The Meditative Effects of Freediving
Thanks to the foresight of my parents, I was introduced to the ocean at a very young age. I was active in the water at six months old, but my first real memories of freediving begin around six or seven. I can still remember sitting on the ocean bottom staring up at the shadowy outline of my father’s boat, moored 8 meters above me. I would stay down for as long as I could manage, sitting in the sea grass and watching the fish and horseshoe crabs moving around me – paying no attention to this interloper in their world.
The more time I spent underwater, the more I wanted to explore this new environment that was opening before my eyes. I spent much of my youth swimming and diving as much as possible in the local ocean and lakes.
Aside from swimming, my primary other physical activity was distance running. I trained consistently through the years, from my first 10k at age six, right up to a few marathons in my early twenties. A few days after running my last marathon, I tore a bunch of tendons in my right knee - a result of the years of wear and tear from distance training. Suddenly I found myself looking for a new endurance sport.
At the time, I lived and worked relatively close to Walden Pond. I began to go there daily, and converted from a runner to a more serious distance swimmer. The more time I spent in the water doing laps back and forth across the pond, the more I longed to spend some of that time beneath the surface. At first, I would begin laps with a long dynamic apnea swim, slowly extending the range I could cover before surfacing and heading across the lake.
Soon I found myself enjoying the extended dives as much, or more than, the laps on the surface. After picking up a new mask, snorkel and my first pair of long fins from Paul Adler, the original owner of East Coast Divers, my range of depth quickly advanced. At the time, there were very few freedivers in the area, so my initial training was a journey of self-discovery, and learning from my own mistakes. One thing that became immediately clear to me was the instant pleasure I experienced from a dive. Every other activity I undertook was geared more toward a long-term investment of time, effort and training in order to reach some goal or reward far off in the future. Freediving was the first, and only thing, I have ever found that was instantly gratifying.
Put on a mask and fins, take a breath, dip below the surface, and with just a thought, fly any direction into a whole new world. If you have ever dreamed of flying, this is the closest thing I have found to that sensation. The more time I spent down there, the happier I was. During that five-year phase of freediving, I was training between one to six hours a day in the water and my abilities grew at a rate which kept me constantly motivated and excited for more. Within two years I went from two minute breath holds to above seven-and-a-half minute static dives, sixty plus meter depths, and 120 meter no fins dynamic dives. I felt more at home in the water than on land.
In the way that it often does, life found its way of deprioritizing my freediving pursuits in favor of career and the demands of burgeoning relationships. Coincidentally, while I was assessing my priorities, the freediving community was reeling from the death of Audrey Mestre and the scandal surrounding that event. Having recently experienced my own bad blackout during training, Audrey’s death impacted me hard and contributed to me taking a step back from the pursuit of deeper dives and longer breath holds. I reduced my freediving to the occasional casual dive over the summers, never pushing depth or time to the competitive levels I had previously strived for.
Fast forward to February 2016, a series of events occurred which deconstructed everything I had been working for over the previous ten years. My world was burning down around me and I was left with symptoms of stress and anxiety that I didn’t even know were possible to experience. Physical symptoms of vomiting, difficulty breathing and elevated heart rate for seemingly no reason presented themselves daily for almost a year. I was completely disoriented, sleep-deprived and unable to function on any level of clear thought.
One afternoon I was finally able to catch an hour of sleep and had a short dream of swimming out into the ocean. In the distance, there was a humpback whale and all I could feel was an overwhelming desire to dive down and glide through the water eye-to-eye with this magnificent creature. I awoke with that desire powerfully fresh in my mind. I knew I had to get back in the water.
Practically before I was even fully awake, I was dialing the phone to call my friend Nick Fazah, the present co-owner of East Coast Divers. In perhaps one of the luckiest moments of my life, he picked up. After a short explanation of my circumstance, he told me to come by the shop and he would get me back in the water. It turns out he happened to be teaching a freediving class that weekend. I quickly grabbed my old gear and he got me in the pool. Even though I hadn’t eaten or slept through a whole night in weeks, as soon as I was in the water, something in my brain just switched over. All the stress that had been eating me alive for years was momentarily gone. I was back in that simple binary mindset of breathe or don’t breathe. A huge part of myself that had been packed away suddenly came back to life. I would take a breath, dive down, and my mind and body would switch to autopilot. No more conscious thoughts; just dive, relax and ride the breath hold, return to the surface, take in the rush of new clean air and prepare for your next dive. I slept through the whole night for the first time in three weeks that night.
Nick and East Coast Divers run a weekly group freediving training in the pool and I immediately joined up so I could get into the water as much as possible. The more I dove, the clearer my mind became and the symptoms of stress and anxiety faded away over the next three months. At the same time, my skills were slowly returning. My breath holds were increasing and by nature of the sport, I was getting more relaxed. Over the next year, I followed a routine of morning and before-bed workouts with as many evening pool sessions I could get access to. When the pool was unavailable, I would head off into the ocean for long swims out across Hingham bay to clear my head. Breathe, dive, recover and dive again. I needed this to make it to the next day. By summer 2016, I was back to diving 30 meters and hanging for a minute or so comfortably. The drive for depth was awake in me again. I attempted to schedule a season-end dive to 45 meters but was blown out by bad New England weather. Pool and dry training would have to suffice until the next season.
Now a year back into consistent freediving training, my life is far from perfect but I have something to focus on that clears my mind and forces me into a state of calm. If I am out of the water for more than three days I find myself suiting up and heading out to the bay for a swim, even in the ugliest weather.
This was a long winded way of explaining how freediving has helped me mitigate the stress and pressure that life was throwing my direction. The conscious control of breathing rhythm, the slowing of the heart, visualizing the dive, last peak inhalation and finally, riding that breath through a long, fluid relaxing dive leaves little room for the clutter of thoughts that tend to build stress. The side of you that worries about bills, mortgage payments and other people’s drama just shuts off. You naturally default to a state of zen. The future and the past fade into the background, and the part of your mind that simply deals with staying alive in that moment becomes the only voice present in your mind.