Deep Breathing for Kayakers

by Eric Soares on January 9, 2012

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.

AIR: Thousands of times more needed than food, hundreds of times more needed than water

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.

Conscious Breathing

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.

This is one of the most comprehensive books on pranic 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.

Guided breathing meditations can be useful. This Pranayama CD by Nubia Teixeira is my favorite for listening and following along.

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.

Tsunami Rangers do a salutation before entering the sea. Deep, steady breathing accompanies the salutation.

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.

Take an extra deep breath just before striking a breaking wave.

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!

Breathing Underwater

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.

Suck in air through clinched teeth when immersed in aerated water.

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.

After relaxing and conserving pranic energy, shoot to the surface when you sense you can.

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.

Now is the time to begin pranayama practice in a beautiful environment such as Chaco Canyon.

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.

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{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Kenny Howell January 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

Eric, another fascinating topic from a fascinating author. (;-) This one will take some time to fully inhale.

I had a very progressive running coach in high school (before paddling took over my life). He taught us some breath techniques that I will never forget, and still use during endurance training. And when things get dicey on the ocean, I find that focusing on full breaths is critical to maintaining focus, and avoiding panic. Pranic, not Panic, eh?

Are you familar with the recent bestseller, “Born To Run”? It’s about endurance running, and much more. One of the incredible things described in the book is how humans are the ONLY mammals that can control their breathing while running. Our lungs, unlike those of rabbits and cheetahs, are not attached to our spinal cords in the same way as other mammals, so we are free to breathe independently from our running strides…That’s why – among other reasons – a trained human runner can chase down a horse, deer, or antelope until it collapses from exhaustion. This is called “persistence hunting”, and is a likely the reason homo sapiens evolved as we did from arboreal forest creatures to bi-pedal forces of nature. We were “born to run”.

Respire profundo,


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:56 am

I’m not familiar with “Born to Run,” but it sounds like a fascinating read. I’ll check it out. Thanks, Kenny.

Yes, “Pranic, not panic breathing.” It has a nice ring to it.


Anders Landin January 9, 2012 at 11:16 am

Great article Eric!

I totally agree that this is a crucial topic and it is almost never is discussed. Thanks for bringing it up!

In particular I agree that taking a deep breath just before a big beatdown in the surf is so key. It is easy to forget in a very adrenaline filled moment, and it really takes some conscious practice to develop the instinct.

This is also the first time I see anyone write about breathing in foam. The way I do it is a little different from yours. I only make a very narrow opening between the lips and then try to open the inner mouth as much as possible to create a volume where the inhaled water can settle and stay in the mouth instead of passing down to the lungs… I’ll try to test your method next time if I have the presence to remember it.

Great article!



Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:18 pm

I shall have to try your method also, Anders.




Padre Jack January 9, 2012 at 11:26 am

Thanks Eric for bringing this up, hup, two, three four…. Ever try saying “hup” without breathing?
Anyway as some of you know, being able to hold my breath has saved my life (perhaps not the brain-part) more than once.
1. Face-down in rough water, quadriplegic,and mostly unconscious, a hundred or more feet from shore after breaking my neck in a boogie-board surf accident—for about 7 minutes (according to the people who pulled me out and did CPR) 20 years ago. I could never have survived if I had not been swimming underwater every morning, holding my breath as long as I could….
2. The under-ice incident I reported in this blog a few months ago. I did not have to hold my breath for all that long, but being able to hold it calmly for as long as I needed made it a fun, enjoyable adventure rather than a regret.


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Your breath-holding incidents were very scary, Jack. I’m glad you are with us to tell the tale. For my readers interested in Padre Jack’s “Under the Ice” tale, click here:


