#8 | DEEP DIVE | PRE-DIVE RELAXATION & BREATHING
The DEEP DIVE series explores in depth
a freediving technique, scientific element or lifestyle factor.
IN THIS EPISODE:
Joining us today: Alessia Zecchini, Stefan Randig, Alexey Molchanov, William Trubridge, Walid Boudhiaf, Rami Bladlav, Thibault Guignes, Mirela Kardasevic, Miguel Lozano and Tom Peled.
There is 40 min + of uncut audio available for PATREON supporters.
OK, let’s talk about pre-dive relaxation and breathing.
In the two or three minutes before our departure into the deep blue we are usually engaged in some kind of pre-dive breathing and relaxation process, traditionally this part of the dive is called the breathe-up, though we might also call it the relaxation phase, the preparation phase or the ventilation phase. Whatever you want to call it, for these few minutes before the dive our attention is generally focused on achieving the maximum degree of relaxation possible, and attending to our breathing process in order to positively affect our physiological and mental states.
In this episode/article we’re going to explore our options for the breathe-up. We’ll have a look at some key principles, some techniques and some tools for optimal dive preparation, and we’ll hear directly from many of the world’s top freedivers about how they spend those last few minutes before their dives.
Let me start by saying that there are many ways to skin a cat, and what works for one person may not be the best strategy for the other person. There may also be some controversy around some of these topics, especially around the use of hyperventilation, or even just deliberately manipulating the breathing pattern in any way before a dive, and although I’ll do my best to be as objective as possible, I can’t help but also offer you some advice based on my own experiences and feelings on this topic, and you can make of it what you will. Never forget you are free!
I think we can all agree that the main goal of the pre-dive phase is to maximise physical relaxation in the body, calm in the nervous system and peace in the mind of the diver. So that can be seen as a three-component goal, we can also look at it as body, breath and mind.
Now, all three of those components are intricately linked, and each one affects the other, but each one, body, nervous system or breath, and mind, can be influenced individually with certain techniques, and we’ll consider a few of those techniques and how to learn them, and then you’ll have a toolbox of practices that you can dig into to build your own perfect pre-dive routine.
Before we start talking about techniques, let’s consider our outer environment for a second. We are, of course, assuming here that the diver is reasonably warm and comfortable, well hydrated and not suffering from the heat. Let’s also say the surface conditions are calm, not too choppy, not too swelly, in other words, we have perfect diving conditions for today’s discussion.
Now, I will be describing things here from the perspective of a diver in a deep dive or competition setting but that doesn’t make this information exclusive to sport divers, it’s just that in this setting we see the need for the most refined preparation and the lessons learned here can be applied to any other breath-hold diving modality. When teaching a freediving course I often apologetically explain to the students that because of the way the education systems were developed, we will be learning competition style diving, but the advantage of this way of learning is that the techniques, skills and safety protocols that you learn here can be carried over to any other freediving activity.
And we’re mainly going to focusing on the pre-dive paste before deep dives. We won’t cover in detail any deliberate hyperventilation that is very often used before stoics, except briefly a bit later one, but that might require an episode of its own.
So now we’re all snug and warm on the surface and we’ve arrived at the place where we are going to dive.
Now the first component we wanted to work on was bodily relaxation so I think we should start by giving some consideration to the body position that we relax in.
Maximising physical relaxation in the body, requires that we choose a position in which we can remain completely motionless.
Now, assuming that we have nice surface conditions, not too choppy or wavy, then we can chose one of several relaxation positions in which to do our breathe-up.
We can lie face down in the water, breathing through a snorkel. This can be done with a mask, o r with just a nose clip. We can lie floating on our backs, breathing freely on the surface, or we can sit in a more upright position, like sitting on a chair.
Which position you choose, really depends on personal preference. I see all levels of divers, choosing based on their personal preferences and the discipline you will dive may also affect which relaxation position your choose. I think it’s also important to be able to dive well from any position and without much rest, especially if you are an instructor, coach or safety diver, but let’s say we’re preparing here for a max effort dive in perfect conditions.
The first person we’re going to hear from today is Miguel Lozano, who gives us a lot of information especially about the physical, body position and relaxation position that suits him.
MIGUEL LOZANO (Freedive Cafe #67)
“So normally before I enter into the water I try to be completely relaxed, if it’s sunny I put something like a cap on my face, just to try to relax my eyes and focus on the dive itself, and my breathing, but not focus too much on the breathing, just to be calm and to listen to what is happening around but with not too much attention.
