Is freediving a sport or a hobby? Does the science enlighten or frighten? Where does freediving end and insanity begin? Freediving has as many detractors as promoters and strong arguments on both sides of the breath-holding argument. But to paraphrase Buddha Nietzsche: That which does not kill us, may help us attain enlightenment.
A few years ago my mother-in-law (MiL) gave me a book, “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.” The author, James Nestor, writes about the history, physiology, people, and the sport of freediving in often revealing and occasionally troubling prose. He also discusses the various affects of breath holding on the mind and body, including the dream state the body enters due to increased CO2 buildup—one competitor even saw the future, but he had to black out to do it (Nestor 2014, 129).
What is Freediving?
The International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) provides an answer on their website:
Have you ever dreamed of passively exploring the underwater world free from equipment? Freediving is the most natural and serene way to explore the depths of the oceans with minimal impact.
Although a lovely, granola-eating explanation, it doesn’t exactly provide much insight and the rest of their description is equally devoid of specifics—sometimes the experts have the hardest time explaining simple concepts. It’s times like these we turn to the definitive source of all knowledge, Wikipedia:
Freediving, free-diving, skin diving, or free diving is a form of underwater diving that relies on divers’ ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than on the use of a breathing apparatus such as scuba gear.
Now that’s an explanation we can easily understand.
There are different types of freediving, the most notables being competitive, fishing, photography, snorkeling, and various fully and semi-submerged professional and amateur water sports, like Marco Polo. Technically, anyone who ever held their breath underwater is a freediver.
What is Competitive Freediving?
This time we’ll turn to the second best definitive source of knowledge, Robipedia:
Competitive freediving, also known as apnea, is a sport wherein competitors hold their breath to: remain underwater for increasing amounts of time; swim greater distances; and dive to greater depths. Interestingly, the word apnea is from the Greek apnoea, which roughly translated means something to the affect of ‘you are going to die if you don’t breathe.’
According to the AIDA certified course we took, there are eight freediving disciplines of which six are considered competitive. The six competitive freediving disciplines are (descriptions of each discipline added by the author):
Static Apnea involves floating face down in a pool while concerned people stare; occasionally a lifeguard, thinking you’ve drowned, will jump in to save you.
Dynamic Apnea is swimming underwater parallel to the surface for increasingly greater distances until your lips turn blue and you lose the feeling in your extremities.
Constant Weight is swimming down into the depths and back up using the same amount of weight—normally your body weight and gear—hoping not to be eaten by a shark.
In Free Immersion, you pull yourself down a line and back up what is hopefully the same line, reaching the surface just in time for your friends to watch you pass out.
Variable Weight involves descending into the cold, dark ocean with weight or a weighted sled and ascending without weight by swimming, pulling a line, or being abducted by aliens.
No Limits freediving is descending even deeper into the cold, dark ocean on a weighted sled, stopping for tea with the creatures from the Abyss (1989), and ascending using an air filled lift bag after skipping out on the check.
Are There Freediving Classes?
In April 2016 we planned a trip to Thailand for no other reason than to eat Thai food and lay on the beach. Originally, we considered taking a SCUBA diving class, but neither one of us really wanted another hobby, especially one with the potential to curtail our consumption of the world’s best liquors when we traveled—I seem to remember reading about abstinence for 24 hours before or after a dive. Then I remembered the book, Deep.
TripAdvisor listed several freediving schools in Phuket. After much convincing and the promise of a relaxing vacation, we signed up for a three day AIDA 2 certification course scheduled to begin the day after our arrival. It fit perfectly with our plans. We were going to be in Thailand for eight days, meaning three days in a pool and the ocean, one day of recovery, and four days of laying on the beach. It was time to learn to free dive.
Our performance wasn’t stellar. After a couple days I could hold my breath for three minutes and dive to nine meters—incidentally, my wife could hold her breath for 3:15 because, per our instructor, she knew how to relax. Neither of us attained enlightenment or anything even close. The best we can say about the experience is we didn’t get sick from the disgusting ocean water around where we trained in Phuket; but it was a start.
Can Freediving Lead To Enlightenment?
A couple years back a friend let me borrow his SCUBA gear while we were vacationing together in the Caribbean. I donned the tank, weight belt, regulator, and my own goggles—his had snot in them—and swam down to about 25 feet. The SCUBA part was just okay; swimming around looking for sunken Spanish Galleons and bright colored fish was a little like underwater sightseeing. On the other hand, although I’ve never been good at meditating, the stillness and silence of being a few meters underwater was spiritually moving.
There was something about the totally immersive nature of the ocean that seemed to relax me. Although my longest breath hold during the freediving class was only three minutes, during the class I was able to remain on the ocean floor thirty feet below the waves for quite some time. It was peacefully quiet down there in the dreary grayness of dead coral and sand; like meditating on the ocean floor. It was the same sense of calm I remembered from the SCUBA session.
Armed with a taste of meditative underwater deprivation and a book about freediving, I was further convinced learning to hold my breath longer would facilitate a better meditative experience without blacking out. A few years ago one of my favorite sisters-in-law (SiL) attended a retreat where she sat, lay, and walked for ten days without speaking; she never mentioned needing to black out to become her currently enlightened self. I also don’t recall Buddha ever talking about asphyxiating himself in order to become the supreme enlightened one.
