Me: “I was freediving this morning” Her: “What, freediving? Wait a minute, how do they make money if you dive for free??” Me: “Actually they do make money! Freedive is diving down on a single breath, like free of tank, free of moves” Her: “Wouaaaa that’s super crazy, so you are like a wonder woman like mermaid born? Puff, me I can’t even hold my breath for more than 1 minute” Me: “Well… I could lie to you about my exclusive super powers but I’m just a regular human being, and guess what, we, human, all have these super powers!”
And that’s when my favorite part of talking about freediving starts…
Let’s back up a little: my name is Marine, I have been backpacking in Asia since January 2015, exploring new corners of the world, of myself, in search for new knowledge, challenges, spiritual and physical experiences. Like many water sport and nature lovers, traveling the world, I took a scuba diving course to intimately discover the underwater world in warm tropical waters. Yeah, it’s not in the cold north of France that I will experience diving in tropical waters! Challenging at first with buoyancy and the decompression stop, scuba diving is mainly entertaining. Scuba diving is an opportunity to experience amazing moments of being able to observe fish and corals. Not to mention the beers you share after the dive, the classic “oh did you see that fish under that rock,” or “what’s the name of that fish?!” I love being around all the fish and underwater creatures (except for the dangerous ones!), observing their diversity, interactions and admiring their colors surrounded by the multiple corals. I mean, what a wonderful world, right? Overall scuba diving is a great experience I have loved so far… until I became hooked on freediving! Don’t get me wrong, scuba is still a great recreational activity, but freediving gives me a bigger boost of endorphins while widening my possibilities for snorkeling.
I had heard about freediving / apnea last year in Thailand as my travel buddy (who has a big rib cage!) did a 2 days freediving course in Kho Tao. At the time, I was happily busy doing my advanced scuba diving, and thought it was something I could never do physically. A year later, as I traveled the Philippines, I made new friends who tickled my open mind in search of new experience. “Come with us, we are going to do our freediver Level 1”.
So I researched about it during the next couple of days and tried to put the cost of the course into my adventurous perspective, I decided to go along with my new friends, let’s sea! I realize now I had opened a door into a new world. And not just the underwater world…but also my world within. Freediving fulfills my love for the ocean, my quest for meditative state, weightlessness and calmness (Vs the heavy-loud scuba gears!). Everyday it teaches me something new about our amazing and complex body and to expand the power of my mind.
Why would you learn to freedive? Think about the next time you snorkel with your mates, you will be able to dive down to take a closer look at the fish, corals, feel a part of it, and trust me, the underwater population much more prefer the peaceful and silent approach of a freediver rather than the Darth Vader approach of a scuba diver! Of course you won’t be able to stay as long as the scuba divers, but you will be able to descent and ascent as many times as you want during a session, free of your moves, no safety stop and the danger that goes with inhaling gas underwater. After all, I have experienced my first shark and turtle while snorkeling last year, and seen many small and big fish and coral gardens between 0 to 15m below the surface!
You also freedive because it extends your mind’s power! Like in scuba diving, you will start with a beginner apnea training course to be able to safely freedive. Certifications vary from one to another but overall, imagine that by just taking your level 1, you will learn to dive between 10 to 20 meters within 2/3 days! You will go through understanding the famous urge to breathe we all have when we hold our breathe in the water and learning to overcome it by appreciating our amazing physical powers called the mammalian reflex!
You will become more aware of your mind’s power and how it reacts to stress when in survival mode (aka when we don’t breath). In fact, holding our breath for a little longer than what feels “normal” and overcoming the contractions which arise (that nasty feeling in your diaphragm) isn’t dangerous at all. As you learn relaxation technique and safety procedures, practice in pool and open water, try out different freediving disciplines, you will also end up your training being able to hold your breath while static for 2 minutes. Then, as you keep practicing, you will push the limit of your “urge to breathe”, be able to go deeper, longer and perform the art of the well-being, feel like a mermaid!
That’s why this sport is so unique! It’s not so much about the physical exercises, but more about knowing our body, mastering the psychological effects and strengthening our mind’s ability to live the moment in peace, by pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone. We can all achieve great things by training and discipline. Bear in mind, freedive is a safe sport as long as you don’t go over your limit. Anything can be extreme if you stop being in control, which is the opposite of freediving. So unless you have serious ears trouble, you can do it too!
“The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.” Umberto Pelizzari, world champion freediver.
For the one who have fears of depth, drowning, or experienced trauma, it is a very good way to overcome it. You learn to accept and observe your fear vs. fighting it away. You simply realize the water is just the element and it is just your mind playing tricks on you. I was also feeling scared when I first started to freedive. There was no way I wanted to know how deep the ocean was during my first open ocean training, but I quickly came to realize I was not entering a cage in which I would suffocate but instead, I was entering a new sensation of freedom. And now, as I dive down 35 meters along the rope with no fins (my favorite one!), as I pull myself down and up, I am flying, smoothly sliding, blissfully closing my eyes, reopening my eyes, not thinking about anything but the joy of gliding in this immense amount of water brushing my face…
Why freediving and yoga go very well together? Yoga is an ancient science and philosophy that encourages the harmony of the Body, Mind and Soul. Through personal observances, breathing exercises, body postures, control of the senses, inner awareness, meditation, you learn to acknowledge the present, find inner peace and live the now happier. Great, right? Every doctor should prescribe yoga classes! To train our body and mind to be more flexible in the water, nothing better than yoga, and vice versa!