(In the water) … then I put my nose clip on and I start to breathe through my snorkel. In the last decade I’ve been breathing head up, head down, face up, with the snorkel, without and lately I’ve been doing the breathe up with the snorkel. I like the position because I don’t need to change my position, just go down because I’m already facing down. But the main reason is because I can put my ears under water, so this helps me to listen to the sounds of the countdown, more like a dreamy sound, not a clear sound, it’s more like blurry, let’s say.”
The face down breathing through the snorkel position is in some ways the easiest position, as there’s little danger here of water getting in the mouth or distracting water getting in the eyes, but this does require breathing though a snorkel. For me personally, I don’t find this a very relaxing option for deeps dives at all, mainly because my breathing feels restricted and my ability to take a really full inhale is compromised by the snorkel. But it works well for many people even if it is uncommon to see in competitions.
I also see some people do the relaxation phase through the snorkel and then bring their heads out of the water at the last moment for the final breath, but it will really depend on what ritual you have developed for yourself and what cues stimulate the physiological responses of relaxation.
This is absolutely crucial, to develop an automatic response to certain cues. And a positive response.
For me, a snorkel in the mouth triggers a negative response, it produces a little anxiety, but for others, it may be the key that unlocks the door to relaxation. Putting your snorkel in the mouth might instantly reduce your heart rate if that’s how you’ve trained yourself. It’s all about training your body to respond positively to certain stimuli.
Resting on the back can indeed be very comfortable but this option works best in very calm conditions, otherwise there is a high risk of water splashing into the airways. What you tend to see then is that the diver is using some kind of flotation aid, commonly a swimming noodle under the neck, sometimes also under the knees or ankles as well.
The trouble for me here is that my legs are very sinky, even in a wetsuit, so I usually need not only a noodle under my neck but also a noodle at my legs, to feel really supported, and just having to deal with two noodles while preparing for a dive adds a slight dimension of stress that I prefer not to have. But again, it all depends on what you’re used to and what makes you feel right.
My personal chosen relaxation position for most dives is the upright position, sitting straddling a flotation device. This is becoming more and more common to see. Often two noodles will be taped together to make a little seat to support the weight of the diver. I actually use a kind of a child’s safety vest thing from Decathlon which is perfect for the purpose. For me the main benefits here are that it feels the same in both calm and choppy conditions, the face stays out and away from the water, which means it’s very easy to breath through the nose in this position and I give a lot of importance to nose breathing for relaxation.
The main disadvantage of the upright position as I see it is that the chest is submerged deeper in the water so that when it comes time to take the final full breath, there is already some restriction from pressure on the chest, so I feel I can’t reach my absolute fullest potential when filling my lungs compared to when I lie on the back, but I compensate for that by working a lot on the technique of my full breath inhalation.
Here’s a little bit from Alexey Molchanov about his breathe-up and position..
ALEXEY MOLCHANOV (Freedive Cafe #35)
“So before the dive, first of all it’s breathing, passive, tidal, rhythmic breathing, it even helps with the meditative state of mind. Being positive, like even in the circumstances when the dive is challenging…staying positive, in the right mindset, being excited about the dive. It’s making sure there is no movement, or nothing that increases the tension in the body posture, minimising all the efforts, making sure to be relaxed, even though I’m preparing in the vertical position (compared to a lot of other competitors), and in this position it’s a bit less relaxation but the reason I’m doing that is because I want consistency over a variety of conditions and in the wavy conditions it’s hard to prepare well, laying flat on the back, so that’s my position.”
Whatever position it is that you choose for your breathe-up, the most important thing is that you will be able to spend 2-3 minutes there completely motionless, or making only the most minor adjustments. And yes, 2-3 minutes is enough. Relaxation is a skill, and more time does not necessarily mean more relaxation. If you can’t reach a good state of relaxation after 3 minutes, you probably won’t be any more relaxed after 10 minutes.
OK, let’s hear from worlds deepest no fins diver, William Trubridge about his dive preparation.
WILLIAM TRUBRIDGE (Freedive Cafe #69 + #98)
“The last two minutes before the dive begins are crucial to the success of the dive itself. In fact, I often say that the dive is determined in those final few minutes before you start. And then everything that happens after is just kind of proof of whether you have done the right kind of preparation. And often in the past we have referred to it as the ‘breathe-up’, and still some people do, it’s the easiest name for that phase even though we’ve discovered that breathing is not the most important feature of the preparation for a dive, it’s relaxation.
