Learn­ing to breathe

The fine art of free div­ing

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words and Pho­tos James McCormack

Adren­a­line junkies needn’t ap­ply; learn the art of free­d­iv­ing and you can ex­pect to find a peace­ful, al­most med­i­ta­tive state far be­low the sur­face of the wa­ter.

REEDIVING HAS AL­WAYS seemed to me one of those sports that be­long in the same cat­e­gory as wing­suit­ing; death or in­jury ap­pears a mat­ter of when, not if. Scuba div­ing to a hun­dred me­tres is loco enough, but do­ing it sans tank, with only a lung­ful of air, well that, my friends, seems cer­ti­fi­ably in­sane.

Which is why I felt so weird that on my first free­d­iv­ing ses­sion. There I was, far be­low the sur­face, deeper than I’d ever dived, and I was feel­ing not pumped with adren­a­line but in­stead so com­fort­able I felt I was in a womb. A baby-blue womb of sloshy am­ni­otic fluid, all soft and pro­tec­tive where I could just float and re­lax. I’d stopped descend­ing at this stage. Hit­ting the end of the 12m rope that had been set up, I was in no hurry to as­cend, so I’d de­cided to sit and wait un­til I began run­ning out of breath. The cu­ri­ous thing was that this didn’t hap­pen; the urge to breathe, it seemed, had sim­ply dis­ap­peared. I sat there look­ing up at the soft light beam­ing down from above, ex­am­in­ing the spi­dery shapes of my fel­low free­d­ivers, way, way up there on the sur­face. And I med­i­tated.

Not con­sciously chant­ing mantras or de­lib­er­ately try­ing to clear my mind, but there’s no bet­ter way to de­scribe the peace and still­ness I felt other than to say it was med­i­ta­tive.

That first day of free­d­iv­ing took place in the trop­i­cal blue waters on a small is­land off the coast of In­done­sia’s Lom­bok called Gili Trawan­gan, and I was there with in­struc­tor Mike Board, along with three other pupils learn­ing the ba­sics of the sport. Just a cou­ple of days ear­lier I’d been snorkelling around the spec­tac­u­lar co­ral of nearby Gili Air, and swim­ming with sea tur­tles and schools of trop­i­cal fish that sparkled like glit­ter­ing con­fetti. Most of my out­ings were to­wards the is­land’s north­ern end, away from other snorkel­ers. But two days ear­lier I shared the waters with a spear fish­er­man, and I watched him work­ing the co­ral wall. Damned if he couldn’t stay down there. And damned if I didn’t want to, too. It is, of course, the very rea­son so many snorkel­ers progress to scuba div­ing.

But there’s some­thing about scuba div­ing that’s never quite cap­tured my in­ter­est. Tanks, ni­trox, reg­u­la­tors, gauges – it just seems so equip­ment heavy. In­stead, I like the sim­ple pu­rity of just fill­ing your lungs and go­ing for it. So I’ve al­ways stuck with snorkelling. Free­d­iv­ing seemed just as pure, only it took it to another level. That I liked, too. It took skill. Phys­i­cal skill. It even had, un­like scuba, a com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment. Go longer. Deeper. Harder. Oooh baby.

And yes, I ad­mit it, there’s another fac­tor; I am a tightarse.

Hav­ing never liked the idea of con­tin­u­ally hir­ing scuba equip­ment, the free in free­d­iv­ing held dou­ble ap­peal: min­i­mal equip­ment, and—once I’d pur­chased my snorkel, fins and mask—div­ing with­out the fur­ther out­lay of even one brass ra­zoo. But it had never oc­curred to me there might be an ac­tual school out there teach­ing you how to do it, let alone in­struct­ing you how to not die in the process. But watch­ing the deeplunged spear fish­er­man jogged my mem­ory of a free­d­iv­ing school on the is­land next door run by Board—a Bri­tisher who holds four na­tional free­d­iv­ing records as well as an unof­fi­cial de­scent to 103 me­tres. That evening, I sought him out.


I won’t bore you with all the de­tails re­gard­ing each dive I did, nor prat­tle on about the kalei­do­scopic ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing brightly coloured fish and ex­trav­a­gant co­ral in the warm trop­i­cal waters, but I will im­part what I learnt from at­tend­ing Board’s free­d­iv­ing course.

As well as learn­ing how not to die, I also learnt more about sci­ence and hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy in two days here than in a year of high school sci­ence. The Res­pi­ra­tory Sys­tem! Cap­il­lar­i­sa­tion! Cere­bral vaso­con­stric­tion! Eus­tachian Tubes! Boyle’s Law! The Law of Par­tial Pres­sures! All that use­less stuff that back then bored me to tears—you know, facts—now seemed riv­et­ing.