In fact, doing a combined yoga and freedive retreat (with Kurma Freedive in Camiguin island, Philippines), has allowed me to re-energize after a long travel, digest all these moments, empower myself, learn to better let it go, be more grounded and find inspiration within me. The spirit of freediving and this amazing, quiet yet full of stuff to do, volcanic island has really made my experience mind-blowing. I love to remember what my instructor Valerie told me as I m getting ready for my first freedive session in Camiguin, and felt stuck not being able to go deeper than 15m, she gave me a simple “enjoy”… As I smile in my snorkel, I realized it’s not about the number you reach, but about the pleasure you experience on the way, a reminder along that rope that happiness is a journey, not a destination… Then diving deeper, longer become an expansion of that happy journey.
“Freediving is about silence…the silence that comes within” Jacques Mayol
These jaw-dropping images were taken while freediving with blue whales in Sri Lanka.
This lucky free diver is Marianne Adventurier, She is french and she is based out of Paris. This collection features stunning images of blue whales and sperm whales, along with the french diver who spent 40 hours in the sea to capture her moments with them on film.
These pictures were taken by her friends Alex Voyer and Alex Roubaud, a duo from Paris who specialise in deep sea photography. They practise photography under the banner FishEye.
Marianne said the group was lucky to find a huge group of whales - around 15 when they first dropped in the ocean!
Diving down beside a pod of whales, Marianne said the experience was one of her, ‘most wildest and inaccessible dreams’
This is Marianne, She is 38 Years Old! Look at her smile at the camera as she comes up for fresh air, that smile perfectly encapsulates her joy.
Sri Lanka is known for whale watching & a lot of other adventures! Plan your trip to this majestic country, or you’ll never find out what awaits you!
Is freediving a sport or a hobby? Does the science enlighten or frighten? Where does freediving end and insanity begin? Freediving has as many detractors as promoters and strong arguments on both sides of the breath-holding argument. But to paraphrase Buddha Nietzsche: That which does not kill us, may help us attain enlightenment.
A few years ago my mother-in-law (MiL) gave me a book, “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.” The author, James Nestor, writes about the history, physiology, people, and the sport of freediving in often revealing and occasionally troubling prose. He also discusses the various affects of breath holding on the mind and body, including the dream state the body enters due to increased CO2 buildup — one competitor even saw the future, but he had to black out to do it (Nestor 2014, 129).
Have you ever dreamed of passively exploring the underwater world free from equipment? Freediving is the most natural and serene way to explore the depths of the oceans with minimal impact.
Although a lovely, granola-eating explanation, it doesn’t exactly provide much insight and the rest of their description is equally devoid of specifics — sometimes the experts have the hardest time explaining simple concepts. It’s times like these we turn to the definitive source of all knowledge, Wikipedia:
Freediving, free-diving, skin diving, or free diving is a form of underwater diving that relies on divers’ ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than on the use of a breathing apparatus such as scuba gear.
Now that’s an explanation we can easily understand.
There are different types of freediving, the most notables being competitive, fishing, photography, snorkeling, and various fully and semi-submerged professional and amateur water sports, like Marco Polo. Technically, anyone who ever held their breath underwater is a freediver.
What is Competitive Freediving?
This time we’ll turn to the second best definitive source of knowledge, Robipedia:
Competitive freediving, also known as apnea, is a sport wherein competitors hold their breath to: remain underwater for increasing amounts of time; swim greater distances; and dive to greater depths. Interestingly, the word apnea is from the Greek apnoea, which roughly translated means something to the affect of ‘you are going to die if you don’t breathe.’
According to the AIDA certified course we took, there are eight freediving disciplines of which six are considered competitive. The six competitive freediving disciplines are(descriptions of each discipline added by the author):
Static Apnea involves floating face down in a pool while concerned people stare; occasionally a lifeguard, thinking you’ve drowned, will jump in to save you.
Dynamic Apnea is swimming underwater parallel to the surface for increasingly greater distances until your lips turn blue and you lose the feeling in your extremities.
Constant Weight is swimming down into the depths and back up using the same amount of weight — normally your body weight and gear — hoping not to be eaten by a shark.
In Free Immersion, you pull yourself down a line and back up what is hopefully the same line, reaching the surface just in time for your friends to witness you passing out.
Variable Weight involves descending into the cold, dark ocean with weight or a weighted sled and ascending without weight by swimming, pulling a line, or being abducted by aliens.
No Limits freediving is descending even deeper into the cold, dark ocean on a weighted sled, stopping for tea with the creatures from the Abyss (1989), and ascending using an air filled lift bag after skipping out on the check.
Are There Freediving Classes?
In April 2016 we planned a trip to Thailand for no other reason than to eat Thai food and lay on the beach. Originally, we considered taking a SCUBA diving class, but neither one of us really wanted another hobby, especially one with the potential to curtail our consumption of the world’s best liquors when we traveled — I seem to remember reading about abstinence for 24 hours before or after a dive. Then I remembered the book, Deep.
