I have been a SCUBA diver for over 20 years, and recently I've become completely fascinated by free diving.
Free diving is a challenging underwater sport that places the responsibility for a safe and pleasant experience squarely on the individual who chooses to take it on. It requires a huge amount of mental focus, training and practise. Like rock climbing, free diving is dangerous yet thrilling. When you experience the freedom of weightlessness, it is nothing short of blissful.
In order to comfortably hold your breath at depth for a long period of time, practise taking long deep breaths into your lower abdomen, then breathe out for twice as long. This meditative practice called “Breathing Up” reduces heart rate dramatically. With your heart rate slowed down, you don’t burn oxygen as quickly and you are able to hold your breath longer.
The key is that you don’t just do this before going underwater; you do it each and every time you prepare for a dive. Free divers report relief from depression and anxiety. When swimming in the ocean, you'll be aware of relaxing your breath and it becomes a moving meditation. It’s like doing a liquid yoga class!
Your “breathe up” should last twice as long as your intended dive. For example, if you want to hold your breath and dive for 2 minutes then 'breathe up' for 4 minutes on the surface to maximize your oxygen reserves. When your oxygen “tank” feels full, pack one last deep breath by filling your abdomen, your chest and even your trachea with air. Duck-dive (dive head first under the water while swimming) to conserve your air and after some strong kicks, you'll become neutrally buoyant and can glide into the open blue.
You'll be able to hear your heart beating so loudly that it becomes a constant reminder of how alive you really are. Stay in the moment, so that negative thoughts and petty worries completely fade into the background and you are left with your true essence. You'll feel like a little kid again, sensing all that life has to offer. You'll let the water slip over your skin and it'll remind your body of being embraced by the womb.
The more you dive, the more you'll begin to crave the pressure that the ocean asserts. Temple Grandin, an accomplished author and scientist with diagnosed Autism, has delved into the calming effects of compression. When animals and babies are stressed, swaddling them brings immediate relief. Free diving brings on this feeling of calm, of being held in the arms of Mother Nature.
When SCUBA diving, you can feel like you are an astronaut; suited with equipment to keep you alive. So, why give up the air tank?
Free diving makes me feel primitive, returning to fundamental skills of fellow mammals, such as dolphins and whales. A sense, encouraged by our mammalian dive reflex, that we belong in this blue liquid that covers 2/3 of the planet. Free diving connects you to the environment and helps you want to take better care of the ocean; perhaps more importantly, it connects you to yourself. You can’t pretend your feelings away under 2 or 3 atmospheres of ocean pressure. To survive, you have to be completely honest with yourself.
I found that as I recovered from a fearful health crisis, I wanted a way to face my fear of mortality head on. Choosing to wear weight and swim into the open ocean, is risking life in a controlled way that helped me build bravery. Just like a swinging pendulum, the greater exposure to fear helped my mind accept and conquer smaller worries.
It took a lot of consideration to believe I could free dive after my heart scare. I needed special clearance from a doctor who specializes in diving. I actually woke up from a nightmare the night before my big certification dive. My greatest worry was wearing weight that could prevent me from being buoyant when at depth.
When speeding out to the reef to test if I could dive to 55 feet, my heart was fluttering like a schoolgirl on her first date. I got in the water and started my deep breathing. The water seemed limitless and I wondered if I would lose my sense of direction once I descended into the big blue. The gentle lapping of waves started to lull me into relaxation. I started to feel my breathing slow down which, in turn, worked magic on my heart.
I took one last deep breath, tucked tight and swung my arms down by my side to maximize the depth for the effort. I started to kick and, in my head, I heard my instructor, Jewels, say, “Conserve and kick slowly so you have lots of strength for your return.” I watched as the bottom of the ocean came into view. The coral got bigger and bigger until I arrived like an elevator – with an abrupt stop. I looked around stunned that I'd made it. I'd made it on one breath.
I stared up to the surface of the water 60 feet above and watched the sun beat down through the waves and felt God taking care of me. Nothing in the world could possibly interrupt this ecstasy. As I started the ascent I felt a playful mermaid spirit keep me company as I swayed up and up with a dolphin kick. A few feet from the surface I blew out the last of the oxygen in my lungs to make room for fresh ocean air. As I broke the surface and took a huge deep breath, I felt strong, I felt accomplished, and I felt lucky.
After another round of meditative breathing and descent, I have no words to describe what it felt like to meet up with a 50-year-old sea turtle in 70 feet of water. To ‘hang’ with him in complete silence felt as if I was hanging with a monk on the top of a mountain. It was very funny to turn around to be met by a wide-eyed SCUBA diver. I just smiled and waved.
This moment in time was so joyful that its peaceful effect lasted for days. I was left with a deepening understanding that my body is worth preserving and found a renewed passion to get in better shape so that I could experience more encounters with the spirits of the deep blue.
I am so happy that my family is so enrolled in sharing what I have learned. My energetic sister Lynn, my yogi brother Shambu, my water-loving nephew Taevan and my athletic husband Alan, all took turns learning the techniques I was picking up in class. Nothing could prepare me for the biggest surprise: to have my 75-year-old father, who had come along to just enjoy another pleasant boat ride, spontaneously to climb out with my instructor to experience it for himself.
Rolando taught him how to breathe up and relax. He took one huge breath of air and bravely plunged down, down, down to 50 feet with no formal experience, paused for a moment to look at the reef and then gracefully returned to the boat as if he had been free diving for years. I am sure that the fish below could hear the yells of joyful congratulations from the family and crew. Later that night he would recount, “I don’t know what came over me. I just decided to let go and let God”.
No matter how you choose to face your fear, I encourage you to face it now.
On the other side of fear is freedom and the sense that you have what it takes to pursue your wildest dreams. You never know, you might just become a merman or mermaid and share that magic with the world!