There is a saying, “breath is life.” We all breathe all day long, whether we are aware of it or not. When swimming, you are much more aware of your breath, because you time your breath with movement. Improving your breath control can change how you feel, not only while swimming, but every day. Taking deeper breaths increases the amount of oxygen you take in. In the pool, it allows us to swim further between breaths. These two techniques will increase lung capacity, improve breath control, and make it easier for you to prolong your need to breathe. You will practice one on land, and the other in the water while swimming.
Dirga breath is a form of Pranayama, or Yogic breathing, where you are inhaling to capacity and exhaling to capacity in 3 parts. The breath moves through the nose, using the diaphragm muscle to move the air in and out. Breath control takes practice, but can make a huge difference in how you feel, both mentally and physically, in the water and out.
I find it easiest to build up to the full breath by starting smaller. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Inhale through the nose to fill the belly with breath. Your belly will expand like a balloon as you inhale; try to expand three dimensionally. Exhale back out through the nose, trying to release all of the air you took in. Repeat this until it feels comfortable and natural.
When you are ready, after you inhale to fill the belly, keep inhaling to fill the ribcage with breath. Again, try to fill the ribs 3 dimensionally. Exhale to release the belly, then the ribs, actively forcing the air out with control. Practice that a few times.
When you are ready, inhale to fill the belly, then the ribs, then the chest all the way to the collar bones. Exhale through the nose to release the belly, ribs, and chest. When you are doing the complete Dirga Breath, when you feel like you’ve inhaled completely, see if you can take in a tiny bit more breath. Over time, this will increase the amount of air you can hold comfortably while swimming.
This deep expansive breath is both calming and energizing. I cultivates a deep sense of calm and relaxation, but without sluggishness. You’ll feel alert and awake but tranquil.
Tips for Dirga Breath
- Try to inhale and exhale slowly and smoothly. This will increase your control over your breath.
- Be sure to inhale and exhale through the nose, keeping the jaw relaxed.
- Notice what is happening in your mind. If you start to panic getting to capacity or emptying completely, what are the stories you are telling yourself? You are in control here. You can always breathe less until you are ready to breathe more. Don’t force yourself through, be kind and gentle with yourself.
- Placing your hands on your body can help you feel the expansion and contraction of your torso with the breath. If you find it challenging to access one or more parts of the breath, place your hands there as a reference point. Many people reverse breathe their whole lives (pull in their gut with the inhale), so feeling that expansion might be a bit foreign. For myself as a woman, I was conditioned to never let my belly “hang out” so I used to be very self conscious allowing my belly to expand. Allow your body to do what it will do, without judgement.
This is a great drill that I learned while swimming on my high school swim team and I still include it when I swim today. This type of breath work is done in the pool, and I prefer to do it with a pull buoy so that I can focus on the breath. Trust me, it’s hard enough to do without worrying about your kick.
Lung Busters can be done in many ways, but the basic concept is to lengthen out the time between breaths. Normally when I swim I breath every 3rd stroke, exhaling through the entire 2 strokes until I inhale on the 3rd. When you begin to play with Lung Busters, play with increasing to 5 breaths for a length, then going back to 3. As you get better at it, play with increasing to 7 breaths, 9 breaths, 11 breaths, and so on. It gets tricky with the higher numbers when dealing with the wall (breathe before or after the flip turn…) but that’s the basic idea.
You can also play with your exhale. Are you exhaling the entire time, or holding your breath, then exhaling as you normally do? Controlling your exhale against the resistance of the water builds capacity as well. You can play with breathing every 3rd, 5th, or 7th stroke and seeing how long you can exhale in between. Another way to do it is to keep alternating your breath doing a straight 200 (8 lengths) and breathing every 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, then back to 3rd ongoing. It’s a good mental exercise as well.
Tips for Lung Busters
- Choose what kind of set you want to do ahead of time. Start with lower yardage and lower stroke counts until you are ready to build up. 4 x 100 doing 3, 5, 7, 3 by 25 is a great place to start.
- Relax your body and mind while you swim. If your body is tense or your mind is panicking, it’s going to be much harder to accomplish the set. Remember, you can always breathe earlier if you need to, but the goal is to stick to the numbers you chose ahead of time. As you practice, it gets easier, and you can increase the number of strokes.
- Try to exhale through the nose only. It gets harder as you get more tired and out of breath. Let that be okay. Exhaling through the nose keeps you connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, keeping you calmer. It also improves your breath control.
- See if you can keep your stroke rate even, especially as you get to higher strokes between breaths. Do you speed up when you get to 7 or 9 strokes or can you stay steady throughout your set? Maybe you intentionally speed up and see if you can maintain your mental calm.
For more guidance on Dirga Breath, click here and watch the first section of the video. I go over 2 more styles of Pranayama in the video as well, if you are interested.
Join me and Jennifer Dutton, owner of swimstronger.net for a Yoga and Swimming workshop! We’ll meet at Lake Cochituate in Wayland, MA on Saturday, June 10th from 9-11:30am for some open water swimming and yoga! Click here for more information or to sign up!
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