TripAdvisor listed several freediving schools in Phuket. After much convincing and the promise of a relaxing vacation, we signed up for a three day AIDA 2 certification course scheduled to begin the day after our arrival. It fit perfectly with our plans. We were going to be in Thailand for eight days, meaning three days in a pool and the ocean, one day of recovery, and four days of laying on the beach. It was time to learn to free dive.
Our performance wasn’t stellar. After a couple days I could hold my breath for three minutes and dive to nine meters — incidentally, my wife could hold her breath for 3:15 because, per our instructor, she knew how to relax. Neither of us attained enlightenment or anything even close. The best we can say about the experience is we didn’t get sick from the disgusting ocean water around where we trained in Phuket; but it was a start.
Can Freediving Lead To Enlightenment?
A couple years back a friend let me borrow his SCUBA gear while we were vacationing together in the Caribbean. I donned the tank, weight belt, regulator, and my own goggles — his had snot in them — and swam down to about 25 feet. The SCUBA part was just okay; swimming around looking for sunken Spanish Galleons and bright colored fish was a little like underwater sightseeing. On the other hand, although I’ve never been good at meditating, the stillness and silence of being a few meters underwater was spiritually moving.
There was something about the totally immersive nature of the ocean that seemed to relax me. Although my longest breath hold during the freediving class was only three minutes, during the class I was able to remain on the ocean floor thirty feet below the waves for quite some time. It was peacefully quiet down there in the dreary grayness of dead coral and sand; like meditating on the ocean floor. It was the same sense of calm I remembered from the SCUBA session.
Armed with a taste of meditative underwater deprivation and a book about freediving, I was further convinced learning to hold my breath longer would facilitate a better meditative experience without blacking out. A few years ago one of my favorite sisters-in-law (SiL) attended a retreat where she sat, lay, and walked for ten days without speaking; she never mentioned needing to black out to become her currently enlightened self. I also don’t recall Buddha ever talking about asphyxiating himself in order to become the supreme enlightened one.
Enlightenment must be obtainable without the accompanying brain damage from oxygen deprivation.
Where Does Freediving Practice Fit In?
In his book, Nestor (2014) discussed the often overlooked side effects of static breath-hold training, “It gives you a bone-deep high.” He described the high as falling somewhere between an endorphin rush and “the dirty, intoxicated feeling you get from drinking bad alcohol in a hurry” (158). Finally, something I could relate to: alcohol consumption!
My distinct lack of meditative prowess definitely limited my ability to see things like the Buddha, but Nestor provided an answer: more alcohol! No, no, that doesn’t seem right. Oh, yes, now I’ve got it. Let’s try this again.
…Nestor provided an answer: longer breath holds! That seems better, less fun, but better.
I considered whether pharmaceuticals might enhance the meditative experience. After all, people from Africa to the America’s once prayed, ruminated, and meditated their way to enlightenment using a variety of entheogens; Shaman’s in almost every culture used everything from mushrooms to cannibis to attain enlightenment. Unfortunately, I didn’t need to go that far; I just needed to hold my breath until the intoxicated feeling set in, preceded by hypoxia, violent diaphragmatic convulsions, and with a little luck, hallucinations.
Thankfully, there is an app for everything, including holding your breath; the one I chose is called STAmina. “Let’s get the breath holding thing started,” I thought, “I have enlightenment to attain.”
During the first session I hit the 2:30 mark, then 3:06, 3:32, and 3:51. For days I held my breath at every opportunity: while running, walking, and writing; while my wife and I talked — which was easier than I thought; even during intercourse, until I was told to stop — stop the breath holding, not the intercourse. But no matter what I did enlightenment remained an elusive ghost. Perhaps I just needed to hit the four minute mark?
Then, five days ago I lay on the floor practicing with the App’s CO2 tables to help my body get used to the carbon dioxide buildup. I followed the 22 minute protocol: breathe for 1:20, hold for 2:05; breathe for 1:10, hold for 2:05; until eventually I was down to breathing for 10, holding for 2:05. It felt pretty good. How far could I go, now?
I took a two minute breathe up, then hold…and hold…and hold…
I checked the timer on my iPhone. Four minutes, 13 seconds. Not bad, but was there a meditative state? Well, the time did seem to fly by — since we live in India, which is in the future to the majority of our readers, I am intimately familiar with the effects of relative time. But it didn’t feel like enlightenment; it didn’t even feel like Nestor’s, “bone-deep high.” Lets go again.
I repeated the two minute breathe up, took a deep breath, exhaled, one more deep breath, and…hold.
I heard the ceiling fan whizzing above me, felt the air blowing down upon my skin, and smelled the trash burning in the village next door, but no enlightenment. Eventually the diaphragmatic convulsions started, subtle at first, then building. Still no enlightenment. I let go of the space, allowing my thoughts to ebb and flow; focused, then relaxed. Still no enlightenment. The convulsions became stronger, violent. Where is my enlightenment? I glanced at the timer ticking away on the iPhone; it read 3:45. I closed my eyes and drifted back into the moment.
