This is a good skill to have if you wish to take up freediving as a hobby. Or if you run into someone trying to strangle you.
Yogis (and freedivers) can hold their breaths for extended periods of time. A number of techniques in yoga practice is useful for lengthening the period in which you can hold your breath. The average lung capacity is 4 litres for women and 6 litres for men. You can directly impact your lung capacity and effectiveness with knowledge of yogic pranayama (breathing techniques), asanas (physical postures) and meditation techniques.
Awareness of Intercostal Muscles: The intercostal muscles run between and around your ribs. With awareness of how these muscles function and operate, you can expand the area covered by your ribcage on every inhale, which increases the volume of air that you can bring into your lungs. Ideally, your ribs should be able to expand sideways, giving additional room for your lungs to fill with air. Practice with a twisted yoga pose such as Marichiyasana C or D, which requires that you engage your intercostal muscles fully in order to continue taking deep breaths in the pose.
Breathing Techniques: The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle when relaxed, and flattened when contracted. It extends across the bottom of the thoracic cavity which separates your heart and lungs from your abdomen. During inhalations, the diaphragm contracts flat to create space for your lungs to expand. Yogic pranayama techniques such as Kapalabathi and Ujjayi trains your diaphragm further by bringing your awareness to how it feels and works in your body when you practice a variety of breathing exercises. In Kapalapathi, you forcefully pump the air out of your lungs by engaging your abdomen muscles. In Ujjayi breath, you lengthen the period of exhale by slowing down the amount of air released from your lungs.
Meditation: Calming your mind and reducing the amount of thoughts in your head reduces the body’s metabolic rate, which slows down the conversion of oxygen to carbon dioxide, allowing you to go longer on the air that you already have. When you start holding your breath, you begin with a mental battle with yourself to believe that your body can survive on the oxygen available to it. In meditation techniques, you are supposed to hold that thought and let it disappear from your mental horizon, thus in a sense ignoring your mind and body’s compulsion to breathe. When you are very relaxed in meditation, you will find that you have dramatically slowed down your pace of breath.
Here is a simple exercise that you can do to start practising:
- Come to a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes.
- Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 6 seconds, and exhale for 12 seconds.
- Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 18 seconds, and exhale for 12 seconds.
- Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 24 seconds, and exhale for 12 seconds.
- Inhale 6 seconds, hold breath for 48 seconds, and exhale for 24 seconds.
It takes time, technique, and a lot of patience. You will find that your capacity to hold your breath improves.
In the meantime, don’t hold your breath!
– Vanessa Tang –