5 Lessons Freediving Taught Me About Mind and Breath

“It is impossible to express the experiences you have below the surface with words, when water gently caresses your face and body, the pulse decreases and your brain relaxes… There is nothing connecting you to the surface but the same withheld breath that connects you to life. There is only you and a growing pressure on your chest that feels like a loving hug and the vibrations from the deep quiet tone of the sea. It is quite possible that this deep quiet tone is none other than the mantra Om, the sound of the universe, trickling life into every cell of your body.” – Stig Åvall Severinsen

Let’s get this straight: I am not a diver. I grew up in a small beach town with a huge surf culture in Australia, which sounds legitimate, except I was as the only person out of everyone I knew too scared to get in the water above my knees. So why would I want to try Freediving?

I’d developed an interest in Freediving after learning there was a strong relationship to yoga, but without really knowing what that relationship was. I knew the basic premise was to dive as deep as I could with one breath, and I knew that to do so required a kind of underwater meditation, using as little energy as possible and being in a state of flow. I also knew that Freediving had a particularly high rate of fatalities. But at such an introductory level, your risk is relatively small, so I decided to try it anyway.

Day One: The Respiratory System for Dummies

Day one of training we were taught about the respiratory system in relation to Freediving. When you hold your breath, your urge to breathe will eventually manifest in what they call ‘contractions’. These feel like your body is trying to gasp for air, but actually it’s an attempt to get rid of built up C02 in your system. At the point of contractions, you are actually only around half way into using up your oxygen. Obviously, the danger comes from blacking out under water as a result of lack of oxygen.

Day 2: From Freaking Out to Being “Like Water”

On day two, we hit the water. Out in the ocean, our instructor descended a line around 15 meters deep. It was extremely choppy conditions and we spent a lot of time at the top of the line doing breathe up exercise (4 seconds in, 6 seconds out) before each dive. It was hard to relax and I didn’t like being in the open water. My first few dives I got to around five meters, and as soon as I felt pressure on my chest I freaked out and came up. “Become like water,” our French instructor Marc tells me after noticing my complete resistance to everything that was going on. Something clicked in my head and I started to feel relaxed being thrown back and forth by the swells.

After my next breath up, I dove to 13 meters, and it was incredible. I felt the pressure on my chest build up but instead of letting it take me out, I simply noticed it rise and then float away. Under water, I experienced serenity. I moved with ease down the line, gracefully flowing with the water. I felt trust in my body and the oxygen in my system. I detached from the growing pressure in my chest and resisted the temptation to scoot quickly up the line and utilize unnecessary energy. I surfaced, took a breath, felt a rush exhilaration and then slipped immediately back to normal breathing – a sure sign I had more than enough oxygen left. From there, my Freediving world completely opened up and the real learning began.

Day 3: Conquering The Mind (Finally)

In three ‘Free Immersion’ half-day training sessions, I was able to increase my dive from 5 meters to 17 meters. There were times where I dived to 15 meters with ease and there were times when I dove to 10 and it felt hard. Every dive we did the exact same breath up exercises, so technically we had the same amount of oxygen. The only variable: my mind.

Applying Freediving to Yoga

We observe the mind a lot in yoga. We notice our thoughts, try to detach from our ego and use our intellect to synthesize and rationalize knowledge when necessary. But I have never felt my mind’s capacity to sabotage with such clarity. In Freediving there are so few variables and such high consequences, you learn, and you learn fast. Here are five things I learnt about mind and breath from three half-days of Freediving;

  1. Get Control Over Your Thoughts: In Freediving, it’s immediately noticeable when you’re ‘letting your mind take you out’ as we might say in yoga. You do a breath up, descend, and if you only dive to 10 meters when you know you can dive to 17m, you know that’s solely because of your mental state. This increases your ability, dive after dive, to get better control over your thoughts.
  1. Thoughts Impact Your Breath and Body. One dive to the next, it’s just your mind and one breath. You get to know the relationship between your thoughts and your breath on a deeper level. You’ll notice how different thoughts impact your breath and body in different ways, and you learn fast to think the good one’s only.
  1. Visualization’s Work. When I visualized positive, relaxing things, my dives were a breeze, every time. I honestly couldn’t believe how simple it was.
  1. Your Perception’s Hold You Back: Perception plays a significant role in breath. The fact is, I had the near-same amount of oxygen with every dive. But with every dive, I also had a ‘perception’ of how much I had, and that often held me back. It would stop me from diving deeper, or force me to come up quicker. But all along the reality was exactly the same.
  1. There’s Infinity in Every Breath: Freediving reduces the parameters of breathing to one breath. To me, connecting to breath in yoga, felt different than connecting to a breath in Freediving. I realized there is a spectacular world in a single breath that I had never experienced through yoga and know I’m hooked on getting to know it more.

For the next few months of yoga, I’ll be focusing on using visualizations in harder poses; exploring the perceptions I have that are holding me back; deepening my connection to the world of each breath; noticing how my thoughts are impacting my breath, and best of all, not letting my mind take me out. This was one of the most incredible learning experiences I’ve ever had.

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