More time passed, but I’m not sure how much. The next time I looked the iPhone timer read four minutes, 16 seconds. It felt like only a few seconds passed; time was definitely bending with each violent convulsion. I told myself, “It’s only CO2. To be rid of the feeling I need only exhale.” Eventually the convulsions became too violent and I exhaled; four minutes, 26 seconds, a new personal record. But no enlightenment.
I’m not ready to black out.
Freediving is only as dangerous as you make it. The body shunts blood away from non-vital organs and the blood vessels in the brain dilate in order to compensate for the decreased oxygen flow, thus ensuring the brain has sufficient O2. Eventually, lack of O2 will result in a black out. Thankfully, a person can stay submerged in a blacked-out state for about two minutes, at the end of which the body will wake itself and breathe one last time (Nestor 2014, 45); none of which is an issue for someone practicing on a yoga mat.
Recreational freediving is a quiet, serene, meditative experience. Being underwater under your own ability, surrounded by silence and warmth is a bit like being in the womb — not that my memory goes back that far; if it did I’d need a much better therapist. Even now, despite my lackluster performance, I think it’s helped with my meditation; however, enlightenment is an entirely different animal.
In his struggle to open Buddhism to all Japanese, the Japanese Monk Kobu Daishi asked, “Why can’t we all have the same chance at enlightenment?” After much training and breath-holding, I can say with absolute certainty that I have not attained enlightenment. I am no closer to understanding the Buddha now than I was before I started toying with apnea. I have no desire to black out or sit in silence for ten days. Kobu Daishi was right, everyone has a shot; but how far are you willing to go?
For now, I suppose I’ll stick to pirating and just fake enlightenment like everyone else.
Nestor, James. 24 June 2014. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article — as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.
Does freediving alter your state of consciousness? That’s what I found the first time I tried the sport. I was eager to make something spiritual out of diving deep underwater with nothing but a mask, snorkel, fins, and one breath of air. Ever since that fateful day, I have practiced spiritual breathing exercises more seriously, and I’ve concluded that breath work should always be included as one of the cornerstones of a well-rounded mystical discipline.
My breath-hold adventures began when my veteran freediving friend, Carlos, brought me out to a man-made reef just off the shore of our local South Florida beach. The luminous, turquoise-colored water out there isn’t very deep over the submerged rocks. Sixteen feet. Perfect for a beginner.
The abundance of life on the reef astonished me. So many shimmering creatures and colors in one place! Parrot fish, angel fish, sergeant majors, nurse sharks, moray eels, lobsters, and more. When we got back to shore, I shared my excitement with Carlos. But I also lamented that I didn’t notice anything “spiritual” about the dive experience. There was no Zen-like oneness with the ocean. “I guess I’ve yet to experience the dive reflex,” I chuckled.
The mammalian dive reflex is a fabled biological phenomenon that happens — as its namesake indicates — in all mammals. Humans included. A physiologist back in the 60s, by the name of Per Scholander, called it “the master switch of life.” The dive reflex is essentially a physiological adaptation to water that shifts your perception of reality.
As I’m sure you know, the water pressure in your ears increases, the deeper you dive. Your lungs also experience this pressure, and that pressure, combined with the buildup of carbon dioxide (CO2) in your cells, triggers a slowdown in your heart rate. The effect essentially amounts to a slowdown of your metabolism which, in turn, produces effects similar to meditation. It opens up higher brain function, giving you, quite possibly, a rapturous glimpse into the primal mind. If you’re lucky, holding your breath in deep water just might “open wide the doors of perception,” as devotees of psychedelia would say.
Carlos tried to reassure me that the mammalian dive reflex is quite real but that “weird spiritual stuff” happens mainly during deeper dives with longer breath-holds. “Maybe when you get better at it and go deeper, it will happen,” he seemed to promise.
But it had happened. I just hadn’t noticed…yet.
On our way to back to the boardwalk, we had to step around the various beach-goers lying about on the sand, and suddenly I felt like an intruder, like Carlos and I were strangers among these nervous, fidgeting humans. Something was different. It seemed I was witnessing two different realities overlapping.
Was it that they were lost in some other dimension? Or was it that we were the odd ones, so quiet and calm, like two serene aliens just emerged from the depths of a blue universe? Nearby, a mother was frantically barking at her two children, commanding them, essentially, to stop behaving so much like children. They were being “too loud” or “That’s dangerous! Put it down!” The children were apparently agitated too, fighting over who gets to hold a neon-pink shovel. Two old men, close by, argued rather absentmindedly with each other about size of the latest Florida Lottery jackpot. As we neared the wooden steps, a young woman complained into her smartphone, apparently condemning her new boyfriend to some fiery circle of hell. Her eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything physical in her immediate vicinity. Where was she?
These people might as well have been trying to enjoy their day at the beach through four inches of plexiglass, so cut off were they from the natural world that danced, shimmered, and swirled over their mentally distracted bodies. They had physical bodies, yes, but they were largely neglecting them by retreating into their minds. No one seemed attuned to the riot of physical sensations that enveloped all of us. No one was reveling in the intimate, electric grit of the salt and sand, the scintillating laughter of the ocean waves, and the soothing warmth of the wind bustling in our ears — not to mention that heavenly orb of golden fire in the sky that was pressing its life force deep into our skin.
