Depression can feel like being submerged under water. You just have to hold your breath as long as you can and hope you’ll get air soon. Only, when you’re dealing with a mental illness, reaching the surface can seem impossible
For many, the past few years of the pandemic have felt similar—a daily battle to keep our heads above the waterline as we wade through a new reality. Nationally, from August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults with symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders increased, with 46.1% of Californians reporting symptoms in February of last year.
So, it’s not surprising that breathwork has been a constant discussion amongst just about everyone these days. When we need to coax our bodies back into a calm, less-worried state, breathing is the first tool we’re taught to use. “Just breathe.”
If you’re like me, though, inhaling and exhaling to combat anxiety can seem like a practice solely reserved for spiritual yogis and meditation gurus. The notion that you can huff and puff your way out of a depression seems like magical thinking.
But Deep End Fitness is the kind of wellness activity that anxious gym rats like me can get on board with. Created by former U.S. Marines and special-ops water survival specialists Don Tran and Prime Hall, the pool-based program is designed to help focus on functional fitness techniques while strengthening mental fortitude through the power of breathing. According to the National Institutes of Health, this mind-breath-body connection is a proven, effective way to relieve emotional distress without the use of drugs.
“That’s the whole idea behind Deep End Fitness,” says Ali Whiting, an instructor, surfer, and free diver. “The water neutralizes everything. As soon as you get in, it’s the fastest way to dive into your mind; the fastest way to see what’s going on internally.”
The breathing techniques are designed to help individuals work on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, develop stress mitigation methods, foster mental relaxation, and establish coping techniques for the mind. The program operates under the acronym F.R.E.E. (focus, relaxation, economy of motion, and efficient breathing), which is practiced during each two-hour workout. Athletes run through a range of training exercises before finishing up with a 15-minute HIIT workout, both in and out of the pool.
Sometimes, this looks like three rounds of 25-yard pool sprints followed by 20 air squats on land, a pause for intentional breathwork, a 25-yard underwater swim, and a final breath-intense workout. Are we breathing yet?
“We place you in [uncomfortable positions] and then you’re forced to rely on ‘focusing’ on the task at hand— your relaxation,” says Alec Bakkeby, an instructor and San Diego native. “You have to be able to relax in that uncomfortable position, and you then have to have that economy of motion. You can’t just be flopping around, otherwise you’ll burn all your oxygen. You have to be as efficient as possible.”
The theory is this strategy allows you to learn a variety of methods to regulate or reset your nervous system, while at the same time working on your physical strength. One common technique is called parasympathetic breathing, or slowly inhaling and exhaling based on a specific timing ratio.
“Parasympathetic [breathing] is that ‘rest and digest’ [feeling],” says Whiting. “It brings more clarity to your mind and takes you out of that very intense focus, highcortisol, high-adrenaline [state].” These workouts and methods mimic different emotional states you may face daily, enabling you to react more effectively to stressful situations in life.
Thankfully, classes are set to your current fitness level, so even beginner or nervous swimmers can benefit from these techniques. So, breathe easy. You’ve got this.