Bill C. January 9, 2012 at 11:54 am

Excellent article Eric. The Pranayama breathing technique is practiced by many
serious (breath-hold) freedivers, amateur or professional. During a training course I participated in with Performance Freediving Int’l. in Kona, HI, we would
remove our dive masks and immerse our faces underwater (using snorkel) while
floating calmly on the surface for approx. 5-7 minutes with slow and deep inhalations and exhalations. This triggers the Mammalian Dive Reflex, which causes your heart rate to slow down while also reducing the amount of CO2 in your bloodstream. It’s the rising CO2 level that causes the convulsing “need to breathe” in your upper torso to occur during a breathhold dive. It’s very important to know your own personal aerobic capacity and fitness level when doing any type of breath-hold whether floating in a pool (static) or swimming in a lake or ocean (dynamic). And of course, NEVER do a breath-hold without someone monitoring your activity. The most common fatality in freediving is due
to shallow-water blackout while diving alone. A highly accomplished blue water hunter named Terry Maas has developed a Freediver’s Safety Vest which can be programmed to inflate after a designated time and depth. Hopefully this product will be made available to all serious freedivers in the future. Meanwhile let’s all practice breathing deeply and slowly during our respective sports warm-ups. It will clear your mind and prepare you for the task(s) at hand.


Kenny Howell January 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm

And Jay Moriarity, the boy-wonder surfer of Mavericks fame, died of a shallow water blackout while free diving in Indonesia. They are making a movie about Jay right now (“Of Men & Mavericks”) – shooting has been taking place for several months around Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. I’ve been wondering how his diving accident will be portrayed by this big Hollywood production with respect to Jay’s short but inspiring life. Tragic any way you look at it. Some have speculated this is how Misha went in Hawaii…Thanks for the info about that Safety Vest.


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Thanks for the fine information, Bill. I urge everyone to heed his words: “NEVER do a breath-hold without someone monitoring your activity.” We don’t want anyone to die because of shallow-water blackout.


Bill Vonnegut January 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Great stuff Eric!!
All those Yoga classes years ago learning the techniques you describe above have paid off many times over. Especially on a big day or when you are back on the water after a somewhat traumatic experience.


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Yes, yoga class is a good place to learn breathing techniques. Also meditation classes of any persuasion, tai chi and other martial arts, archery and target shooting, and running (as Kenny mentioned in the first comment). The list goes on….


JohnA January 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Hi Eric,
The first pool dive I did with my local dive club in Edinburgh (long, long ago), they gave me a faulty club training reg. It seemed to work fine on the surface so I jumped in the deep end. When I sucked on the mouthpiece underwater, I got mostly water and a little air. At that age I had no body fat whatsoever and with no wet suit in the warm pool and a steel tank, I sank like a rock. I couldn’t get off the bottom far enough to swim efficiently so I had to crawl right across the bottom of the pool to the ladder to climb out, bubbling a little air through a lot of water all the way.

This isn’t quite the same as the foam scenario but I quickly noticed that since water is heavier than air, it helped if I turned my face to the bottom and kept my head down. Looking up at the surface was not a rewarding experience as all the water flowed to the back of my throat. I appreciate this isn’t quite the same as sucking foam through your teeth in the surf, but thought it might be a useful observation in conjuntion with sucking the foam in through your teeth.


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Wow! John, I’ll try to reproduce your underwater breathing technique, because now you’ve gotten me very curious. I may not be able to do it, but I enjoy experimenting with new stuff.




Paul McHugh January 9, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Well, Rico, this is my favorite post of yours thus far. You’re tapping into a primal (basic) topic that should be of interest not only to waterfolk, but all who send iron coursing through their red rivers to kiss the exhalations of our predecessors and companions… the plants. Cheerz, McH


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for the compliment, Paul. It means a lot coming from you.


Bill C. January 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm

This is slightly off topic from Eric’s article but may be of interest. One of the better known big wave surfers, Shane Dorian, has collaborated with Billabong and Mustang Survival Suits to develop a new wet suit (manually triggered CO2 cartridge) to inflate a bladder on the back of the wetsuit. This theoretically will help during those dreaded two wave hold-downs that the big wave riders experience. There’s a video on YouTube (Billabong V1 wetsuit). I don’t like the design because it can’t be triggered if the wearer is unconscious and the bladder is on the back of the suit which will cause the wearer to float face down. You better have someone there to pick you up quickly once you pop up. But it will no doubt save a life in the future. The evolution of Homo Aquaticus continues…..


