slowly and deeply through your nose, with your tongue up on your palate on the inhale and your tongue in the normal position on the exhale. When inhaling, breathe in as if you are filling up your entire thorax and abdomen. Your inhale should last between 6 and 12 seconds. As soon as your lungs are full, slowly exhale for 9 to 15 seconds. Repeat this breathing cycle 3 to 9 times. On the last inhale, go underwater and see how far you can swim, slowly exhaling while swimming. When you feel the urge to breathe, glide up to the surface. Now see how far you have gone. I can usually swim an extra 10 to 15 meters after completing a pranic breathing cycle. And, I’m not panting when I surface, as I don’t push myself to continue when my lungs start to burn. I do this underwater pranic breathing exercise 3 times each time I go swimming. Please try it and monitor yourself. I believe you will feel more energized and calmed.
When swimming underwater it’s important to leisurely surface when you feel the urge to breathe. Do not keep going, as you may pass out. I had a friend who died by continuing to swim down, down, down in the ocean for too long. Also, never hyperventilate (that is, breathe quickly and shallowly through your mouth) before swimming underwater, as this could result in you going unconscious without warning.
Practicing this pranic breathing exercise may save your life someday when you are in a bad situation underwater in surf or rocks. By paying attention to your breathing and purposefully engaging in pranic breathing in daily life and while kayaking, you’ll find that you are calmer, more attentive, and more energized. Remember this: 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food. Air is the body’s most essential nutrient—and it’s free!
Please share your knowledge and experience with pranic or panic breathing in kayaking or any aspect of your life. Feel free to ask questions or add your thoughts by pressing the “comments” button below.