If you think of it as a breathe-up and the fact that you need to do something different in your breathing, then you’re putting the emphasis on the wrong place. In fact the breathing should just be kind of natural, shallow, diaphragmatic, slow, it doesn’t need to be anything special, or deep or with any kind of count for the in and out, breathing as you would when you are falling asleep, or reading a book is ideal for the preparation. So if you can just kind of take your mind out of the equation with breathing and focus on your relaxation then that’s the better approach, because breathing is not going to increase your oxygen levels in your body, whereas relaxation can actually increase your relaxation levels by reducing the amount of oxygen that your body consumes so that store more oxygen in the venous blood, the blood that’s coming away from your tissues, organs and systems. If those tissues, organs and systems have use less oxygen because you’re more relaxed then you are storing more oxygen in the venous blood which remember is two thirds of our blood in the body and that means that you start with more oxygen molecules to fund your efforts to go deeper.”
OK, so Will straight away makes it clear that his priority is on relaxation and the benefits of focusing on relaxation for oxygen availability and he gives little attention to breathing techniques, he says that breathing is not the most important factor, which often comes as a surprise to many newcomers to the sport, but you’ll hear that it’s a common theme here in what the athletes have to say. I agree that relaxation is the most important aspect of pre-dive preparation but I think that possibly, by completely discounting certain breathing techniques as far as they aid in that relaxation, we may risk throwing the baby out with the bath water, but more on that later.
Let’s hear now from world record holder Mirela Kardasevic.
MIRELA KARDASVEVIC (Freedive Cafe #112)
“During the last two minutes of my breathe-up, before the official top, I focus on relaxed breathing, natural breath, without too much effort because that way I can focus more on my calm state and entering the zone. I don’t really practice hyperventilation so the only time I take a deep breath is before my last full breath so I can release the tension and then I take the deep breath and I start packing. But before that it’s just natural breathing so I can lower down my heart rate as much as possible.”
Yes, so again, Mirela is not focusing on any special breathing technique, but she wishes to lower the heart rate before a dive. Reducing the heart rate, starting with the lowest baseline heart rate, is the main reason for staying completely motionless. Of course, reducing resting heart rate is a whole other topic, perhaps for another episode.
The less we are moving and the less tension we hold in our bodies, then the oxygen demand of the skeletal muscles and other parts of the body will be lower and the heart rate should be lower, too.
Many people are familiar with the idea that the brain is responsible for about 20% of total body oxygen consumption, despite only making up 2% of its mass, but few know that the liver also uses nearly 20%, resting muscle uses about 20% and the heart uses about 10-12%.
What this means is that when it comes to things we can control to reduce oxygen consumption at rest, during our pre-dive phase, the heart rate and muscle use are probably the two main things.
And the best start you can get to reducing your heart rate is to stop moving, to stop the demand from the skeletal muscles for more oxygen and blood.
Now, keeping the body still and motionless is a good start but that does not mean it is also fully relaxed. I’m sure most of you understand this. You can be lying perfectly still, but with your heart racing away. Think about camping out in a wild area at night and suddenly you hear something moving outside, close to the tent. You are suddenly hyper-alert, your heart rate starts increasing but you won’t be moving one nanometer lest you risk giving yourself away!
So I’d like to offer now some tools to aid in developing the skill of deep bodily relaxation.
Did you know that you can practice deep relaxation out of the water and then apply the skills you learn during the breath-up before you dive?
There was a time when I was around 25 years old when I did not realise the slightest thing about deep relaxation yet. At that time I was suffering from severe panic attacks, I was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and my body was always tense and buzzing. I couldn’t get any rest, I was completely exhausted. It was a nightmare, I couldn’t sit still for 60 seconds and I couldn’t find any way out, except for alcohol, until one day I tried something called yoga nidra.
So yoga nidra is a kind of guided meditation and deep relaxation experience (on a deeper level it’s a kind of re-programming of the personality, as all true yoga is). It’s where you lie down in a comfortable position and follow the voice of the instructor as they guide you through a sequence of awareness instructions, placing attention on different body parts, visualising certain sensations, and working with the breath and the senses.
I was absolutely blown away by this first yoga nidra session. After weeks of suffering, all I had done was listen to this 30 minute audio track, lying down on my bed, and for the first time in weeks I felt like the emergency alarm had been switched off, and I was able to get on with my life.
