Freediving, Breathwork in the Sea
Two days after returning from Tenerife, I can still feel the gentle amniotic rock of the ocean's lullaby in my mind and body - lulling, soothing, healing. Time expands and slows as the lessons of this curious discipline of 'breathhold diving' (using British freediver Emma Farrell's definition of the sport) under the water continue to unfold within me back on land. The six days I spent learning how to freedive in Tenerife in mid-May 2023 proved magical - a journey into the frontiers of the self, free falling into the abyss, letting go and being held. Right place, right time. The elements and my experiences came together to give me a necessary pause - a coming home to the sea and a coming home to me. Heart, body, mind and breath aligned to take me safely into the blue sea's depths, through serenity's gateway, as I found the power that lies in one calm, deep breath in a sport, where, curiously, less is more. Enjoy this glimpse into learning how to freedive, or as I like to think of it, breathwork in the sea.
I feel myself rocked in the waves on the surface, breathing through the snorkel, face down, body limp like a ragdoll, floating with no effort except the minimum to keep my hand on the buoy strap close to the line that would soon guide my descent tethered by a lanyard. Breathing relaxed over the vast blue expanse, infinite particles and bits of life flow by - plankton, eggs of creatures, debris of unknown sorts. Surface wind-waves batter and jerk me about, but it's okay. I refocus and keep breathing with relaxed calm as I visualize the journey ahead. Time slows here. There is only now.
Then I take the final breath, equalize and descend into the vast stillness, the metaphor for the mind. In the water I realize I literalize this movement into the quiet space within, the inner ocean of limitless expanse and mystery versus the surface noise, waves, and constant fluctuating changes that batter and send water into my snorkel, disrupt my flow. But the practice requires a quiet mind, letting go, being okay with the moment and the annoyances and the distractions to reach that calm state where one breath means access into another world, transportation across a frontier of the self along a line that leads downwards into the blue abyss.
Freediving has long been in the back of my mind as an intriguing way to deepen my relationship with the water yet one that provoked mental resistance and some fear. Like many people Luc Besson's 1988 movie The Big Blue (Le Grand Bleu) left a lasting impact on my psyche mostly for the scenes related to the freedivers' long, silent voyages into the appealing Mediterranean waters. Often I've imagined myself peacefully moving in the water, flowing along, relaxed and enjoying the depths, and, in my wildest dreams, encountering whales and dolphins. But it is not something I ever pursued.
Events, though, finally came together to make it a reality and I embarked on this further chapter in my water journey to learn, challenge and expand myself in a healthy way, and to face the fears swirling around in my mind: Can I hold my breath that long? What if I get trapped underwater? What if I want to breathe and I can't? Can I get beyond mental barriers and calm the mind? Can I let go...?
I also wanted to connect with the water and its denizens in new ways using only my own breath for longer periods of time and to feel the vastness of the sea around me, enveloping me in its embrace, unencumbered by other equipment. Different threads of my life – breathwork, swimming, SCUBA, water love, dance, movement and mind practices - that have been guiding me and weaving a new fabric in my life over the last years, sensed deep resonant potential in freediving.
I also needed time away – a physical and mental space - from crushing energies I've been ensconced in. Instinct urged me to keep following and trusting the way of water in and around me.
Despite being a breathwork instructor and knowing that freediving required techniques that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (calming part) by prolonging the exhale, I had been practicing breathholds on land prior to going to Tenerife with some force and stress and wondered: How the heck am I going to be able to hold my breath, fin and descend when it's a challenge here just lying down?
In my first theory class I found myself on the floor on my back breathing calm and relaxed listening to my French-Swiss instructor. Relaxation breathing is not forcing your breath but relaxing and then taking one full breath. During the exercises the instructors gently point out the tension in my neck, my shoulders, my face as I do a breathhold (static apnea). But I am relaxing, I think. Aah, but you can relax more. There's no need to force. I felt some tears come, the release of pressure that I often put on myself. Here, there's no need to push. Be gentle on the self and do it in a relaxed manner. What a good metaphor for life! Let go of the inner pressure, fear and tension. My first profound lesson in freediving: Less is more.
Before the Sea, the Pool
Floating…floating in the pool, melting into the water. I'm doing another breathhold, face down, breathing into the snorkel. The assistant instructor gentle touches my back as I move through noticing the 'urge to breathe' to feeling the normal spasms in my diaphragm you learn to observe and experience reaching deep into your body's physical and mental capacities. Relax and let go. It's not easy but I try. As I finish my instructor lets me know I've held my breath significantly longer than on land.
It turns out nature provides us with a remarkable set of physiological reactions to cold water on the face called the Mammalian Diving Reflex which slows the heart, shifts blood in the body to the vital organs and lungs and allows oxygen to be conserved in the body making deep dives possible with no pain, struggle or effort. All mammals share this incredible adaptive response.