I was fas­ci­nated to learn, for ex­am­ple, that it’s not ac­tu­ally lack of oxy­gen that makes you want to breathe; it’s CO2 buildup. To learn that

hu­mans, like dol­phins and seals, can use the mam­malian dive reflex to stay un­der­wa­ter longer. To learn that hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing is not only dan­ger­ous, it makes your abil­ity to stay down far shorter. But these I’ll get to later.

Im­por­tantly, I also learnt that free­d­iv­ing is, or at least can be if the cor­rect pro­ce­dures are fol­lowed, sur­pris­ingly safe. True, Board’s de­meanour – calm, con­sid­ered, con­fi­dent – could con­vince you any­thing is safe. The crisply ac­cented English­man oozed such con­fi­dence that within min­utes of meet­ing him I’d de­cided he was a man I could trust with my life. Only later did I dis­cover that Board’s life path to be­com­ing a free­d­ive in­struc­tor in­cluded six years in the Royal Marines, fol­lowed by years as a diplo­matic se­cu­rity con­sul­tant in Is­rael, Pales­tine, Bagh­dad and on the Ge­or­gian-Chechen border.

Un­like scuba, there are no is­sues with ni­tro­gen and de­com­pres­sion sick­ness. And in or­gan­ised free­d­iv­ing com­pe­ti­tions there has been just one fa­tal­ity. That’s not to say oth­ers don’t die. By some reck­on­ings, free­d­iv­ing ranks only af­ter base-jump­ing in terms of deaths, al­though those fig­ures in­clude spearfish­ing. Black­outs are the most com­mon cause.

But Board in­sists black­outs them­selves are not dan­ger­ous. “They’re no more harm­ful to you than faint­ing. Es­sen­tially you pass out; you con­tinue breath­ing and when enough oxy­gen re­turns into your sys­tem, you wake up. There is no dam­age at all. You still have min­utes un­til the flow of oxy­gen stops. And then you have sev­eral min­utes again un­til any brain dam­age oc­curs.”

At least, this is the case on dry land. In the wa­ter, though, it is dif­fer­ent. When you pass out, your brain recog­nises there is wa­ter by the air­ways, so you con­tinue to not breathe. With­out oxy­gen, the brain be­gins to suf­fo­cate, to the point it can no longer send the sig­nal to not breathe. Your air­ways open up. Now you be­gin tak­ing in wa­ter.

You are fucked.

Un­less you are with some­one.

Which you are, right? Be­cause this is the golden law of free­d­iv­ing. With­out some­one to res­cue you, a black­out will kill you. Guar­an­teed. With some­one, you will be safe. Vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed. The rea­son is that nearly all black­outs are at or near the sur­face, where your part­ner can eas­ily res­cue you.

Pres­sure is the vil­lain and saviour here, a two-edged sword that makes free­d­iv­ing both dan­ger­ous and safe. Well, at least safer. The dan­ger­ous bit is easy to un­der­stand; ev­ery 10m of un­der­wa­ter de­scent in­creases the pres­sure by one at­mos­phere. Your ears, at least, can be equalised to deal with the in­creas­ing pres­sure. The key is to equalise of­ten and, cru­cially, early. “Don’t be stingy with it,” says Board. “Don’t wait un­til you feel the pres­sure build; be­gin equal­is­ing even in the first few me­tres un­der­wa­ter.”

Un­like scuba, there are no is­sues with ni­tro­gen and de­com­pres­sion sick­ness. And in or­gan­ised free­d­iv­ing com­pe­ti­tions there has never been a fa­tal­ity.

What you can­not equalise, how­ever, are your lungs. And what Boyle’s Law – which to re­fresh your mem­ory is sim­ply that gas vol­ume de­creases pro­por­tion­ally with in­creas­ing pres­sure – means for your lungs is this: at 10m, they are al­ready half their usual size. At 30, a quar­ter. A hun­dred me­tres be­low the sur­face – and the very best free­d­ivers can get deeper still – and the av­er­age male’s six-litre lungs have shrunk to the size of a pair of or­anges. Lung squeeze is a very real dan­ger for free­d­ivers.

But shrunken lungs al­low you to, for want of a bet­ter way of putting it, squeeze the oxy­gen out of them. It’s as they ex­pand that it be­comes harder. And the great­est ex­pan­sion, and hence most black­outs, oc­curs not at depth but where the great­est pres­sure dif­fer­en­tial lies – the up­per 10m, and in par­tic­u­lar, at the sur­face. Pre­cisely where you can be res­cued.

“I’ve only ever seen black­outs be­low the sur­face in com­pe­ti­tions,” Board as­sures us. “And even in com­pe­ti­tions, the deep­est safety divers only go to 50m.”