What I would later learn was that I had been in a constant state of sympathetic nervous system over-activation and through this guided experience I had down-regulated that, using my own thoughts and attention. The sympathetic nervous system is the so called ‘fight or flight’ part of our nervous syetm, which when stimulated increases the heart rate and blood pressure and sirups digestion. Now I had turned up the volume on my para-sympathetic nervous system, the relaxation part of my nervous system, which reduced heart rate and blood pressure, and I felt great. I suddenly understood what it meant to be deeply relaxed, at least I was well on my way.
It was then, for the first time in my life, that I realised that deep and profound relaxation is a learnable skill, that anyone can learn, and now, I believe coaching people on these practices in my workshops is one of the most valuable things I do as a freediving instructor.
Many, maybe even most of us in modern, affluent, developed society are stuck with over-activated sympathetic nervous systems and its leads to al manner of suffering and medical conditions, but as freediver it means that you will not be able to maximise your pre-dive relaxation.
Yoga nidra and other practices similar to it, such as autogenic training and body scanning, have been termed non-sleep deep rest by Andrew Huberman, or N.S.D.R. and it’s going to become a bit of a trendy buzz word quite soon, I think. These practices are a great way to train the skill of relaxation in such a way that it can be carried over to the water, let alone the other positive benefits it can have in your life.
Autogenic training is a similar practice, though originally with a different purpose. Like yoga nidra it is a kind of self-hypnotic technique and has been described as repetitions of a set of visualisations that induce a state of relaxation and is based on passive concentration of bodily perceptions (e.g., heaviness and warmth of arms, legs), which are facilitated by self-suggestions.The technique is used to alleviate many stress-induced psychosomatic disorders.
You can get an app that takes you through autogenic training and you can now also find guided audios simply called NSDR on Youtube and I’ll put a bunch of links to get you started in the shownotes to this episode.
The main point here is that we can train our bodies to be better integrated with our minds and become relaxed when we activate a certain kind of mindset, for example, the mindset of the deep dive.
I’ve taught hundreds of students to freedive and the deep relaxation component is there in every freediving course. So when we start on day one, we do a dry training session to practice our first breath-holds and the first thing I teach is an abbreviated form of this non-sleep-deep rest technique.
The basic idea is that we start by scanning around the body, starting with the heavier parts of the body like the legs and arms, checking that they are completely soft, heavy and released, moving on to the shoulders and neck, then the small muscles in the face, jaw and mouth. Then we turn to the breath, allowing the belly to expand naturally on the inhale, relaxing the face muscles again on the exhale. After a few rounds breathing like this, creating a meditative positive feedback loop of relaxation, we might focus on the sights and sounds around us, the smells in the air or the sensations on the skin, all while ignoring any intrusive verbal or visual thoughts.
This 2 to 3 minute process is usually enough to bring the student to a very relaxed state and with practice, you will be able to run though this process without the guiding voice of an instructor, and even faster. Eventually, you might just find yourself naturally relaxed as you prepare for your dive. You will have kind of ‘programmed’ yourself to be relaxed in this situation.
If you go to the shownotes for this episode, or to the Freedive & Thrive Youtube channel, you will find a 3 minute guided pre-dive relaxation audio track, so you can see and experience what I mean.
So now that we’ve looked at how to work with the body though active relaxation, we now come to the level of the breath and what we can do with it to aid our relaxation.
So how to work with the breath? First it’s important to understand the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. As I mentioned before, we have the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. There is also a third branch, the enteric nervous system which is more involved with digestive function, so we’ll pass that by for now.
Activation of the SNS leads to a state of overall elevated activity and attention: this is the famous “fight or flight” response in which blood pressure and heart rate increase, among other effects.
The PNS on the other hand promotes the “rest and digest” processes and most importantly the heart rate and blood pressure lower.
So generally speaking, our goal before a dive would be to have a stronger PNS activation. But, and this is a very important but, you don’t want to have such a strongly active PNS that you are on the verge of sleep. There needs to be certain level of readiness, and attentiveness, especially before a big athletic performance.
Now when you practice one of the deep relaxation techniques I mentioned above, you are already promoting a parasympathetic state, but what we haven’t spoken about yet is how the breath and what we do with the breath is perhaps the most powerful method we have of influencing the nervous system.
Let’s hear from Walid Boudhiaf, who explains how he slightly manipulates the breath before his dive, as many of us actually do.
