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Coming up for air

One of the joys of yoga is learning how to breathe – bringing awareness and ease to something you’ve been doing all your life. The breath – its tempo, texture, and depth – is a barometer for our emotional well-being. Conscious breathing in and out through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system calming the mind.

Who knew my breathing could turn on me as I gasped for breath coming up for air in the Atlantic Ocean?

Snorkeling sounded so cool. I was going to discover the wonders of marine life on a long weekend in the Florida Keys with Duncan and dear friends. The coral reefs are disappearing. Surely, if I had a bucket list, this would be on it. Seize the day! So with confidence and no trepidation I signed up for an afternoon excursion to two coral reefs where we would see vividly colored fish, swaying sponges – okay, it’s clear I hadn’t done my homework about exactly what we would be seeing except it was going to be amazing.

I have a low tolerance for motion sickness, particularly on choppy waters with the boat swaying back and forth. A premonition perhaps? But I took Dramamine – maybe the less potent stuff with ginger? – and shimmied into the wet suit, sat up and paid close attention to instructions. The boat’s captain detailed the safety features of the boat – where the GPS device was if he was knocked out, where to throw up (not on his boat), something about flotation devices. He threw in a little off-color humor about the terms of sitting on his lap. Dead silence.

Apart from a few techniques to avoid scaring off the fish, the crew did not explain how to snorkel. I guess everyone knew. Honestly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

We anchored in a protected sanctuary with a rich array of marine life. Everyone clamored to get in. One woman waited until everything simmered down because she didn’t want to be rushed. In fact, she climbed down the ladder and then quickly changed her mind and came back into the boat.

I was in no hurry either because I realized I didn’t know what to do. What became immediately clear with the mask and snorkel clamped on my face is I couldn’t calm myself with a generous breath in and out thru the nose. The tight fit around my nose stopped the flow of breath. Mouth breathing was required.

Breathing deeply thru the nose is what I do when I face a new experience. My “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system began to rev up. The boat rocked back and forth; the waves rolled to and fro; I began to wobble. Was I on the verge of a panic attack? My college friend Meg yelled encouragingly to me from the water; my husband Duncan in his funny mask kept looking seriously at me. Apparently, I looked hesitant and a little scared.

I can do this, I told myself, and I did after a fashion. I put my face in the water, willed myself to relax, and breathed trying to make natural what did not feel natural at all. Look down, look around I told myself and I did but then salt water would get in my mouth (the waves rolling over the snorkel tube, a weak grip with my mouth?) and I would come for air, spit out the water, and try again.

I can’t say I found my groove. It was pretty cool. But after a while, a bit worn out by my efforts to relax and enjoy the underwater world, I climbed back in the boat with several others who were looking a little green. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and tried to stave off sea sickness. I wasn’t good at that either.

What did I learn?

Be prepared. Welcoming new experiences is easier when you’ve done your homework. It reminds me of my daughter Eleanor. As a child she was a glutton for information. She would ask so many questions before trying anything new. In fact, her need to know did not stop her from stepping forth in the world. She ventured to New York for college and hasn’t returned, except for visits. How did such a cautious soul go so far from home? Preparation.

Recognize that we are rarely a natural at new experiences. It takes practice. I reinforce this with folks new to yoga. It gets easier to develop your practice over time. Knowing yourself – the tendency to compare and judge – becomes clearer. Becoming aware of your body’s limitations and possibilities emerges.

Like everything else, yoga or snorkeling is a process.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck explores human motivation through the lens of fixed or growth mindset. If we believe that our intelligence is fixed, then we get hung up appearing to know more than we do, avoid challenges, give up easily, shrink from criticism, and envy the success of others. If, on the other hand, we perceive that our intelligence is growing then we seek out new challenges, persist when things don’t go as planned, recognize effort as essential, take criticism seriously, and learn from others.

Clearly, the growth mindset motivates while the fixed mindset stifles trying new things.

I, for one, embrace lifelong learning even when I come up gasping for air. My unsuccessful snorkeling experience was just another choppy wave to ride. But maybe next time I’ll map it out first by practicing in a pool and then skipping the bumpy boat trip!


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