With enough practice, patience and build-up of skills, she explained, you can achieve incredibly serene moments under the water freediving with one relaxed breath. Breathing well in freediving does not mean putting more oxygen into the bloodstream, rather learning to conserve it better and, most significantly, to tolerate the build-up of CO2 in our system, the true signal that drives our 'urge to breathe'. Hyperventilation (rapid, deep breathwork or overbreathing) is a huge no-no with responsible freedivers as it highly increases the chance of a diver going into the dreaded 'open water blackout' (losing consciousness, usually near the surface, which can lead to drowning).
When I began my water and breathwork journey during the Covid pandemic, James Nestor's book Breath. The New Science of a Lost Art, formed part of my expanding knowledge on this vital bodily function that has endless connections to good living. In his introduction, he mentioned that Breath was the result of his 2014 book DEEP. Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves. Intrigued, I ordered DEEP then placed it on my bookshelf where it sat, unread, for about a year, periodically beckoning me with its blue spine and simple white, capital letters – DEEP.
Curiously what brought me back to Nestor's book DEEP and freediving was Lisa See's moving novel The Island of Sea Women. Set in the 20th & 21st Cs on South Korea's Jeju Island, See spins a powerful multi-generational narrative about the Korean haenyeo (meaning literally 'sea women') female freedivers who formed part of an unique matrifocal society in which the women worked in the sea, only using their incredible breathholding skills and highly hypothermic-tolerant bodies, to harvest mollusks and seaweed while the menfolk stayed on land looking after the children.
I found myself swimming with these remarkable sea women in my mind, imagining their journeys into the depths for their livelihood. As the novel unfolds, she intones:
The sea, it is said, is like a mother. The salt water, the pulse and surges of the current, the magnified beat of your heart, and the muffled sounds reverberating through the water together recall the womb.by Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women, p.22
Loving the ocean because it feels like the Earth's womb resonated as memories of a long string of connections I have made through the water - unlikely friendships, my octopus friend, Hokusai's art – floated through my consciousness bringing me to this moment.
How could I learn something of these incredible skills? My eyes scanned the bookshelf and latched onto DEEP. I eagerly began to read Nestor's engaging journey into the depths which begins with a terrifying glimpse into competitive freediving where athletes push the human body and mind to the limit. It was clear this type of pushing and force was only one avenue into the world of freediving and not one that appealed to me. Coinciding with my own instincts, Nestor writes at the end of his book, reflecting on the death of an obsessed, numbers-driven competitor, that for him (the author):
…freediving was about connecting with the underwater environment, looking more keenly at your surroundings, focusing on your feelings and instincts, respecting your limits, and letting the ocean envelop you – never forcing yourself anywhere for any reason. This was a spiritual practice, a way of using the human body as a vessel to explore the wonders in the Earth's inner space.by James Nestor, DEEP, p.230
After my first sea session I wrote: It's so easy to let go in the sea. When I exited the water, I felt tears of deep satisfaction mix with the salty sea on my cheeks. It felt quite natural and not too challenging. Many things to keep in my head at once but it's okay. Be patient, let it flow.
With my deep love of the sea, daily immersions in the ocean in all conditions, my open water swimming and mental readiness for this experience, I felt very peaceful in the rough water doing the relaxation breathing floating on the surface, slowly breathing, letting go the worry to be a certain way, letting the experience flow and letting myself wait until I was ready. Deeply concentrated and focused but unforced seemed to be the key. Plumbing the depths of the sea (and self) – an enormous uncharted territory - I was using my vessel to come home to the sea (and myself) in new ways. Water is my medium, after all, where I feel most 'me' – flow don't fight, long my mantra.
Equalizing: Balancing Air and Pressure
Learning to freedive is a slow process of progressive steps as body and mind develop many skills. It's certainly not automatic and I am a mere novice tasting the possibilities of a powerful practice of breathwork under the sea, a girl on the playground with all the toys to be discovered and mastered, unlocking curious gifts nature bestowed upon mammals. Becoming aware of how the 'urge to breathe' feels becomes and exciting challenge rather than a stressor as you let it guide you safely under the water.
Equalization of the middle ear (and other air pockets) is another key skill and potent metaphor for living as you learn to balance the inner and outer pressures that assault the body as we descend into water's density. That same air that lets us live also needs careful management. Ignoring the increased pressure or forcing the equalization only leads to pain and suffering. Listen to the body, find the gentle balance, open with ease, only proceed without pain…. Practice, discipline, training, technique and a desire to go into that calm state all allow you to maximize the power of one breath and the body's capacity to equalize and adapt to the pressure without force. Thoughts of Bruce Lee, martial arts, being water, bending in the wind… flow and swirl through my brain.
As the days go by, I wrote in my journal, I can feel the skills building and falling into place, the comfort growing. Looking up from below, seeing the lines, seeing the wreck, the silence, time shifts. Then, there I am, holding my breath on the line's bottom, and it's okay. The fears I brought with me drift off with the plankton. A weight lifts from my heart.