WALID BOUDHIAF (Freedive Cafe #29)
“So the kind of breathe-up I usually do is as follows… I usually start with calm, nasal breathing for a minute, maybe, it allows me to relax everything, and then I switch to the mouth when I put my nose clip on. Then I do a very gentle, shallow kind of breathing, preferably using the diaphragm but then I don’t put too much attention into it. I just do it as naturally as possible. And so I would do a gentle breath in, again very shallow, and then the exhale might be a bit longer, through pursed lips, usually I do this for three minutes and then by the end I perform what some might call a ‘flush’ breath’. I prefer to do them, it’s just a habit I have. I prefer to call them ‘deep sighs’. It’s again very, very gentle so to avoid any kind of hyperventilation. The inhale is slightly bigger, very gentle and almost passive and then I release in order to exhale. And I do this for just a couple of breaths.”
Now many of the guests you will hear today will say that they try to avoid any special breathing technique before a dive, and especially any big breaths, and if you’ve taken a level one freediving course then you will know that the reason for this is that they are trying to avoid hyperventilation.
But this time we could hear from Walid, giving a little more information about exactly how he breathes before a dive, and while we can’t say he was using any hyperventilation technique, he certainly is manipulating his breath in some way, and there’s good reason for that.
Hyperventilation or over-breathing, simply put, creates an imbalance in the body’s levels of O2 and CO2, which increases the alkalinity of the blood. When the blood becomes more alkaline, oxygen binds more strongly to haemoglobin and less oxygen is available for use by the body tissues. In other words, hyperventilation may lower the potential amount of oxygen available to you on a dive, which of course, isn’t a good thing.
Now, this is where some controversy enters the picture, and it stems from the fact that certain people in the community and in some of the education materials warn against any kind of breath manipulation before a dive, even giving the impression that any kind of breathing whatsoever that is not normal tidal breathing, is hyperventilation, and therefore dangerous.
Well, it is simply not as straightforward as this. This is a very simplistic and superficial view. And while I do agree that this is the safest way to explain and educate absolute beginner level freedivers about the sport, there are also layers of nuance available for the understanding of intelligent, sensible and more experienced freedivers who wish to think for themselves.
The breath is the single most powerful tool we have in regulating our nervous system. Through correct use of the breath, we can increase our relaxation and lower our heart rate all while maintaining perfectly safe levels of O2 and CO2 in the blood.
First of all, hyperventilation simply means that you are moving a larger overall volume of air over a certain time frame, into and out of your lungs, compared to normal tidal breathing.
At the lower end of average we breath around 12 times per minute, moving about 0.5 litres of air with each breath, meaning that we move around 6 litres of air in a minute.
In the highest levels of pranayama, or yogic breath-work, that I have practiced, the breath rate is reduced to once per minute, inhaling for 30 seconds and exhaling for 30 seconds. In this kind of breathing the heart remains low to normal, and a small amount of air hunger is experienced towards the end of each inhalation and exhalation, which is partly the goal of the exercise, so we can assume that there is not only a drastically manipulated breathing rate, but also a slight HYPOventilation or under breathing.
What is important to know is that when you exhale, your heart rate slows down, and when you inhale, your heart rate increases. So what I practice, and what many top freedivers also practice in the moments before their final inhalation is to gently prolong the length of the exhalation for a few breaths.
When you prolong your exhalation, parasympathetic activity is significantly elevated. And on top of that, HRV is increased. HRV or heart rate variability, is the fluctuation of the length of time between heart beats. More fluctuation, or higher HRV is associated with a better ability to tolerate stress, better emotional regulation, better decision making and better attention. All of which. I’m sure you’ll agree, would be welcomed before any deep dive.
Even reducing the rate of the breath, but keeping the inhale and exhalation the same length (in one study we find the example of a 5.5 seconds inhale and a 5.5 seconds exhale) achieves the same increase in HRV, but I strongly suggest against trying to count your breaths or match the inhale and exhale lengths because this will interrupt the natural and as Stefan Randig puts it, instinctive breath.
Tom Peled has some interesting and sensible views on pre-dive breathing. Let’s hear what he has to say..
TOM PELED (Freedive Cafe #120)
“Breathing is the main and most effective tool we have for both physiological and mental preparation for diving. Starting from the physiological aspect I think we all need to have a constant starting point to a dive, physiologically this means starting always with the same levels of oxygen saturation and CO2 levels.
Now both those things fluctuate through the day. I’m not constantly at the same level of oxygen saturation and I’m definitely not constantly at the same level of CO2. Personally, for example, when I’m completely restful on a couch or on a bed or when I fall asleep, I do know that oxygen levels drop down to 95% and even lower than that and CO2 levels go up. So this would not be the right way for me to start a dive, therefore I should somehow manipulate the breathing to have slightly higher levels of oxygen, coming back to about 98-99% and slightly lower levels of CO2.