Kenny Howell January 9, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Hey Bill, I’ve been following that story about Shane Dorian and the Billabong survival suit, but they keep saying it will not be made available to the public. The hellmen that ride big waves don’t want it falling into the wrong hands – they fear that wearing such a device would provide a lesser bad-ass with a false sense of security.

BTW, I just got off the water from a SUP session at Mavericks. I didn’t catch a wave there, was just watching in awe as guys hurled themselves into perfect barrels big enough to drive a double-decker bus through. It was a small day for Mavs – only 20′ faces, but a wipeout in the wrong place could still kill you. I was happy to surf the head high rides inside the reef.


Catwalker Ross January 9, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Excellent topic, Eric. Many years ago, I was told that using ten, no fewer, very long and controlled, very deep breaths would fool the mind into believing that “If she can take that many deep breaths, all must be right with the world”. So right above Crystal, while the raft guides were saying things like “Gee. I’ve never seen it like this. Which side do you think we should try?”, and “Ohhhh. Look at that flip! Not that side, and whoops, not this one either”, I decided that my body needed to be calm and my mind alert and relaxed. The ten deep breaths let me see and enjoy that rapid, even while Hy-siding. So before anything that may cause panic, from giving a speech to speaking to someone who is dying, and especially before going on the water, I take the extra time to count all ten. For some reason, fewer than ten doesn’t fool my mind. Maybe I’m slow?? Of course trying ten won’t work in surf, but it sure helps other times and before entering the water.


Eric Soares January 9, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Catwalker: I’ll have to give the “ten deep breaths” a try. My recommendations about 3, 6, 9 breaths, etc. are arbitrary. I like numbers divisible by 3 (no joke), so that’s why I put those in. 🙂


John Soares January 10, 2012 at 7:15 am

I did a lot of swimming in big waves when I lived on Kauai. For me the most important thing by far when I was being pounded and rolled was to just relax my body and pay attention to which way was up.


Eric Soares January 10, 2012 at 9:32 am

Sound advice, John. Thanks. Here’s a quiz for you and all my readers:

When pushed deep underwater in a big breaking wave, how do you know which way is up?


Kenny Howell January 10, 2012 at 9:43 am

Follow your leash to your surfboard, which is “tombstoning” on the surface.


Eric Soares January 10, 2012 at 9:52 am

Good answer, Kenny. Anyone else want to say how they know?


Anders Landin January 10, 2012 at 10:57 am

Well, for diving you follow the bubbles, but that doesn’t work so well while kayaking since without a mask it is hard to see any details. I’ve never had the problem of how to get back to the surface while kayaking since I wear a PFD, but for orientation when rolling in tumultuous water, I wait for the light from the surface to come from the right direction.

Is this what you had in mind?



Eric Soares January 11, 2012 at 8:28 am

Yep, follow the bubbles, look for the light, let your PFD tug on you (it wants to float), and of course follow your leash to your floating surfboard, as Kenny mentioned.

The thing is, in super aerated water (as in a big wave breaking), there are so many bubbles going in myriad directions, it’s hard to tell which way is up. But when underwater in water under under 25 feet deep, no matter which way you go, you’ll either surface a few feet up or go to the bottom a few feet down. Say I’m not wearing a PFD and am not leashed to a board, I swim in the direction that feels right (toward the light is good). If it’s too difficult, I go the other way, as most people (especially in a wetsuit or drysuit) will be positively buoyant at 15 feet down, and it will be easier to swim up than down. So you can tell by the resistance which way is up. Up has less resistance.


Doug Lloyd January 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Eric, breathe easy…I’ll try to be short and nice! And I do like the picture of you and the Rangers doing your salutations on the beach, but at first I thought it was a picture of you guys all under arrest for commando camping en masse again! Oh, said I be nice! Sorry.

I used to be on a swim club and we had a fun race category for underwater swimming which was a time/ length thing. I did very, very well at the time-spent-under portion anyway and continued enjoying the activity for decades and was able to make use of that ability for sea kayaking. Exiting a kayak solo with no one else around for re-entry wasn’t the best option. So, I did and occasionally do use the quick hyperventilation technique to supersaturate and load the alveoli, but only for short term emergencies. There’s too much potential for fainting when you fake yourself out, but sea kayaking is a more moderated interface unlike free diving, etc. Just darn well know your body and allow margins. One preparatory skill development was done just by holding my breath underwater all the time for as long as I could – in the bath tub, Jacuzzi, you name it, because at the end of the day it’s a mental struggle anyway trying to circumvent that desire to bail when you can’t get that roll to work immediately.

