Scuba Diving Saved My Life
“You smoked four packs of cigarettes a day?”
“I said yes.”
“Three belts of scotch and fatty shortribs for lunch?”
That was forty years ago. I don’t think I could have entered my ninth decade without having made some major changes. At the time I signed up for a YMCA scuba course, though, I had no idea that a chain of events would prolong my life. Who thinks about dying when they are in good health and 40?
The Plan. Learning scuba taught me how to breathe all over again by expanding and contracting my lungs in a simple daily exercise. It’s hyperventilation on land. (WARNING: don’t try this without checking with a doctor, and it’s a good idea to have someone with you in case you get dizzy.) The process begins with fully expanding your chest, then inhaling more air. That’s right: inhale to total lung volume, hold for a few seconds, then inhale a little bit more. Don’t exhale. Inhale and hold; inhale and hold - maybe six times. Finally, exhale down to as close to your residual lung volume as you can. Perform the routine a couple more times.
The History. This plan wasn’t much different from what my course taught me in 1967. Two years later I was teaching scuba, and one of the tasks I asked of my students was to swim underwater twenty-five yards without taking a breath. Of course, my job was to show how easy the breath-hold swim would be. (Yes, I know: today most instructors don’t even think of asking today’s scuba newbies to hold their breath for more than the time it takes to make a round trip to the bottom of a pool. That’s if they even teach any snorkeling at all. But that was then.)
Anyway, here’s where the trouble came in. I felt myself loosing consciousness as I approached the end of my demo breath-hold. I quickly stood up; although I had a close call, my students didn’t appear to notice.
It didn’t take a sharp mind to realize that it was time to quit smoking, and quit I did. After quitting, I learned how to breathe all over again, because all that tar and stuff had given me a severe case of emphysema.
No surprise there: I began smoking when I was fourteen, twenty-six years before kicking the habit. In time, I worked up (or down) to four packs of Pall Malls each day, even lighting up in the middle of the night, while at the same time drinking a glass of milk to soothe my raw and partially destroyed throat.
Breathing usually is automatic, an autonomic function that we don’t think about. If we want, though, we can pull and push air around our lungs just by thinking about doing so. Inhaling and exhaling can be a conscious, as well as automatic, function: it turns out that all we need to do is will it so. A few Chicago divers learned about the process in the early 1970’s when the city’s Grant Hospital decided to compare lung functions of scuba divers with those of the average population: was there really was a difference between how different groups breathed?
Some of us diver-types hadn’t thought about it, but the tests demonstrated that divers really did breathe differently than members of the public. Our inhalations and exhalations were longer and deeper than what normally would be expected.
Why the difference? One explanation is that the sound of our regulators contributes to a hypnotic feeling created by our exhaled bubbles, the “bubble machine” effect that so many divers know. The sound of exhalations makes us conscious of the way we breathe. It’s a sort of lullaby, a soporific without a down side.
On the physiology side, by expelling (outgassing) carbon dioxide with each exhalation, we cut down on the trigger that finally forces us to need to a breath.
Not long after the course, I discovered that I could breath-hold dive to some ninety feet below the surface at the edge of the wall off the island of the Bahamas’ San Salvador. From this recognition it was a short step to realizing that I was embarking on a new way to breathe: I could hold my breath for a long time.
The next steps followed a natural progression. I studied materials that explained the process that allowed me to breath-hold to ninety feet, then I showed others how to improve their own abilities to do the same. After students read some explanatory material, I introduced them to breath-hold diving, where they practiced exercises that allowed them to remain submerged without the benefit of scuba.
Students were amazed. They used the same basic technique I had picked up with those heavy-duty inhalations and exhalations. I hope they are still doing it. I know I am. Oh, I still scuba.
Rome wasn’t built over night. Practice breath holding every day, slightly extending your limits each time. You’ll be amazed, too.
In the 1990’s, after dabbling in underwater hockey and diving with humpback whales while holding his breath (yes, very different activities, but in both one tries to hold their breath a long time), Dick Jacoby introduced breath hold diving at Illinois’ College of Du Page, one of the country’s largest junior colleges. Diving to ninety feet with just a mask, fins and snorkel became his favorite activity because he had no heavy tank tied to his back.