“But what hap­pens if you get nar­co­sis at 80m, and you’re off with the fairies?” asks one of the other stu­dents, Paul, a pi­lot now based in Hong Kong.

“Well,” replies Board, with­out a trace of emo­tion, “that can be a prob­lem.”


Per­haps it is strange that com­pet­i­tive breath­ing has never taken off as a sport. Breath­ing is, af­ter all, our most fun­da­men­tal ac­tiv­ity. Not run­ning. Or eat­ing. Or even pro­cre­at­ing. With­out breath, we each have just min­utes to live. But while we have all man­ner of sports test­ing phys­i­cal skills with vary­ing lev­els of con­trivance, very few sports ac­tu­ally test our abil­ity to take in a lung­ful of air.

Breath­ing, Board ex­plains to us—as we lis­ten in our open air class­room to the wail of the muezzin, the jin­gle of pass­ing horse carts, the crack of thunder and the pat­ter­ing of rain—works like this: we in­hale oxy­gen, which moves down our bronchial tubes, into the alve­oli in the lungs.

The mem­brane in the alve­oli is ex­tremely thin, just a few cells thick. The oxy­gen moves from high pres­sure to low pres­sure, through the cap­il­lar­ies and in the process it bonds to the haemoglobin in the blood. This then trav­els through­out the body. The vein net­work then re­turns the blood, now with CO2, back to the heart and then the lungs.

It’s this CO2 – which is a meta­bolic toxin – that trig­gers the urge to breathe. “Your body doesn’t mind be­ing low on oxy­gen, fun­nily enough,” says Board. “It’s the CO2 it wants to get rid of.” The medulla—where the brain­stem con­nects with the spinal cord, and which con­trols res­pi­ra­tory and car­diac func­tions, along with sneez­ing, vom­it­ing and other fun in­vol­un­tary bod­ily func­tions—de­tects changes in the pH. It sends a mes­sage for you to ex­hale, to re­lease the in­creased amounts of CO2.

Given the im­por­tance of the aware­ness of breath, it’s per­haps un­sur­pris­ing that our breath­ing lessons com­mence not in the class­room or in the wa­ter, but in­stead in the yoga hall. I had never con­sid­ered a con­nec­tion be­tween the two but, of course, both are heav­ily fo­cussed on breath­ing, and the re­la­tion­ship is sym­bi­otic enough that the school is ac­tu­ally 50:50 free­d­ive and yoga.

For us though, Board has adapted a se­ries of yoga ma­noeu­vres fo­cussed on stretch­ing the tho­racic area. He starts with Sufi grind­ing. Done by Board, it’s a kind of grace­ful swirling move­ment of the torso while seated; done by me it evolves into a mo­tion not un­like a mad­man rock­ing back­wards and for­wards in an asy­lum. From there we move to spinal flexes, ro­ta­tions, side bends and neck rolls. In sum, these are de­signed to warm up the spine and the mus­cles used for breath­ing.

The breath­ing ex­er­cises them­selves fol­low. Again they are es­sen­tially yo­gic tech­niques. We com­mence with di­aphrag­matic breath­ing, which is breath­ing with­out mov­ing your chest but in­stead let­ting your ab­domen move in and out. Free­d­ivers or yoga prac­ti­tion­ers aren’t the

Re­lax­ation is key to stay­ing un­der­wa­ter longer. Your brain is a big con­sumer of oxy­gen; if you’re pan­ick­ing, it uses more.

only ones to ben­e­fit from di­aphrag­matic breath­ing prac­tice, how­ever. We all can. With our seden­tary, largely seated life­styles, many of us breathe shal­lowly, through the chest. But stud­ies have shown di­aphrag­matic breath­ing, at the very least, re­duces stress. Oth­ers be­lieve it can help with spe­cific dis­or­ders, such as high blood pres­sure, in­som­nia and asthma.

Then we reach the heart of the mat­ter; the art of fill­ing your lungs. It’s not the breath­ing tech­nique usu­ally as­sumed; hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion is not only dan­ger­ous, Board ex­plains, it doesn’t work any­way. To demon­strate, he gets us to hy­per­ven­ti­late. We take 10 quick, heavy deep breaths. “How do you feel?” he asks. “Dizzy? Tin­gling?” We all nod. “Ex­actly!” Hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing low­ers your CO2 lev­els, which in­creases cere­bral vaso­con­stric­tion and in turn de­creases the blood flow to the brain. And it stops the mam­malian dive reflex, which I’ll get to shortly, from kick­ing in.

No, the art of lung fill­ing is not hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion but two-sec­tion breath­ing.