Enlightenment must be obtainable without the accompanying brain damage from oxygen deprivation.
Where Does Freediving Practice Fit In?
In his book, Nestor (2014) discussed the often overlooked side effects of static breath-hold training, “It gives you a bone-deep high.” He described the high as falling somewhere between an endorphin rush and “the dirty, intoxicated feeling you get from drinking bad alcohol in a hurry” (158). Finally, something I could relate to: alcohol consumption!
My distinct lack of meditative prowess definitely limited my ability to see things like the Buddha, but Nestor provided an answer: more alcohol! No, no, that doesn’t seem right. Oh, yes, now I’ve got it. Let’s try this again.
…Nestor provided an answer: longer breath holds! That seems better, less fun, but better.
I considered whether pharmaceuticals might enhance the meditative experience. After all, people from Africa to the America’s once prayed, ruminated, and meditated their way to enlightenment using a variety of entheogens; Shaman’s in almost every culture used everything from mushrooms to cannibis to attain enlightenment. Unfortunately, I didn’t need to go that far; I just needed to hold my breath until the intoxicated feeling set in, preceded by hypoxia, violent diaphragmatic convulsions, and with a little luck, hallucinations.
Thankfully, there is an app for everything, including holding your breath; the one I chose is called STAmina. “Let’s get the breath holding thing started,” I thought, “I have enlightenment to attain.”
During the first session I hit the 2:30 mark, then 3:06, 3:32, and 3:51. For days I held my breath at every opportunity: while running, walking, and writing; while my wife and I talked—which was easier than I thought; even during intercourse, until I was told to stop—stop the breath holding, not the intercourse. But no matter what I did enlightenment remained an elusive ghost. Perhaps I just needed to hit the four minute mark?
Then, five days ago I lay on the floor practicing with the App’s CO2 tables to help my body get used to the carbon dioxide buildup. I followed the 22 minute protocol: breathe for 1:20, hold for 2:05; breathe for 1:10, hold for 2:05; until eventually I was down to breathing for 10, holding for 2:05. It felt pretty good. How far could I go, now?
I took a two minute breathe up, then hold…and hold…and hold…
I checked the timer on my iPhone. Four minutes, 13 seconds. Not bad, but was there a meditative state? Well, the time did seem to fly by—since we live in India, which is in the future to the majority of our readers, I am intimately familiar with the effects of relative time. But it didn’t feel like enlightenment; it didn’t even feel like Nestor’s, “bone-deep high.” Lets go again.
I repeated the two minute breathe up, took a deep breath, exhaled, one more deep breath, and…hold.
I heard the ceiling fan whizzing above me, felt the air blowing down upon my skin, and smelled the trash burning in the village next door, but no enlightenment. Eventually the diaphragmatic convulsions started, subtle at first, then building. Still no enlightenment. I let go of the space, allowing my thoughts to ebb and flow; focused, then relaxed. Still no enlightenment. The convulsions became stronger, violent. Where is my enlightenment? I glanced at the timer ticking away on the iPhone; it read 3:45. I closed my eyes and drifted back into the moment.
More time passed, but I’m not sure how much. The next time I looked the iPhone timer read four minutes, 16 seconds. It felt like only a few seconds passed; time was definitely bending with each violent convulsion. I told myself, “It’s only CO2. To be rid of the feeling I need only exhale.” Eventually the convulsions became too violent and I exhaled; four minutes, 26 seconds, a new personal record. But no enlightenment.
I’m not ready to black out.
Freediving is only as dangerous as you make it. The body shunts blood away from non-vital organs and the blood vessels in the brain dilate in order to compensate for the decreased oxygen flow, thus ensuring the brain has sufficient O2. Eventually, lack of O2 will result in a black out. Thankfully, a person can stay submerged in a blacked-out state for about two minutes, at the end of which the body will wake itself and breathe one last time (Nestor 2014, 45); none of which is an issue for someone practicing on a yoga mat.
Recreational freediving is a quiet, serene, meditative experience. Being underwater under your own ability, surrounded by silence and warmth is a bit like being in the womb—not that my memory goes back that far; if it did I’d need a much better therapist. Even now, despite my lackluster performance, I think it’s helped with my meditation; however, enlightenment is an entirely different animal.
In his struggle to open Buddhism to all Japanese, the Japanese Monk Kobu Daishi asked, “Why can’t we all have the same chance at enlightenment?” After much training and breath-holding, I can say with absolute certainty that I have not attained enlightenment. I am no closer to understanding the Buddha now than I was before I started toying with apnea. I have no desire to black out or sit in silence for ten days. Kobu Daishi was right, everyone has a shot; but how far are you willing to go?
For now, I suppose I’ll stick to pirating and just fake enlightenment like everyone else.
Nestor, James. 24 June 2014. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
If you enjoyed this article or you’re just feeling left out, don’t hold your breath, subscribe to be notified as new material becomes available.
Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Sometimes drawings come from my head, other times they’re from something I saw somewhere. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.