Everything has a normal range in physiology. It’s not that every time I lower my CO2 levels a little bit it means that I’m hyperventilating. It just means I’m somewhere, some place else within that range I can work with. So knowing that, playing with that and exploring that is very, very advisable for everybody.
First thing is having a constant pace. If I’m breathing at a constant rhythmic pace it means I’m regulating my heart rate, that means I’m regulating mostly the HRV, the heart rate variability, and when this is sitting as close as possible to my normal baseline it means I’m able to engage the frontal cortex or involve cognition which means I can be both relaxed and focused and aware at the same time.
So I’m having a constant pace of deep diaphragmatic breathing. Our mind is connected to the diaphragm though the phrenic nerve, the nerve sends the signal in one direction to the diaphragm of how and when to contract but it can also send the signal back to the brain of what is my state, or tell it that with a certain breathing pattern I’m in a restful or relaxed situation. So deep belly breathing that doesn’t involved intercostal or higher chest breathing will signal the brain that I’m in a relaxed state and I can maintain relaxation.
And the last aspect is the ratio between inhale and exhale. And the idea here is to have a longer exhale in comparison to the inhale, so I would always like to have the exhalation about 2, 3 or 4 seconds longer, it doesn’t t matter which breathing pattern I use, it doesn’t have to be a constant ratio. But it should always be longer because a longer exhale signals the brain to be more relaxed, minimises sympathetic activation, emphasises parasympathetic activation and allows the whole body to be softer, relaxed, and induces a calmer mental state.”
So let me tell you what I do before a dive, and take this as a recommendation if you want, but by all means find your own way. Let me stress that if you attempt to overly manipulate your breathing before a dive without really understanding the physiology of what you are doing, then it can certainly be dangerous. Please don’t be doing any Wim Hof style breathing as your pre-dive ventilation. Except in special circumstances, any pre-dive breathing technique for deep dives should be done to aid relaxation, not with the aim to reduce the urge to breath during the dive.
So when I do my own dives I often ask for a two minute 2 minute countdown, like in competition. Even though I’m not that involved in competitions, I like the time cues because they allow me to set up a sequence and ritual of actions that reduces the variability of my condition before a dive. It also stops me from dilly-dallying and faffing around and ruminating on things before I dive. When the time is up, I have to go. I just go.
Also, in the case when I don’t use a countdown, I’ll simply say to myself, right 10 more breaths, or 6 more breaths, and I’ll take those breaths and whatever happens I just go. As important as relaxation is, the dive starts after your head goes in the water.
But let’s say I’m using a countdown. The first minute I breathe though the nose using natural tidal breathing, letting the breath do its own thing though I may gently place my awareness in my belly and feel the expansion there.
Every so often, and I’m sure you’ve felt this too, I might feel the desire to take an extra large inhalation with a deep, long and passive sigh out. Sighing is a natural and important component of autonomic breathing patterns. Sighs help maintain proper blood gas levels and contribute to the homeostatic regulation of psychological states. So just as much as we shouldn’t actively take big, deep breaths for no reason during a breathe-up, I also recommend you don’t interrupt any natural inclination to take a deeper breath or to sigh.
So this first minute of breathing is so quiet that someone sitting right beside me wouldn’t hear it, if fact, I cant even hear it. I’m aiming for a base level of calmness, but also alertness, so I personally keep my eyes open, and scan the landscape in the distance and the waterscape around me. I defocus my attention and simply enjoy the expansiveness of the scene. My two favourite places to do this are at the Blue Hole in Dahab and in Tulamben in Bali looking towards Mt Agung!
Studies suggests that the brain may be more active with the eyes closed than when they are open.
When I hear the signal for 1 minute, I casually put on my nose clip. Then for about the next 2 – 4 breaths, I inhale naturally for 1 – 2 seconds, allowing my belly to expand, my diaphragm moves down I feel a little stretch there at the bottom of the ribs which releases tensions, then I will do a long exhale, like a sigh, through slightly pursed lips, very slowly, without forcing. It’s very similar to the way Walid described it. I go completely by what feels good, I don’t count the length of the breath, but the exhale will be about roughly 6 – 8 seconds.
During that long exhale, I can actually feel my heart rate physically slow down, especially towards the pause at the end of the exhalation, and I like to lock my attention into that feeling. When I hear the 20 second mark I do one last, active, purge exhalation to empty the lungs and then I start the full breath.