As for purposed breathing exercise and the notion of conscious and controlled activity-based breathing techniques, this is all good, but there’s a tie-in with other things like an inner calmness and realistic confidence in your abilities that are knowledge-based and experienced-won and muscle/technique trained. The scientific merits of reduced carbon dioxide by a steadier breathing pattern are absolutely less appreciated and undervalued and I’m glad you are pointing this out to a bit wider audience. I find it works better than my now defunct breathing tube:



Eric Soares January 11, 2012 at 9:23 am

You bring up many interesting points, Doug. I’d like to address a few.

1. In the salutation photo, it does look like we’re being arrested for commando camping. “I didn’t do it, officer. I swear!”

2. Your swim club “underwater races” exercise is excellent. I spent many years on swim team, and now I resist doing normal laps in a pool–it’s just too boring (it’s like jogging in circles around a track–yawn). Instead, I swim underwater laps and leap out of the water like a dolphin to get air. It’s much more enjoyable. Plus, swimming underwater is more natural and is overall better for coordination and muscle development because movements are done with uniform water resistance (no easy air to move through, as in the standard crawl stroke).

3. My desire to frolic underwater has improved my breathing capacity knowledge and skill, hence this current essay. And yes, it’s essential to cultivate an “inner calmness and realistic confidence” in your ability to exist underwater in a relaxed and comfortable manner. For me, this is easy, as I’m a natural water being. But I know it’s terribly difficult for some people, and so they should take baby steps in learning to relax underwater. I think going under in the jacuzzi or wading pool for a few seconds at a time (say start with 3 seconds, then go to 6, 9, etc.) is a good way to acclimate to the underwater environment. The dividend later will be pleasure not panic when you are upside down in turbulence and need to roll up.

4. I do not hyperventilate for any reason, except a quick air gasp if I blow my roll. I’d rather do one good breathing cycle than 3 or 4 crappy little huffs and puffs, as the CO2 is still languishing in the lungs, sapping energy.

5. I hope scientists get more data on the bennies of reduced CO2 through controlled breathing, as I know from my personal experience, years of it, that a blob of CO2 hanging in the lungs is bad, and that oxygen/prana is good. That research on the mammalian dive reflex that Bill referred to earlier is interesting.

Here’s a little story. One time Jim Kakuk played a practical joke on me. At an enclosed “soda spring” he conned me into taking a deep breath….of pure carbon dioxide. I gagged, my lungs resisted with everything they had, the pain in my lungs was terrific, and I stumbled out of there feeling like I was going to die. I learned a huge lesson that day–CO2 is bad, O is good. Praise Neptune for phytoplankton, which takes the carbon out of CO2 and leaves us with the oxygen! Plants are good too (relating to what Paul said earlier).

6. I got a laugh out of your breathing tube photos, but am intrigued, nevertheless. Didn’t James Bond use a portable little air bottle in Thunderball or something? I want one of those.


Steven King January 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Great topic indeed Don Diego, crossing into so many areas at once. Getting back into Abalone diving has helped me become more aware of breath and breathing exercises. I have found that when my mask and gear are all working properly and I relax, I can stay down longer and also have the greatest sense of freedom, almost being temporarily made into a a seal or other mammal. Seeing a big ab a little further down also seems to extend my abilities. I am not close to Scott who seems to be able to stay down a very long time while hunting.

Maybe a word or two on how to revive someone who has passed out underwater and taken in some water would be useful, unless you have covered that in other posts. I also wanted to mention that Andy Weil has a good audio CD on ancient breathing techniques for relaxation health enhancement.

Breathing deeply,



Eric Soares January 11, 2012 at 8:04 pm

As you said, ab diving is a great way to experiment with breathing and relaxation techniques.