Free falling for me is the ultimate letting go, trusting the breath, myself, life…Fear and resistance haunt (what if the line doesn't catch me? What if I open my mouth and take water or can't equalize?) but I push through and begin to experiment with this new skill in the last days. Finding neutral buoyancy in the water around 10m is an important early step. From around 12m onwards the body becomes negatively buoyant and the freediver uses this advantage to conserve oxygen as you release the body from its effort and allow yourself to fall or drift down the line upside down. Intense for me as a novice but I try. I marvel at the new sensations, I'm slowly drifting down to 20m, the ocean and sun looming above, allowing myself to go beyond my wildest expectations. Pushing beyond the frontiers of myself, I go still and let go. It's a small taste. There is much more to learn to begin to feel true comfort with this new skill….I know I will return to continue the journey.
Popping to the surface, I rise and breathe again, inhaling the fresh, clean air, elated. While I do my recovery breaths, my instructors keenly observe my vitals. I give the okay sign and then burst into a huge smile as we analyze the dive. Calm, he said, I see you very relaxed. Having instructors that guide gently and encourage listening to the self was vital for me. I feel very grateful for their role in this process and their emphasis on safety allowing me to relax even more into the experience. Freediving also teaches responsibility to others, about being a good buddy and learning to read indications of stress and low oxygen.
At the end of the week a poem emerged from within. I've accompanied this with a video I made from photos over the course of the week taken by my instructors using my Olympus T6 underwater camera. Enjoy the feeling of the journey from surface to dive to free fall to return.
Freediving: One Breath is Enough
Breathing calm and relaxed
into wind waves, that
slap, rock, knock my head,
I contemplate endless blue
incessantly flowing past,
My breath, my helmsman,
keeps me true, focused.
A final deep breath,
One breath is enough
To experience marvelous things
In a watery world where
Less is more.
Mind, body, breath aligned, as
I let go
Passing through the looking glass.
Under the sea
Surface chaos transforms into
The depths of calm where
Fish swim upside down
Scuba bubbles, alien space ships,
rise eagerly to the light.
Mammal, I am.
Cold water hits my face
Slows my heart
Blood shifts to my lungs
Lets me recover
My mammalian nature, that
Remembers the water,
Remembers the amniotic sea.
Finning down head first into another world,
I return to a long forgotten place
The key was always inside
Waiting to be found.
Releasing myself into the depths,
I let myself fall, free
Free fall into the blue.
Falling down I look up
Sun high above
Shimmering and glimmering along the line.
The weight of the water above,
20m Under the Sea.
A ship, materializes,
A wreck in its watery graveyard,
Let it be, chill, no stress.
It's okay, it's all okay, as
my buddy holds my back
In this place of inner and outer stillness.
Back again I rise,
To the surface, to the air and the roar of the world
To give thanks for my breath, my heart and this life.
Reflections from Above & Below
One breath is enough to open many doors. Imagine how many breaths we have in this life and how many more there are to enjoy to their full potential. One thoughtful breath is a gateway to a powerful inner world and a marvelous world under the sea where I became part of it, deeply connecting to something primal within.
On one of my last dives I had to 'rescue' my buddy/instructor from 15m to pass the Level 2 certification. He had to go down first and then I would follow. Taking his final breath, he entered this powerful Zen state and proceeded to descend effortlessly and smoothly along the line. Admiring the confidence, skill and measured control, I followed him down below trying to emulate this ease and flow relishing this empowering learning and growth state. The initial mess of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle on the table had fallen into place in a coherent, appealing image.
Freediving felt like a sport in mastering serenity where your greatest ally and power is learning to be calm and collected, where streamlining body and mind will get you further. Where stretching my limits meant letting go, falling free and being held, not rescued by someone else, supported yes, but being held, by me. In a world that constantly tells you to do and be more, how could I take this home with me?
When I woke the next morning in my own bed, I continued to feel the waves, that slow gentle rhythm still imbuing my body, mind and spirit. Waking, I didn't feel like I needed or wanted to do much of anything except greet the day with the sun's first rays – which I did outside, breathing relaxed and unforced, grateful for the new day and letting my breath be my helmsman. I feel peaceful now, far more peaceful than I have in a long time.
Consider an outfit associated with an internationally recognized certification program such as SSI or AIDA. In Tenerife I chose the SSI-associated Atlantis Freediving (https://atlantisfreediving.com/ or IG @atlantisfreediving) center and I can't speak highly enough about its staff, set-up, location, equipment and organization. From May 10-15, 2023 I completed my Level 1 and Level 2 SSI Freediving certifications under the guidance of my fabulous instructors Morgane (@pointmo06) and Mike (@mzonemichael) (and assisted one day by Natalie). I am deeply grateful for their kindness, patience, professionalism, genuine care, knowledge and experience. I also met other freedivers at different stages in their development in this sport and valued these multiple connections. Time spent with freediving and yoga instructor Laia Sopeña (IG @laiasopena) also contributed meaningfully to my journey; she also specializes in freediving massage.
What a great experience, so glad that you keep on learning about the sea, you are such an amazing person.