Now that’s what I do, I’m not saying it’s what you should do, but you should know that we have this powerful tool in the breath, available to use and use wisely.
Here is a wonderful, ASMR like audio clip of Alessia describing her relaxation and how she does longer exhales, but mainly we can enjoy this just for the pure joy in her voice!
ALESSIA ZECCHINI (Freedive Cafe #18)
“In the two minutes before my dive I just lie on my back, on the surface and I try to relax all my body, all my muscles, my mind, and I breathe. I breath slowly, calm, relaxed, without doing big breaths, but just slow, with my mouth, I try to do not a big inhalation but a long exhalation. And I try to feel the water that is helping me, that is moving me, that is relaxing me so much, and the sun, on my face, on my wetsuit that is warming me up. Those minutes are so important to find the east focus for my deep dive.”
Before we move on to the next section, I would like to hear from at least one top level static athlete describing his pre-dive preparation. Of course, unlike in most deep diving, big static performances are almost always aided by hyperventilation, with the aim to reduce the urge to breathe of delay the contractions.
Here is Rami Bladlav.
RAMI BLADLAV (Freedive Cafe #133)
“My breathe-up for a big static apnea hold is very slow and effortless hyperventilation of 8-10 seconds exhale with 10-12 seconds inhale. It’s less than 6 breaths per minute. For other types of training I breathe differently but this this hyperventilation is only when I breathe up for a max attempt. I do it because I want to keep a very low heart rate before the breath-hold. Usually, by doing lung packing right before the start my heart rate can increase a lot and if I don’t have a low BPM (beats per minute) before lung packing will increase more.
Now you think, wouldn’t it be better to just under breath or not think about breathing before the breath-hold? I don’t know, but by controlled hyperventilation and breathing I feel I can push my contractions a bit further without getting dizzy or feeling high. I don’t like to feel dizzy or have tingling in my fingers before the start of a breath-hold. With those signs I know that hypoxia will knock only door much faster than usual, so I prevent this by breathing slow and keeping my heart rate low.”
So that was just to illustrate that there are circumstances, especially in static apnea, where even more deliberate and conscious and structured breathing patterns may be used.
For more on Rami’s methods of training for static apnea check out his Freedive Cafe interview, episode #133.
OK, let’s move on to the final component of today’s discussion, the mind and what we can do with it.
First let’s hear from another one of our guests, Here is Stefan Randig, sharing with us his two minutes before his dives.
STEFAN RANDIG (Freedive Cafe #10)
“The last two minutes before a dive, if it is in a competition setting, I would be sitting upright on my noodle, for buoyancy, and basically I’m trying to get as calm and relaxed as possible. I would be breathing in a very natural and instinctive way, so there’s not really any specific breath pattern that I’m trying to follow. And with so little time left before a dive, for me personally , it’s not so much about physical preparation any more, apart from getting really relaxed, but more about being in the right mindset.
So for me that would be becoming more of a passive observer. What I would not do at this point is any kind of visualisation, but really let go of the dive and basically trust in all of the training I’ve done, all of the dives, all of the repetitions and trust that once I start the performance I will act instinctively and basically function completely on autopilot.
Most of the preparation I would do breathing through my nose as I find this very calming, and then with 1 and a half minutes left I would put on a nose clip. With a nose clip on I would then take these last breathing cycles, breathing through the mouth and then with 20 – 30 seconds left I would I would start to fill my lungs with the last inhale.”
So another typical response from the divers is the desire to have an inactive mind, not using so much of a particular thought pattern or visualisation method but rather just wanting to be free from instructive and busy thoughts.
Thibault Guignes has something similar to say on the matter.
THIBAULT GUIGNES (Freedive Cafe #17 + #79)
“Usually in the two minuted before my dive I try to be in the moment. For this, I just ficus on my breathing. Not on breathing in a particular way but just being aware of my breathing, feeling each inhalation and each exhalation, just being aware of what I’m doing. This way my mind is clear, there is no space for stress or thinking of other things, I’m just in the moment”
So this desire to have an inactive mind, unbothered by thoughts is every freediver’s desire, but easier said than done!
So if you’ve been diving for a little while, and regardless of your depth, I’m sure you’ve experienced those times when you’re just not feeling it before a dive. Maybe you do the dive and you don’t enjoy it, or it’s not a success because you were thinking too much during the dive. You might say you were psyching yourself out or giving yourself bad juju, or whatever term you want to use.
