Take a deep breath and immerse yourself in the moment

First appeared in Saturday Telegraph ‘Weekend’.

I get to forty five seconds before I break, opening my mouth wide and taking a precious lungful of air with a disproportionate sense of desperation. The other members of the group are still going – each of us lying on wood floor in a dojo, eyes closed, trying to remain relaxed. We’re in the middle of a freediving breathing workshop, which today, ironically, takes place on land.

The workshop is led by free-diving instructor, Peruvian-born Augusto Vegas who has been a professional freediver and instructor since 2007 and today he wishes to demonstrate the techniques he uses when he goes deep underwater, for minutes at a time.

Twenty seconds pass. “One minute down,” says Vegas, as another person cracks and takes a breath. A few more seconds, and then another, and another. Miraculously however, one 40-something man amongst us manages two minutes and fifteen seconds before he ‘comes up’ for air (as he might do were he actually in the water). During this time we watch, as he visibly moves through the stages of breath-holding that Vegas explained earlier; the increase (or rising levels) of Carbon Dioxide in the body eventually trigger the urge to breath and the sensations most humans relate to thoughts like: “if I don´t breathe now, I won´t make it!” and start panicking, followed by diaphragmatic contractions resulting in a visible pump around his torso.

It’s bizarre to watch, bordering on ghoulish. I can’t help but imagine how it must feel to go through those stages as you move deeper and deeper into the underwater darkness, knowing of course that however deep you go you’ll still need time to come back up.

It’s a skill born of ancient cultures and still used by many today, such as the sea gypsies in southern Thailand and pearl divers in Japan.

But it needn’t be so extreme: freediving, which is most simply defined as the art of diving on a single breath, can be as simple as ditching the snorkel and heading underwater for as little as ten or twenty seconds at a time. It’s a skill born of ancient cultures and still used by many today, such as the sea gypsies in southern Thailand and pearl divers in Japan.

These days however, freediving can also be brutally competitive, a sport, which at the upper echelons requires extensive, rigorous physical and mental training as shown in the 1988 Luc Besson film, The Big Blue, whose narrative focussed on the rivalry between two competitive freedivers, Enzo Maiorca and Jacques Mayol. These two men used a method known as ‘no limits apnea’ usually involving a weighted sled (a very hazardous way of trying to break records without breaking oneself in the process), but today there are different categories within the competitive disciplines of freediving. Some involve using a ballast weight and / or fins and a rope to go up and down. This is known as ‘no limits apnea’, for which the men’s world record (214metres) is currently held by Austrian, Herbert Nitsch, and the women’s (160m) by American, Tanya Streeter. There’s also ‘static apnea’, stationary breath-holding in a pool, for which the male world record is 11.35 minutes and the female 9.02.

All in all, it makes my forty five seconds of tortured breath-holding (on land, no less!) seem more puny than ever. Still, I’m inspired to challenge myself next time I’m in the sea, and thankfully these days there are plenty of places to learn, safely and under the guise of an experienced instructor.

“Freediving has been hitting the press in all sorts of ways this year and last” says Beci Ryan of the British Freediving Assocation: “Georgina Miller, current Static National Record holder recently appeared on the One Show demonstrating a 5 minute breath hold on live TV.  Rebecca Coales, Michael Board, Liv Philip and Dave Kent have all appeared in the papers for either breaking National Records or winning competitions last year.”

But it’s about so much more than competition and breaking records. Freediving also tunes into the western world’s current hunger for mindfulness; the desire to be less distracted, more ‘present’ in our own lives.

“Freediving is a journey towards learning who you are, what’s inside you and what you’re capable of,” says top Russian freediver, Marianna Krupitskaya, winner of her sport’s most prestigious annual competition ‘Vertical Blue’ in 2014 (she can dive to -86metres and hold her breath for 6.30 minutes). “Its kind of a very deep meditation. So when you have heavy thoughts – its very difficult to hold your breath, but when your thoughts are light – you might set a new personal best.”

Vegas agrees: “The lifestyle and personality of a freediver tends to quite similar to yogis; it’s a more reflective kind of thing, but then again, anybody involved in a sport that puts them in an uncomfortable or challenging physical and / or mental position, and where there’s a build up of lactic acid and fatigue, such as martial arts, cycling, sprinting, swimming, would definitely benefit from free diving, and vice versa.”

For serious freedivers, this Piscean discipline is less a sport and more a way of life; a way of exploring human potential as well as getting to know oneself better. The likes of Vegas and Krupitskaya pay as much attention to their nutrition, sleep patterns and stress levels as Olympic athletes. No wonder: the stakes are every bit as high, after all, than would be for those participating in adrenalin sports such as ski jumping or cliff jumping. Decompression sickness is common and running out of oxygen leads to loss of motor control, which can in turn lead to a blackout. These dangers can be greatly reduced, however, by self awareness and responsibility, and never practising alone. So, don a wetsuit, fins and goggles, and get yourself some professional instruction, and the rewards can be as deep, beautiful and profound as the ocean itself.

WHERE TO LEARN

The world mecca of freediving is Dahab, Egypt, because of its deep water and good conditions. People do also freedive in lakes in Austria and Germany but the water can be cold and visibility compromised.

Freediving experts, Augusto Vegas and Marianna Krupnitskaya recently founded “Survival Apnea” courses which fuse freediving techniques with those from surfing and other watersports in order to compliment their all-round health and fitness. “Over the years the freediving community has accumulated, tested and perfected knowledge and training methods to enhance breath hold and overall under water performance,” says Vegas whose courses currently run in Peru but will be hitting UK pools and shores in the near future.

To find a British Freediving affiliate club, visit: www.britishfreediving.org or email: clubs@britishfreediving.org.

Some tips for beginner freedivers from Russian champion freediver, Marianna Krupitskaya

Never push too much if you’re not feeling it. Breathholding as an experience shouldn’t feel too arduous.

Progress slowly, step by step. It’s the best way to get to know yourself and stay safe.

Don’t finish training in a negative mood. The best way to do this is to ensure you do something easy and fun at the end.

Find a good, qualified training buddy, someone who you trust and feel safe with. Firstly, this person could save your life one day and secondly the emotions freediving releases are intense and made even better by sharing!

– By Lucy Fry

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