Carlos noticed me gaping at the psychotic spectacle of humanity around us. Grinning, he clapped me on the shoulder and congratulated me in his macho Cuban accent: “Ladies and gentleman, the mammalian dive reflex.” He bowed.
Between Two Worlds
What was it that had come over me? I’m no stranger to spiritual disciplines. I had felt this before. It’s a shift that sometimes steals over me during ritual— or in the mornings, just after I wake up and step into the light of sunrise. But it had never come over me quite like this. From what I’ve learned since, it’s the buildup of CO2 in your cells that produces this kind of effect. But what manner of effect is it?
“A fool sees not the same tree as the wise man sees.”
— William Blake
Well, it’s quite simple really. Human beings have two different nervous systems. One of them, the sympathetic nervous system, stresses you out and sabotages your joy. The other one, the parasympathetic nervous system, provides you with all you need to become an enlightened being.
Because of my breath-hold diving, I had activated my parasympathetic nervous system, which opened up my eyes to the world around me. It woke up my higher brain functions and helped me see reality as it truly is. It’s an experience that some Buddhists call Samadhi — none other than a little glimpse of enlightenment.
You can do this too. But first some introductions are in order:
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The nerves of this system fire to life when we experience danger or need. If there’s a shark swimming toward you (as they sometimes do because they’re simply curious), chances are your experiences in movie theaters have conditioned you to freak out. And voilà! The sympathetic nervous system springs to life. The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline course through your veins. Your digestion shuts down, immune function diminishes, and even your higher brain functions switch off. Why does this happen? So that your body can divert its energy toward either one of these two actions: (1) fight off the shark (Good luck with that) or (2) swim for shore as fast as you can. Congratulations. Your sympathetic nervous system has initiated its infamous “fight-or-flight” response.
It takes a lot less than a shark to stimulate fight-or-flight. Another car cutting you off in traffic can easily do it, or even a fellow student finishing an exam before you. The mildest physical discomfort or the slightest sense of need can provoke elevated heart rate and increased breathing, nudging you more and more into fight-or-flight mode. All it takes is the mention of a “terrorist plot” on CNN (danger) or a YouTube ad saying that a new $6 toothbrush is better than the one you’ve got (need). A scary movie will do it too. Your nervous system doesn’t really care whether danger is real or not. Whether you’re being munched on by an actual shark or you’re watching the opening scene of Jaws, the sympathetic nervous system will flare to life just the same.
The most troublesome thing about this for you and me is that modern humans have a horrendously overactive sympathetic nervous system. Not only is our fight-or-flight response triggered easily, but its arousal lingers for extensive periods of time. It wreaks havok with our health and makes us irritable and stupid. There are three main reasons why this has happened to us in our evolution: the agricultural diet, cultural conditioning, and excessive sedentary breathing. In this article, I will only discuss breathing. The other factors, serious as they are, will have to wait for future articles.
But wait. How does fear keep you from experiencing enlightenment? How does it keep you cut off from the truth about who and what you really are? Isn’t fear a primal state of awareness? Something that makes you more intimate with the world around you?
Many physiologists claim that the fight-or-flight response does just that. They claim that it forces us to focus on our immediate, material environment so that we can grapple with any threats to our survival. This is true. They also claim that focusing on our immediate material surroundings is the same thing as focusing on “reality.”
Yes, your fight-or-flight response compels you to focus on your immediate circumstances. That much is true. For example, it makes an anxious test-taker aware that the door to the classroom is partly open: An escape route! Or it makes her suddenly appreciate her pencil as a potential weapon. But that kind of miraculous re-prioritizing of material resources in no way makes a human’s fight-or-flight response realistic.
Our fight-or-flight mode of existence actually spurs us to action by creating its own kind of fantasy world (for what is the material world but a highly presumptuous explanation of our sensory experience). Fight-or-flight heightens your senses, yes, but it uses a pre-programmed kind of drama to do that. It fictionalizes your experience of the world and paints a rather bleak, over-simplified picture of it, re-defining you as a limited, physical object that is the victim of another supposed physical object. It creates an isolated inner fortress (ego) that imagines itself besieged by a hostile outer reality. This “me”-centered drama is what rises up in your mind to replace your higher brain functions. Quite simply, the sympathetic nervous system screws with your normal baseline perception of reality. And if you get duped into the fight-or-flight mode a lot, even when it’s the mildest possible state of on-the-job stress, that’s enough to make your life look pretty damn bleak to you. Hence humankind’s unenlightened state.
I cannot emphasize enough just how incredibly insidious this aspect of our nervous system has become (thanks to poor diet, crappy cultural conditioning, and deranged breathing). The stress response is so subtle in its ability to destroy our natural blissed-out state of mind that it can take a lifetime of mystical training to learn how to notice it in action and subdue it.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
To the rescue comes the part of your nervous system that calms you down. The parasympathetic nervous system brings you back down to Mother Earth, into a more accurate perception of reality. This part of the nervous system is famous for producing the “rest and digest” mode of being. When you’re awake, this is an alert, resting state of mind, and its an outlook upon the world that allows all your bodily systems to function optimally. Your immune system springs to life, your intestines absorb nutrients, cells repair themselves, and higher brain function lights up. Intelligence, bliss, and clarity ensue. Sometimes this happens to a degree and level of intensity that is utterly astonishing.
