Taking a deep breath has long been known to calm down the body; athletes before a race do it or performers and speakers before going on stage. So how can we learn to breathe better? KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks to a freediver and a breath practitioner about the mechanics of breathing well and the impacts on our mental and physical well-being.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: You’re a four time freediving World Champion. How did that get started for you?
Stig Severinsen: “Well as with any child, once you start freediving, going under the surface of the ocean, or even in a swimming pool, you pretty quickly realize that in order to be able to stay down, you need to be relaxed. So mental relaxation, physiological relaxation is very important. As children we subconsciously train a lot of different breathing techniques you experiment and find your own way. When you get more into competitive freediving, most of your focus is actually on breathing and the preparation, so if you don't really understand breathing and you kind of have a bad start. So it sounds like a paradox, you're a free diver, you need to hold your breath but you're working with breathing, they go hand in hand and I look at it as a brother and a sister.
In yoga, the fourth element of Ashtanga Yoga, the fourth limb or the fourth step is called pranayama and that deals with breathing and particularly the breath holding but that's what freediving is, investigating the pause in the breath.”
KCRW: How much training is involved in becoming a freediver?
Stig Severinsen: “It depends. Once you get older, your metabolism slows down, which is an advantage. Whereas in most any other sport, once you get older you lose your stamina, your muscles, your coordination and balance you had in your youth. But in freediving, it's actually an advantage and you also have a lifelong experience to look back on and to lean against so I would say with decent freediving a few times a week. In addition you do a cardiovascular workout, the apnea training, the breath training, hypoxic training, all the kind of crazy, stuff that I do with the Navy Seals, the Royal Air Force, Olympic athletes, but for an average person it’s not too hard and that’s the great thing about freediving.
The first rule of any diving is to never dive alone, never hold your breath alone because you can black out and drown. But if you experiment at home, in your bed, on the couch on your yoga mat, it's super safe, and you go into all these crevices of your mind and your body and your neurophysiology anatomy - that’s extraordinary.
And the wonderful thing about freediving is that the learning curve is incredibly fast: you see people after 1,2, 3 introductory dives, doubling or tripling the performance. There are not many things in life where you can double or triple your performance; think about running or weightlifting. If you could triple the weight you could lift that would be amazing. So it takes dedication and patience but people can learn very quickly.”
KCRW: Annelies Richmond where did your interest in the breath begin and what kinds of results have you seen in the mental health space?
I run a program called Sky Campus Happiness, which we have at 58 universities in the US. I first got into this 22 years ago in New York City when I was a professional ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. I used to experience lots of stage anxiety, I would walk on the stage and I would have so much anxiety that I wouldn't perform as well. That was probably the worst part of my career and I just happened to walk into an Art of Living Course; a weekend course that taught me Sky Breath meditation, a breath-based meditation practice.
I had no idea what I was walking into but I had been exploring meditation, but this was the deepest by far and the most effective by far. I practiced it for about two weeks and then I walked onto stage one night and there was just zero anxiety. All of a sudden and I thought this is phenomenal. What happened to the stage anxiety that had been plaguing me for about eight or nine years.
So I vowed I would learn to teach this to others and I retired from dance and started this program 10 years ago specifically for university student populations, because student anxiety and depression has doubled in just in the last eight years. Mental health is really poor on campuses, more than 60% of college students say they report overwhelming anxiety. Suicidal ideation and severe depression has doubled since 2012. So I wanted to see how we could help in a very effective group setting to help cure some of these ills, or give students really practical tools. I knew that Sky Breath meditation was so phenomenal for anxiety and depression, so we combined the deep practice of meditation with the Art of Living Programs; which offer social connection and emotional intelligence skills.”
KCRW: So is your practice different from meditation?
Richmond: “ Yes, entirely different. Our classes are three days long. So I think we all probably notice that you cannot talk yourself out of a negative emotion. It's very difficult to tell your mind, don't be anxious or calm down. It's the worst thing someone tells you, is hey, calm down, don't be depressed. The more you resist negative emotions in the mind, the more they persist and the breath work gives us a way into the autonomic nervous system. It directly affects the physiology and takes us from the sympathetic mode of the nervous system, which is fight or flight. So a breath automatically puts you into parasympathetic mode very quickly, within the first session. And that trains your system to be in rest and digest mode, which brings calm and focus.”