Now I think the most common reason for these negative mental experiences is usually to do with something that is out of place down-stream, which brings us back to the body; making sure the body is physically as relaxed as possible, and to the breath; making sure the breath is managed in such a way as to prevent agitation. But assuming that both the body and the breath have been taken care of as well as possible, we all sometimes succumb to intrusive and sticky thoughts that colour or veil the present moment in a negative way.
This is where training the mind comes in. The main way to train the mind is through some kind of meditative practice, specifically a concentrative meditative practice and there are several methods of doing this. The outcome of this practice should be that you are better able to spot intrusive and agitating thoughts as they appear and can quickly let them go to dissipate naturally, rather than identifying with them and allowing them to become the main focus of attention. It’s a little bit like the difference between knowing that a movie is playing somewhere in the room but not being interested in it, and being sat in front of the movie completely engrossed in what is happening on the screen.
Of course, meditation, mind training and the multifarious traditions that describe these practices are another huge topic that is well beyond the scope of this podcast, but I can offer you some straightforward and simple instructions to get you started.
A couple of points here. It’s only through 20 years of practicing meditation is some form or another, sometimes diligently for long periods of time and sometimes very irregularly, that I’ve been able to appreciate that yes, meditation has much potential to improve our lives, on both deep and superficial levels, but without consistent practice, it will not yield results.
Almost every person who I’ve met through the years who claims to practice meditation, usually talks more about practising meditation than actually practising, and the extent of their realisation and ability to control the mind is reflected in this fact.
If you wish to be better at keeping the mind open, spacious and less infected with intrusive thoughts, you will have to commit to practicing regularly. If you practice regularly and diligently with the correct instruction, you will develop this ability and it will carry into your pre-dive preparation and also your actual dives.
I have practiced many forms of concentrative meditation through the years but the one that I have settled on as the best suited to strengthening present moment awareness is a technique that I learned from Shinzen Young. Unlike most forms of concentrative meditation stemming from the Buddhist traditions which use the breath as the main focus of concentration, Young, originally American and eventually ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in Japan, teaches a kind of meditation that focuses on the subtle sensations of relaxation in the body.
This is the origin of the pre-dive technique I teach my level one students, where I suggest inhaling into the diaphragm and when exhaling, releasing the small muscles in the face. It’s the basis for the meditation technique I teach to my workshop attendees and I can attest to its effectiveness. I’m describing it in a bit of rushed way at the moment, but if you have the chance to take the freediving lifestyle workshop, I teach it there. I can teach it online if you get in touch with me, and I plan to release a guided audio meditation in the not too distant future.
To practise this meditation take a comfortable meditative position. the first part of the practice is to feel the sensation of the breathing. On the inhalation, all the diaphragm to passive expand, and come back to this feeling of expanding belly with every inhalation. ON the exhalation, release the small muscles of the face, the eyes, the cheeks, the jaw and the tongue, allow the face to ‘slide’ down. Return to this pleasant feeling of relation with every exhalation. That is the basis of your meditation.
The only element we have to add now is how to work with the thinking mind. This is very challenging. Again, patience and diligence are the key. To work with the thinking mind we need to recognise that three basic kinds of thoughts that can arise into our awareness:
- Talking, and words, internal monologues and dialogues, etc, which we can simply call ‘talking’.
- Images and visual information, fantasies and visual imaginations, which we can call ‘imaging’.
- And a low level hum of thought processing that doesn’t quite surface as talking or imaging but which we feel is there, which we can call ‘subtle processing’.
Proceed with the main practice of inhaling into the diaphragm and relaxing the face muscles with the exhalation. When you become aware that talking has begun, simply say ‘talking’ to yourself, and return to the sensations of the breathing. When you become aware that images or subtle processing is happening simply say ‘imaging’ or ‘subtle’. Sometimes there may be a mix of thoughts, so you might say ‘talking, imaging’. In other words, you are to label the thoughts as they appear.
This deceptively simple practice is devilishly challenging in the beginning, but as you will find out for yourself, can lead to great breakthroughs in how you manage and relate to your thinking mind. With time and practice, you will find more and more space opening up between thoughts and this skill even carries into your day and positively affects your experience of just living your life. I highly recommend getting a hold of the audiobook version of Shinzen Young’s book The Science of Enlightenment. It also contains several guided meditations which teach you the method I’ve described above.
So that’s all, I hope you find that some of the information in this episode/article has been helpful or inspiring!