You first fill slowly with the di­aphragm, and only once it’s full do you then ex­pand your chest, again slowly, to in­hale as much air as pos­si­ble. Learn­ing the art of two-sec­tion breath­ing is im­por­tant for free­d­iv­ing as they are the last breaths you take be­fore div­ing. You take no more than four of these – it’s dan­ger­ous other­wise – and on the fi­nal one you fill your lungs and go for it.

“Your fi­nal breath should feel like you want to ex­plode,” Board in­structs us. “And don’t worry about get­ting too full; once you’re un­der­wa­ter, the pres­sure will stop you from feel­ing too stretched out.”

This tech­nique of two-sec­tion breath­ing, and in­deed yo­gic breath­ing in gen­eral, does more than sim­ply fill the lungs; it trig­gers a deep state of re­lax­ation. And re­lax­ation is key to stay­ing un­der­wa­ter longer. Your brain is a big con­sumer of oxy­gen; if you’re pan­ick­ing, it uses more.

But to in­duce re­lax­ation, breath­ing is just one of two key tech­niques; for the other, we need to board Board’s out­rig­ger, sail past a gaudy flotilla of lo­cal fish­ing boats moored off the beach, and get in the wa­ter. The mam­malian dive reflex is what al­lows aquatic mam­mals like seals, dol­phins, ot­ters and whales to stay un­der­wa­ter for long pe­ri­ods of time. But hu­mans pos­sess the mech­a­nism too, al­beit in a weaker form. The ef­fect works best in cold wa­ter, and also the younger the per­son, which is why you some­times hear sto­ries of tod­dlers spend­ing an in­or­di­nate time un­der freez­ing wa­ter and still sur­viv­ing.

When your face is sub­merged and you stop breath­ing—which is why the ef­fect works for free­d­ivers but not scuba divers—wa­ter sen­si­tive re­cep­tors around the nasal cav­ity and other parts of the face re­lay this in­for­ma­tion to the brain, and a num­ber of phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­ac­tions take place. Your heart slows, thanks to process known as brady­car­dia, thus us­ing less oxy­gen. Top free­d­ivers, says Board, can slow their hearts

down 17 to 20 beats a minute. Your spleen con­tracts as well, re­leas­ing more red blood cells into the body.

Mean­while, in a process known as vaso­con­stric­tion, the cap­il­lar­ies in your ex­trem­i­ties – hands and feet, then arms and legs – get smaller. This leaves more blood for other es­sen­tial or­gans, such as your heart, brain and lungs. And speak­ing of lungs, there is one last key el­e­ment of the mam­malian dive reflex, one that saves them from be­ing crushed by deep dives. As your lungs re­duce in vol­ume be­cause of in­creas­ing pres­sure, blood shifts to them and swells their blood ves­sels. This in­hibits ex­ces­sive com­pres­sion, aka lung squeeze, and pre­vents baro­trauma in­juries that might other­wise oc­cur at depth.

There is a side ef­fect of all this: you feel re­ally, re­ally com­fort­able un­der­wa­ter. Bliss­ful even. “It might take a few dives to in­duce this,” says Board. “It might even take 30 or 40 min­utes. But af­ter a while you’ll no­tice you’re feel­ing in­cred­i­bly re­laxed; that’s the mam­malian dive reflex kick­ing in.”


Which brings me back the most sur­pris­ing el­e­ment of all of this. Re­lax­ing un­der the wa­ter. Sit­ting still. Not mov­ing. Watch­ing the danc­ing sun­light play down in columns. Con­tem­plat­ing the seam­less gra­da­tion from baby blue to dark­en­ing depths. Em­brac­ing the thick warmth of the wa­ter. But, most un­ex­pect­edly, let­ting the mam­malian dive reflex em­brace me. Down here, deeper than I’ve ever dived, I ex­pected to find adren­a­line; in­stead I dis­cov­ered one of the most com­plete states of re­lax­ation I’ve ever found.

A minute later I would be on the sur­face, hav­ing re­turned not be­cause of a lack of air but be­cause I’d been down so long it would seem pru­dent to do so. I would reach the sur­face so re­laxed the need to draw breath would seem barely ap­par­ent. My lungs would not be heav­ing; one small in­hala­tion and I would be­gin talk­ing im­me­di­ately.

But all this would be later. For now I sat. Sat far be­low. Med­i­tat­ing. And as­tounded that here of all places, I had found a soft blue peace.

How to: free div­ing 70

It’s easy to laugh when you can dive 100m deep on a sin­gle breath. Free­d­ive Gili co-founder Mike Board.

First things first: be­fore we even jumped in the wa­ter, Board ran us through a se­quence of yo­gain­spired breath­ing and re­lax­ation tech­niques.

Re­lax­ing on the out­rig­ger to the dive site.

In­struc­tor Gary McGrath shares a laugh with stu­dents.

The soft blue peace of free­d­iv­ing.

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