Think of it this way. You enter a beautiful green forest, you sit back on a soft blanket of moss, and you take a deep breath, filling first the belly and then the chest. You hold it in for four seconds and then let it out slowly, making a “Ssssssssss…” sound, like a deflating tire. The sound continues and diminishes for many seconds until your lungs simply hang limp in your chest. Imagine this subsiding hiss as your last breath. Your dying breath. You are allowing yourself to let go. Feel your life force deflating, settling down, spreading back out into the universe. Your soul is free to return to nature, free to fill the glowing green of the leaves around you, the gruffness of the rocks, and azure glory of the sky. That old, entrenched existence of “me against the world” dissolves. All drama melts away.
Or does it? Dare to let yourself relax enough and you will discover that beneath the old theatrical display of “good me/evil world,” a new drama emerges. The universe shines anew, this time not as your fight-or-flight response would create it…but as it actually is!
What does the world look like when a constantly freaked-out nervous system isn’t painting all of the natural forces within it as potential threats? Find out for yourself. Try some breathing exercises that deliberately stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Four Breathing Exercises
The Fourfold Breath: This is a beginners exercise for yogic breathing. In its beginners’ format, the exercise doesn’t really help you increase your tolerance to CO2, but it does set up the basic framework for more advanced forms of breath-hold training that actually will do that. Since I am an initiate of Golden Dawn mysticism, I’m going to quote the Fourfold Breath exercise right out of a Golden Dawn book from my bookshelf.
Empty the lungs and hold while counting four [seconds].
Inhale while counting four so that you feel filled with air up to the throat.
Hold the breath while counting four.
Exhale counting four until the lungs are empty.
For an even better effect, make sure each in-breath happens through the nose only, and make sure you breathe with the belly only. And for the out-breath, use the mouth and make the deflating “Ssssss” sound.
If you are new to this kind of yogic breathing, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Only the belly should move. No chest breathing allowed. Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Chest breathing stimulates fight-or-flight.
The idea is to practice the fourfold breath before ritual or meditation so that you can calm down and settle the mind. When you reach step 4, simply start over with step one. Continue repeating this sequence for five or more minutes.
The advanced form of this exercise is quite simple, and it’s one that I teach to students who are ready for hardcore spiritual work. In addition to its calming effect, it induces an ever-so-slight amount of stress to the body. How is it different? For step 3, hold on to the in-breath for some additional counts of four seconds each. That is, instead of counting just to four, count to 8 or 12 or 16 or more. Count that way, holding the breath only until you experience significant air hunger, and then proceed to step 4. You should not hold the breath for so long that you gasp for air or mess up your smooth progression through steps 1 through 4.
The idea of the advanced form of this exercise is to increase the time period in which you can comfortably hold your breath. Done daily, this exercise very gradually increases your body’s tolerance to CO2, resulting in longer and longer breath-holds. As you may recall, a higher level of CO2 in your body results in innumerable health benefits, not to mention the fact that CO2 naturally increases the predominance of your parasympathetic nervous system, potentially bringing about a glimpse of enlightenment.
The Dead Breath: This exercise directly stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. I use it to slow down my heart rate when I’m relaxing in the ocean, preparing for a breath-hold dive. It is, perhaps, the most practical exercise presented here because it can be done anywhere — even while driving a car.
Using the belly only, breathe in through the nose for the count of four seconds.
Breathe out through the mouth, making the subsiding “Ssssssss…” sound for 8 seconds or longer. Just allow the lungs to empty. Don’t push. Feel yourself relaxing and ebbing away with that deflating hiss, letting the tense, fictional version of you die.
Important: Now let the lungs simply hang empty. Do not hold the breath in the out position. Simply let the lungs “hang there” and be relaxed. When the slightest air hunger begins to set in, only then should you proceed to step 1.
Step three in the above sequence is important because it allows CO2 to build up in your body, keeping you from hyperventilating. Hyperventilation rouses the fight-of-flight response.
Minding the Gate: This exercise comes from classical pranayama, from the practice of “suspending the breath in the nostrils.” For some people, it’s quite challenging because you perform it all day long — which means you must maintain a certain level of awareness over your breathing. The technique involves shallow breathing, and the aim is to retain a reservoir of carbon dioxide in your lungs. In other words, to not let too much CO2 escape. Remember that CO2 is a treasure, not just a waste gas. Your body maintains a concentration of CO2 over 180 times greater than the amount found in Earth’s atmosphere. You can help it horde CO2 via relaxed, restrained, shallow breathing.
There are several elements to Minding the Gate, and these must all function together simultaneously.
Breathe through the nose only. No mouth-breathing permitted.
Keep your attention focused, more or less, on guarding the nostrils. There should be very little air passing through them, a barely detectable ebb and flow.
Breathe with the belly only. There should be only the slightest rising and falling sensation in the lower belly.
An important key to this exercise is to allow for a significant pause between the out-breath and in-breath. No need for the diaphragm to constantly be in motion. Learn to simply rest comfortably with the lungs empty, between breaths.