I have not heard the Andy Weil CD on ancient breathing, but shall try to check it out. I’m always interested in new stuff. That Nubia Teixeira pranayama CD is also great. Her voice is very hypnotic and pleasant, and she can sustain a long mantra sound, that’s for sure.

I’m reluctant to talk about reviving techniques in my blog, because I’d hate for someone to try what I suggest and get a bad result. I’m not a certified CPR instructor or medical professional, so I’ll leave that to a reader who wants to respond knowledgeably. Anyone? I do recommend that people take first aid and CPR classes every couple of years, as I do. They can teach you what to do.

Thanks for bringing this important topic up, Steve.


Moulton Avery January 12, 2012 at 11:26 am

Another great, thought-provoking topic, Eric, and as Anders noted above, one that is seldom discussed. I particularly loved the distinction you made between pranic breathing and panic breathing. Only one letter, but what a world of difference. It focused my attention on the fact that the nasty, claustrophobic, trapped-in-the-cockpit problem that I’ve been wrestling with of late is totally absent when I’m swimming underwater – an activity that I’ve always found calming. Everything that you and the previous commenters said about breathing, focus, and keeping oneself centered in the calm eye of the hurricane rings so very true. Much food for thought, and a great reminder that I need to pay much closer attention to that vital connection between deep, rhythmic breathing and a calm mental state. Bravo!


Doug Lloyd January 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Moulton, now that I’ve been “busted” ’bout hyperventilating I’ll never feel like a True Man out there again with my crappy little huffs and puffs. 🙂

Though, come to think of it when a large wave suddenly bears down out of nowhere, all I usually get it is one big “Oh crap!” deep breath. I’m pretty adept now at getting my head partially horizontal and grabbing a quick reprieve of air before setting up for a hopefully successful roll or scull-to-upright. One just has to keep the calm demeanor long enough to pull it together.

The three situations where I have to mentally take control over the reflect to exit while inverted are out in really big breaking outer surf where I’m maytagged or pushed down for longer than my training has prepared me for; secondly, also in surf, are overly elongated surf zones with shallow water a mile seaward where a moderate sized breaking wave has flipped me over and I’m broaching sideways, head in the water, sometimes for a very, very long run on that same wave marching along before righting myself (northern Oregon has some areas like that); thirdly are the troubled waters locally in strong mixing currents and whirlpools where I go over on an exhaled breath – very irksome getting a roll set-up in time, so often I may not even bother and just aim for an intermediary scull and suck in a quick breath knowing any attempt at a poorly set-up roll is likely to fail and fatigue lungs further. It isn’t a game out there if you are solo and in waters not really conducive to swimming. But you do need to be on the top of your game, game face on, knowing you don’t hold the Trump Card and knowing when to fold ‘em (get off the water).


Eric Soares January 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Yeah, I guess there’s really not much difference between 3 or 4 crappy little huffs and puffs and one big “oh crap” deep breath. 🙂

When you’re in what Moulton calls that “nasty, claustrophobic, trapped-in-the-cockpit problem,” whether it be in a prolonged broach, maytag, or The Hag whirlpool, it’s good to be able to relax as well as you can, sneak a breath if it will give you more time, and “know when to hold ’em” (breath, that is) and “know when to fold ’em” (bail out).

A good exercise for the “claustrophobic cockpit syndrome” is to go to your warm pool or pond (a pond would be good for you, Doug :)), tip your boat over, and hang there for 10 seconds before you do anything. Then roll up to the surface, but not completely, and take a quick breath (a crappy huff). Then hang upside down again for a few seconds, then roll up completely. Repeat this exercise a few times and that will inoculate you somewhat against the panicky feeling that happens when you get knocked over suddenly, unprepared, in rough water, and you have to wait a bit to roll back up.


Moulton Avery January 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Actually, Eric, I was referring to MY nasty, claustrophobic, trapped-in-the-cockpit problem, which I believe is a remnant from the time when, as a wee lad, I was trapped for about ten minutes in one of those old, unsafe, military footlockers. Your mileage may vary.

