Written by Sarah Russell
Freediving – the act of diving underwater on a single breath – has unlocked more than the mermaid in me. It’s given me something greater, the ability to achieve mindfulness, control my anxiety and reduce stress.
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” – Mindful.org
Most days I analyse and overthink, my mind racing as thoughts chase themselves around in circles – the gremlin doesn’t live under my bed, it’s in my mind and there’s no escape!
That is until I found freediving….
Freediving is in itself a contradiction; seen sometimes as an extreme sport, yet to freedive one must be completely zen, entering into a trance-like state in the water. In that state of calmness, the diver is able to reach depths thought impossible by scientists. Belly breathing, body scanning, repeating mantras, visualisation – the techniques of mindfulness and meditation are used to achieve this.
Breathing like a yogi
Belly breathing (or sub-dominal breathing) is where the breath fills the belly before the chest. Before freediving, this technique is used to help calm the heart rate, relax the nervous system and lower blood pressure. Yogis have known about the calming effects of deep breathing for centuries. By controlling the breath (pranayama), the philosophy is that the life energy (prana) that pulses around the body is also controlled. Helping to maintain health and energy levels, as well as reduce stress.
A mindfulness technique that focuses awareness on the body to distract the mind. It’s super useful to practise during static apnea – the discipline of holding the breath underwater for as long as possible without moving. Breath-holding is the basis to freediving, but without the act of swimming, pulling or kicking to distract you underwater. The doubting voice reminding you to “breathe” can quickly take over, leading to tension in the muscles that quickly uses up oxygen in the body. To body scan, I bring awareness to different parts of the body and focus on relaxation, starting with my fingers or toes and slowly work my way around the body.
What you tell yourself at anyone time can have a significant impact on your state of mind. Challenged with holding my breath, deep underwater, I really came to understand the meaning of this. After watching a training video about whales exhale diving (where they breathe out before going underwater), I found myself repeating “I’m a little whale, I’m a little whale” over and over as I did my free immersion dive. My thinking – whales don’t need air underwater, then neither do I! Of course this isn’t true, but the very act of telling myself “I’m a little whale” gave me something to focus on and a confidence in my ability to reach depth safely.
For one reason or another, there are always one or two dives that don’t go as planned. It might be that the turn is a little clumsy or you forget to equalise a few times and the irregularity throws off your focus. When this happens, the negative voice is quick to step in and the dive is over. At times like this I adopt visualisation techniques to help me forget about the previous dive – it’s done, in the past – focusing instead on the present and my immediate goals. In my mind’s eye I see myself diving underwater, overcoming barriers to achieving it calmly and with ease. I feel confident, capable and I’m ready to try again.
Techniques for life
Before freediving, I tried – without success, to cultivate mindfulness by using some of the techniques above. No matter how hard I tried, I was unable to find the “peace of mind” yogis preached of. I thought that I’d never unlock the secrets to mindfulness.
As it turns out, I was capable of overcoming my mind gremlin all along. I simply needed to find my way of doing it. A way that made sense to me and felt natural. For me it was freediving, for others it’s meditation or yoga – for you, who knows! As one mindful lady writes, the important thing is to…
“Find your yoga. I don’t care if you ever do a down dog in your entire life, just find something that calms your mind, and devote yourself to it. Find something that keeps your mind and body connected, healthy and working together, because in the times when everything else seems disconnected, it will keep you centered and grounded.” – Elephantjournal.com
S.J’s journey into freediving began in Utila, Honduras in 2017. Since then she’s been freediving in Canada, the U.K and Tenerife and is currently in Dahab, Egypt, home to world-class freedivers and the infamous Blue Hole. Follow her freediving adventures on Instagram.