The Risks and allure of Freediving

diving

And one precious breath…


I’ve been fascinated by freediving lately.

After watching the documentary “The Deepest Breath” and reading James Nestor’s book “Deep”, I’m fascinated with the sport’s scientific intricacies and the mentality of the athletes who compete. Some argue that freediving is less perilous once you understand the complexities and processes, but the statistics don’t lie. People die every year. How many deaths is debatable.

I love exploring the sea through scuba diving, but I also know that the bubbles from my tank are unnatural. What would it feel like to unload this tank? What would it be like to float amongst the sea life, blending in, interacting, and quietly observing? I am grateful for the scientists who freedive regularly to study our sea life, and the dedication both athletes and scientists must have for the sport. Each dive is an exercise in patience, mindfulness, and practice. They can’t simply zone out and rely on their computers to keep them out of danger. At the same time, I can’t wrap my head around why some keep pushing their physiological limits when the cost of failure is so high.

Competitive freediving

Competitive freedivers plunge to staggering depths, sometimes exceeding 300 feet, where so much is uncertain on any given day. They are pulled into the ocean’s dark abyss with just a rope to keep them oriented. Without the rope, it would be easy to veer sideways, or become disoriented.  The thought is terrifying. When I read about the process, I feel my  heart slow down, my lungs compress, and the pressure of the sea crushing my body. And then I feel panic and I’m only reading about it! 

After what seems like an extended period, though in reality, it’s only a matter of minutes, a diver emerges from the depths. 

 

The science of breath holding

Several physiological factors contribute to prolonged breath-holding (underwater), including increased tolerance for breath-holding (tolerance for CO2 and mindset), bradycardia, and notably, the spleen’s timely release of densely packed red blood cells with apnea. There are some physiological benefits to this practice, which is being embraced by elite athletes around the world.  But when arterial CO2 reaches a certain level, your body will eventually convulse as involuntary breathing movements kick in. A diver must recognize this “physiological breaking point” and breathe. If not, they’ll black out. Or worse.  They’re underwater after all.

While I appreciate and understand the allure of the sport, at this juncture in my life, I find solace on solid ground. My exploration of freediving has given me a greater appreciation for the incredible capabilities of the human body, particularly the intricacies of breathing. We take for granted how such a natural act — inhaling and exhaling — is so critical for our existence. Considering the swift consequences of breath deprivation and reflecting on the millions grappling with respiratory challenges, I am grateful to breathe so freely. 

 

Beyond breath holds

Breath mastery extends beyond your ability to hold your breath for extended periods; it delves into an awareness of its fragility. Breathing is undeniably precious. It sustains life but also acts as a bridge connecting your mind to body and your body-mind to something bigger. 

Over the years, I’ve found breath awareness exercises tremendously healing. I originally learned breath awareness through yoga. In moments of stress, my yoga mat was a sanctuary where I’d challenge myself physically while maintaining calm and regulated breathing. If I needed a lift, I‘d do a yogic form of breathing called Kapalabhati (forced exhalation) or Surya Bhedan (right nostril breathing) for example. If my goal was serenity, I’d slow down my breathing until it was almost imperceptible and see if my body and mind could follow. The more I learned, the more interesting breathing became. I imagine freedivers do this as well — this mind-body-breath meditation. They have to get out of their heads and detach from emotions, yet be very mindful at the same time. 

 

Freediving may not be for everyone, but it’s undeniably a present-moment type of sport. Every dive becomes a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in an entire world, all within the brief span of a few minutes and a single, precious breath.

A single, precious breath.

(I teach breathing.  Reach out to learn more.)
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