Freediving is a form of yogic practice.

Freediving is a form of yogic practice.

05-07-2020Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.

I wake up to the sound of early-bird hikers plodding past my van. I rub my eyes, eat a can of tinned tuna, pull on my wetsuit, and follow them down the stone stairs to the coast.

The bay is immaculate, its glassy water glossing over patches of turquoise and navy blue. No unsettled sediment dulls the glow of God’s swimming pool. Wading off the dried algal beach, I feel like a miniature figure in a glass of cool spring water, its dew droplets leaving a ring stain on my desk. Only I’m not at my desk; I’m stepping out over the smooth pebbles of Cala Deia.

The only flotsam: a small piece of calcified driftwood. The only turbidity is the swirls of saline solution mixing with the fresh mountain water from Llucalcari next door. I’m swimming in a Gin and Tonic, only the bits in my glass are sea cucumbers and fish.

I spit, rinse my mask and don the snorkel. With metre-long carbon fibre fins, I paddle out beyond the marker buoys- the only thing more buoyant than my mood- to the small archipelago on the north side. A tunnel beneath an islet- dark and lifeless where the rocks are red and smooth- leads me out to Majorca’s northern coastline.

The water is deeper here- twenty metres, perhaps. I take my last breath, head down, bottoms up and dive deeper, darker, into the cold blue. I fin slowly so as not to build up too much carbon dioxide in my blood. The ambient pressure mounts and my lungs slowly compress like two sheets of my writing before tossing them into the dustbin. It also compresses the air trapped behind my eardrum, forcing it to painfully cave. I pinch my nose and exhale, blowing air along a tube (the Eustachian tube) from my throat into my middle ear, equalising the pressure with a familiar squeak.

Benefits of Freediving

There are mental and physical benefits to freediving. On the physical side, free diving improves fitness by swimming to dive sites and carrying bulky equipment like weight belts and wetsuits.

It is also good for your skeleton. The hydrostatic pressure is exerted equally over the entire body, easing the pressure on swollen joints from injuries or arthritis.

The sport also enhances your body’s ability to use oxygen more efficiently. During the mammalian dive reflex, the spleen produces more red blood cells (carrying oxygen) and then redirects them to the internal organs. Counter-intuitively, freedivers have a similar healthy blood composition to people who live at high altitudes.

On the mental side, freediving is a form of yogic practice. Concentrating on moving slowly whilst holding your breath lowers your heart rate, and a study in 2013 published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, found that freedivers have a significantly lower 'state anxiety, stress level and negative affectivity scores as compared to non-athletes.'

The same 2013 study found that free divers also have higher-than-average self-confidence, and feel more in control over their own lives. Apparently, overcoming the urge to panic and turn around is character building.

I can see how freediving is a form of meditation. It doesn’t matter how tight my lungs feel, how strong the impulse is to breathe. It doesn’t matter if I’ve already convulsed. No matter how deep, I always pause when I get to my limit. There’s a stillness there, a quiet. Despite being a death’s door, holding my breath at the bottom of the ocean is, strangely, one of the most peaceful places I can find.

If mindfulness is about shutting out the noise; turning off the inner voice that questions the integrity of government, the rise in electricity bills, the argument with your neighbour about the hedgerow or if your children will get better grades next school year; then there is no better place than ten metres or deeper beneath the waves.

Sure, you can allow yourself to get distracted. You can think about the argument with your spouse or the condescending nod from your boss, but would you really want that to be your last thought; be found floating with waterlogged lungs and a frown? When I pause at the bottom of the ocean, those thoughts, and that life above, don’t exist; they’re left behind in another world. And for a brief moment, I am completely at ease.

Then I look up. The shimmering doorway to the overworld is a long way away and I always doubt that I have enough air to make it back. I don’t want to go the way of Pau Martinez, the 17-year-old who died last August off of the coast of Playa de Sa Como near Manacor. Two friends dove down with spear guns. Only one of them rose back to the surface and notified the authorities. Pau most likely died from a ‘shallow-water blackout’, which happens when returning to the surface- the brain starves of oxygen, and the freediver faints. Unfortunately, shallow-water blackout isn’t something casual snorkelers and free divers know much about.

Shallow-Water Blackout

As a former SCUBA diving instructor, I've spelt out the A's and B's of SWB’s to many a student.

Many freedivers hyperventilate before submerging. This breathing technique depletes CO2 in your blood, reducing the urge to breathe during the dive. This is beneficial if you’re chasing grouper or impressing a date, but that perceived extra dive time comes with a safety risk. The problem is that, whilst it does reduce the urge to breathe, it doesn’t actually increase the amount of oxygen in your blood, which, of course, is what your brain actually needs. Whilst the brain is telling you that CO2 levels are safe and that you don’t need to breathe, it suddenly suffers from hypoxia and you pass out.

Ambient pressure is also a factor. As we descend, the increased pressure increases the partial pressure of oxygen (at 10 metres depth, the effect of a gas on the body is double that on the surface). Even though we might be merrily enjoying our dive, we deplete the oxygen levels in our lungs from atmospheric 21% down to just 10%. But at double the ambient pressure, the effect of that oxygen is also doubled, so our body is able to function as if it is getting 20% oxygen. At increased pressure, we can function just fine on very little oxygen. But when we ascend, the ambient pressure eases rapidly. Suddenly our brain has far too little oxygen. Hence why we’re more likely to black out in the shallows.

Wary of the risks, I launch myself off the ocean floor- sand spirals puff up around my feet like smoke on a Space-X rocket. Only I’m not heading out of the Earth’s atmosphere; I’m returning to it. I fin slowly back up to the surface- ten metres, eight metres, five metres. Then, just three metres beneath the waves I start to feel dizzy. Am I suffering from hypoxia? Or has the air in my middle ear expanded, putting pressure on my semi-circular canals, destabilising my balance? I’m never sure, and gratefully, unlike poor Pau, I’ve never had to find out.

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