Once I’m upside down, the hazard is panic non-breathing after I blow a roll or two. It’s a real bitch, and a major safety issue, because when that happens I’m not in the driver’s seat anymore and panic is the last thing I need at that particular point in time. You’re spot-on about the restorative value of spending some quality hang-time under the boat. It really helps tame the dragon. Mine’s apparently a little more surly than most, and it’s just going to take longer.

Also, per your advice, when I was out paddling with some mates tonight on the 37F Potomac River, I paid close attention to my breathing, and sure enough – Shallow Breathing. Dang! Yet another flaw that needs a-fixin’. Seriously, though, these articles and the insights they provide are one of the reasons that I just absolutely love your blog.

One interesting thing I learned a couple of years ago is that when you’re being thrashed and are at your absolute limit in terms of breath holding (about to suck in a lungful of water), the simple act of swallowing will buy you a little more time. BTW, it’s definitely not a good idea to use that trick for extending your underwater pool time or going for that big abalone you just spotted a little further down. The only catch for me is that you have to be in a non-panic state to implement it.


Moulton Avery January 12, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Doug, me hearty, don’t sweat the small stuff (or puffs), your True Manhood has never been in question.


Eric Soares January 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Ooops! I didn’t mean to imply that I was speaking directly to you Moulton or to Doug in the above reply of mine. I was using you two as a device to speak to “everyman.”

BTW, Doug, the pond WOULD be good for you! 🙂


Kenny Howell January 12, 2012 at 4:08 pm

For the ladies following this blog, and all the “true men” who loved the movie “300”, here is Scotish actor Gerard Butler descibing his near-drowning at Mavericks last month during filming of the move “Of Men & Mavericks”:

Note the shots of whiskey on the table for the guests on the show…Now that’s my kind of talk show!


Eric Soares January 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Gerard tells it like it is! It’s when that second wave comes and you are still underwater that you wonder if you are going to make it after all. My advice in this situation: Never Give Up!


Gene Burnett January 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Nice post Eric. I don’t kayak or even swim much, but I do find the subject of breathing, particularly as it relates to muscle tension and panic responses very interesting. When we had a brief Systema (Russian martial art) workshop last year, the teacher showed us how they do push-ups and it related to the topic of breathing and panic. First of all they do push-ups with the hands very close in to the chest. This focuses the work on the lats and shoulder stabilizers more than just the pecs. Also they do complete, smooth, all the way to the bottom and all the way to the top push-ups, no jerky, fast, incomplete ones. Now, check this out. First they do 10 push-ups exhaling on the way up and inhaling on the way down. On the last one, you exhale down and do another 10 with your lungs full and not breathing at all. After the last one, you inhale on the way up and do 10 more that way, inhaling up and exhaling down. On the last one, you exhale down and then finish with 10 more with your lungs empty and with no breathing at all. The teacher just knocked out these 40 (!) push-ups like it was nothing. We followed with varying and much less success! But the point, as the teacher expressed it, of the last 10 especially, is to continue working even while your body is panicking and to find your true limit as opposed to your freaked-out mind limit. I have some injuries I’m nursing along so I usually do sets of 4 rather than 10 but I’m hoping to build up to higher numbers. I can really see the value in getting used to having no air but not panicking and continuing to work. A nice feature of this exercise is that there’s no risk of drowning or being eaten by a shark!


Eric Soares January 13, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Gene, your Systema example is fascinating. I bet a healthy person could really benefit from a push-up regime such as this. I caution people with heart conditions, high blood pressure and the like to check with their doctor first to make sure it’s okay, as I’m sure the blood pressure goes way up during this exercise. A couple of times a week I do 5 or 6 very slow, complete push-ups at a shot, usually inhaling on the way up. Any more than that, and I might be in deep trouble.


Gene Burnett January 14, 2012 at 1:36 am

Good point Eric. Systema in general is for the fit! Or at the very least the sturdy. We all have to do be aware of our limits if we wish to prevent injury. GB


Kenny Howell January 12, 2012 at 11:41 pm

This is totally awesome! I once heard a “Mens Action Story” about a Navy Seal exercise, it involved an elite frogman exiting from a submarine without dive tanks and swimming to the surface from a phenomenal depth (beyond current free diving records) while exhaling continuously for 15 minutes; because the air in the sub wasn’t pressurized higher than the surface air, the diver could not get the “bends”; as he rose, the air in his lungs gradually expanded due to the pressure change, sucking oxygen in from the bloodstream. It was only his special training that kept him from involuntarily taking a breath during the ascent. The mind doesn’t like the idea of exhaling for 15 minutes evidently…Could this be fact, or fiction? If it’s true, it’s a military secret, now revealed.