Take in no more air than you need.
If you catch yourself lapsing and you allow yourself to sigh, that’s no big deal. Simply restrain the sigh slightly with the outgoing “Sssss…” sound, doing steps 2 and 3 of the Dead Breath. Then resume the practice of Minding the Gate.
If you are doing this exercise properly, you will never feel short of breath, and your hands will always feel warm. If the hands or extremities become cold, that’s probably a sign that your breathing has become too intense and your CO2 has dropped too low, decreasing your body’s ability to generate vital energy.
You may want to note from this that you can quickly uncover the secrets of controlling body heat if you continue with practices like the Dead Breath (!). In Tibetan Buddhism, the mystical discipline of generating body heat is called Tummo.
Hypoxic Training: This has become somewhat popular in the fitness world today. You may even have seen someone at the gym wearing a “hypoxic training mask.”
All the mask does is restrict airflow, making it laborious to breathe while working out. The claim is that this restriction of air simulates high-altitude training, but that is not really what it does. The mask simply keeps you from breathing too much, helping your body build up massive amounts of CO2 while you exercise. It is not so much a hypoxic (low-oxygen) training mask as it is a hypercapnic (high-CO2) training mask.
Using this mask while exerting yourself, forces your brain stem to grow accustomed to higher levels of CO2 in the blood. Using it while doing cardio can, over time, undo years of damage done by a sedentary lifestyle — in which we sit still and get overstimulated by video screens, breathing too much, increasing our bodies’ sensitivity to CO2 and wrecking our health.
The hypoxic training mask is not exactly a fashion statement, but don’t worry! It is completely unnecessary. No need to go out and get one because you can easily train without it. You can practice hypoxic training simply by running on a treadmill and synchronizing some breath-holds with your running steps. Very simple.
Begin by walking at a brisk pace on the treadmill. After 4 minutes, start jogging at a slow, comfortable pace. I normally proceed at only 6.6 miles per hour. When the five-minute mark comes, begin your five minutes of the hypoxic breathing pattern while continuing your pace:
Breathe in for three steps.
Hold the breath for three steps.
Exhale for three steps. Repeat.
Note that the time spent in part 2 can vary, and the goal is to gradually increase the number of steps during your breath-hold up to 6, 7, 8, or even more steps. For example, you might do this exercise daily for one month, keeping part 2 at only two steps. The following month, you’ll hold the breath for three steps. The next month, you’ll hold the breath for four. Then five. And so on. This can be really challenging on some days, but you must learn to persevere. The point is to deliberately stress out the body, so go ahead and push yourself to work up a sweat.
Hypoxic training can generate incredible body heat, and you might find yourself drenched in perspiration, even if you’re in an air-conditioned gym.
Note: I won’t bore you with the usual health warnings of trying something like this. Simply take complete responsibility for your actions before you engage in any of the breathing exercises in this article.
Not everyone who practices these techniques will notice immediate results. Remember that, on average, modern people breathe way more than is optimal for primal health, and as a result, we are way too sensitive to carbon dioxide. We gasp for breath and expel the CO2 before it can reach healthy levels. Our overstimulated, sedentary lives have accustomed us to a sub-optimal metabolism that keeps us weak, distracted, irritable, and vulnerable to chronic diseases — to the point that “weak,” “distracted,” and “irritable” are now considered to be our normal state of being! How do we get back to robust health and primal awareness of our pre-civilized ancestors? We spend months doing these kinds of CO2-desensitizing exercises.
Also, it may sound strange, but lusting for results can often interfere with your ability to make a spiritual breakthrough. Remember that I was blissed-out on the beach the first time I tried freediving, and I almost failed to notice anything at all. Discerning the difference between the stress-response mode and the rest-and-digest mode is a skill that Zen masters spend years developing. Enlightenment is an elusive thing. It is hidden all around us in plain sight but not very noticeable to us non-Buddha types. If it really were that easy to achieve, everyone would master the techniques of tuning in by the time they reach adulthood.
I should further remind you that breath is just one of the cornerstones of an effective mystical discipline. Just using breath techniques alone to increase your health and spiritual well-being takes a lot of discipline. Remember that there are two other monstrous factors to deal with, other than deranged breathing, and they are also destroying your ability to appreciate the universe just as it is: (1) the agricultural diet and (2) cultural conditioning.
In the next article, I’ll address the role of dietary practices, such as fasting, in mystical training. The physical aspects of a spiritual discipline — breathing techniques and nutrition — can produce phenomenal results, even if you don’t practice ritual or meditation.
Meet the Freediving Couple Who Make Stunning Underwater Photos With No Scuba Gear
Swimming with sharks, respecting the ocean, and filling SD cards with amazing images form the depths. All in a day’s work.
by Matt Ayres
AROUND 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. This is hardly surprising when you think about it: humans have evolved to live on land, and aren’t naturally equipped to reach the deepest sea depths without relying on incredibly high-tech apparatus. And yet, despite the challenges involved in underwater exploration, some brave adventurers have dedicated their lives to seeing as much of the ocean as possible. What’s more, they do it without any of the breathing apparatus used by scuba divers.
Freedivers simply hold their breath while they dive, experiencing the vast underwater world without having to lug around oxygen tanks or other heavy equipment. According to professional freediver Christina Saenz de Santamaria, this is the purest and more exhilarating way to explore the ocean and meet its many amazing inhabitants.
Christina shares her experiences with her husband, fellow freediver Eusebio. The couple explore the world together, capturing incredible imagery and video footage of marine wildlife that many of us will never see. We spoke to Christina to learn more about her freediving adventures.
Why did you originally decide to become a freediver?
I have always been in love with the ocean, since I was a child growing up on the shorelines of Sydney. While travelling in my early twenties I stumbled across the little island of Ko Tao in Thailand, where I started to teach scuba diving as a way to pay for my travel and enjoy the ocean.
My passions were quickly ignited once I discovered the sport of freediving at my future husband’s school, Apnea Total. I quickly became addicted to the pure sensation of freedom in the ocean and the challenge of breath-hold diving.
What led you to combine your diving passion with photography and video?
For eight years I have been travelling the world with my husband and trainer Eusebio, exploring the oceans and interacting with marine life from dolphins to tiger sharks. I’ve always loved photography in all its forms, so combining our experience of freediving, adventure and the ocean with photography and video felt like a natural step and an artistic way to communicate the surreal sensations that we feel underwater.
What are the risks associated with freediving in comparison to scuba diving?
If you abide by the safety rules then freediving is one of the safest ocean water sports. In scuba diving you are relying on equipment that can potentially fail, whereas in freediving you are relying on and respecting your own body’s abilities. Among all the rules of freediving, the most important is to never freedive alone, which must be respected at all times.
What has been the most dangerous scenario you have encountered during a dive?
Eusebio and I always freedive with respect to our own physical and mental abilities. We never push ourselves beyond what we are physically and mentally capable of. So although we have completed very challenging freedives to over 100 metres in depth, we have never been in danger while training or establishing new records.
In terms of freediving with marine life, this is a different aspect that can be considered potentially dangerous. Whenever you enter the ocean with large predators such as bull sharks or tiger sharks, it is essential to be knowledgable about the species you are diving with and their behavioural traits. We have a lot of experience freediving with different types of sharks, but we always remember that we have entered their environment. There is a risk, and we must respect their territory and behaviour.
How do you train to become a freediver? Can anyone do it?
Most definitely, yes. Anyone can freedive. We all have the ability to hold our breath locked within us and it takes a knowledgeable and experienced instructor to unlock this potential. To train to become a freediver you should seek an experienced and reputable freedive centre or instructor and take organised freediving education. That way you can make the most of your freediving potential and learn to freedive in a safe and fun manner.
How important is it for you to share your adventures with Eusebio?
It is very special to be able to share my freediving experiences with my partner. To have a passion that we love together is simply very cool. We are able to plan all sorts of imaginative underwater adventures that sound crazy to other people.
Where are some of the most spectacular places you have dived?
I have freedived in many incredible areas of the world, which are all special for different reasons. At Tiger Beach in the Grand Bahamas, we experienced freediving with six mature female tiger sharks, each between 10 and 14ft in length. At the Cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, the striking cathedral light and otherworldliness of the natural sinkholes was surreal and magical. Freediving with the resident spinner dolphins off the coast of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii was also amazing. These dolphins were incredibly fun, playful, curious and highly intelligent.
Which of your photographs are you most proud to have taken?
Any photograph that touches a viewer, that makes them experience the surreal sensations that we do underwater and encourages them to enjoy the ocean, is a photograph that I am proud of.
Which animals do you most enjoy seeing during your dives, and which are you most nervous to encounter?
I have fallen in love with sharks, particularly the tiger shark. To experience freediving eye-to-eye with a 14ft tiger shark is exhilarating — they emanate incredible power and a sense of tension.
I have heightened sensations and awareness when swimming with these animals, although I would not use the word nervous to describe it. My senses are peaked to be aware of any animal behavioural changes. I feel thrilled by their energy, but also ready to respond to any potential danger and retreat to the boat if necessary. Although we are not deliberately on a shark’s menu, these are animals that act on pure instinct, and this is a fact that we never forget.
Freediving with the six large tiger sharks in the Bahamas has definitely been the highlight of my underwater wildlife encounters. Looking directly into their cold, black, instinctive eyes was a life-affirming and informative experience.
How would you describe the feeling of being deep in the ocean without any breathing apparatus?
Pure freedom, and a purer experience than scuba diving. Marine wildlife can be very inquisitive of you without the noise and distraction of the equipment.
How concerned are you about the destruction of ocean habitats due to global warming and pollution?
Oceans are being affected immensely all over the world. Living in Southeast Asia for 11 years, I have witnessed an enormous amount of plastic and non-biodegradable waste polluting the oceans, particularly during monsoonal weather. The amount of plastic pollution is overwhelming at some points of the year, and of course this is something that concerns me immensely. I have also witnessed destroyed coral reefs due to dynamite fishing and declining fish populations in certain areas due to overfishing.
What can people do to ensure that they do not cause further harm to these special underwater environments?
Be aware of where they deposit their rubbish and choosing biodegradable packaging over non-biodegradable, as well as purchasing fish products from companies or fisherman that employ sustainable fishing practices.