And perhaps more amazing, in the book by Tom Wolfe about the Mercury 7 astronauts, “The Right Stuff”, he describes John Glenn and the other right stuff bad-asses competing in a medical test to blow air into a tube for as long as they could. Glenn won that contest – exhaling for over 90 seconds – because he knew from training that you ALWAYS have enough air remaing in the lungs to exhale a little more, even when you’re about to black out (until the lungs collapse I guess). Here is the scene from The Right Stuff movie that dramatizes this principle. It begins 8 minutes into the segment, and is short but sweet. Eric, you’ll dig this man!


Eric Soares January 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I’ve never heard the Navy SEAL story, Kenny. It sounds like a military myth, but who knows? If true, that would be very important and useful data. I know the Navy did a lot of tests with UDT guys using gas combos and pressure to see how they would do. It turns out that more oxygen and less nitrogen in the tank means the guy can stay down longer! Who would’ve guessed?

As for The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s book is my #1 all-time favorite non-fiction book. The movie is also fantastic. Tsunami Rangers stole a lot of our lines from The Right Stuff. Things like “Spam in a can,” “auger in” “bought the farm,” “screwed the pooch,” and “I hope not.” We named our Tsunami boats the X-1 after Yeager’s rocket plane, and the X-15 Scramjet based on the X-15 program described in the book. I pretty well have the book and movie memorized. BTW, it was Scott Carpenter, not John Glenn, who broke the exhale record. 🙂

And that brings me to another great breathing and relaxation and never-give-up and raw courage story in the book Yeager, by Chuck Yeager. As you know, air force test pilot (Break the Sound Barrier guy) Chuck Yeager is featured in the Right Stuff movie and book. In Chuck’s own book, he tells a horrific tale about touching space in a jet, flaming out, spinning out of control, ejecting, having his space suit catch on fire inside his mask, turning the oxygen off so the fire goes out but he can’t breathe, turning it back on and the fire returns, back and forth until he lands, badly burned. His plane augers in but Chuck didn’t buy the farm, though he would have been spam in a can had he not screwed the pooch and ejected out.


Kenny Howell January 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Commander Soares,

My favorite line from the Right Stuff movie is “Dere vill be a vindow”. Who said it, and what was he talking about?

Let’s light this candle!


Eric Soares January 13, 2012 at 10:16 pm


I “guess I’m a wetback now,” cuz I’m not sure. I believe it’s the Wernher von Braun character, and he’s referring to the short period of time that the spacecraft will be incommunicado with the controllers on the ground (during John Glenn’s orbital flight) when it goes down through the ionisphere (or some part of the atmosphere). Is “what Gus is saying” right, or did I auger in?

BTW, “Who’s the best Tsunami Ranger you ever saw? You’re lookin’ at ’em.”


Kenny Howell January 13, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Roger that on Von Braun, but he was responding to the Mercury 7 dudes demands that there would be a window in the spacecraft. The German rocket scientists working for NASA supposedly didn’t want to include a window for the astronaut. It was a fictional confrontation made up for the movie, but a nice dramatic touch, nontheless.

You caught me on the Glenn vs. Carpenter scene, but check the book – I think Glenn actually won the exhalation contest.

“Hey Ridley, ya got any Beemans?”


Eric Soares January 14, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Ah yes, the window on the spacecraft. I need to re-read the book.

“Fair enough,”



Kayak Guy March 17, 2012 at 6:37 am

Definitely one of the best tips any paddler can find in the internet! Breathing is what gets us through life right? Although yours have stopped, may you find eternal rest Mr. Soares.


Kwame July 16, 2012 at 3:01 am

Great information, even though I don’t plan to go Kayaking, but I plan to keep on breathing.
Deep breathing is good for your health, and knowing how to breath properly is important. Breath on.


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