Updated: Mar 3
When I’m in the ocean, I love to dive right down, abandoning my snorkel, sucking in a huge breath, and plunging head first into the cooler depths. What I’ve been doing, I hadn’t realised, is actually a sport called freediving. One Saturday morning at Soneva, I received a text. I’d been added to a Whatsapp group saying that a lesson had been organised for the hosts the following afternoon. Knowing little about freediving, but always keen to jump on any opportunity here, I agreed enthusiastically.
The following day the small group arrived at the dive school. Freediving, we learned, has been a tool used by humans in hunting for thousands of years. Even today, the Japanese ama spend hours diving to collect shellfish from the seabed. The divers are all women, and the menfolk wait aboard boats and keep watch while their wives, sisters and daughters descend. The sport has even become competitive, with the world record set at 214 metres, or a breath hold of nine minutes and four seconds.
First, we are introduced to our instructor Ken, who was a yoga teacher before he started recreational freediving about eleven years ago. He is now the Japanese national record holder for freediving. The transition is actually a logical one, given that freediving is as much about the mind as it is the body. To start with he explains that there are three stages of breath-hold. The first is the comfortable stage, when we feel our body functioning as normal. Then we feel the urge to take a breath. This is the beginning of the second stage, where most of us will usually gasp for air, believing we are out of oxygen. The urge to breathe, Ken explains, is not actually our body telling us that we need to replenish our air supply; this instinct actually arises from the build-up of carbon dioxide, or in other words a desire to exhale. It’s only when our bodies begin to convulse that we reach the third stage, when our oxygen levels are beginning to lower, but even then, there are still several more seconds before they become dangerously low. The whole exercise is a mind game.
After the theory, we begin the first exercises on land as Ken takes us through some deep breathing to optimise lung capacity and enter a state of relaxation. Following a meditative twenty minutes, we head for the water. For the first session, we only stay in the shallows and partner up, taking it in turns to float on our stomachs at the surface, intermittently submerging our faces as we hold our breath while our partner watches for any signs of struggle or unconsciousness. When my turn arrives, Ken talks us through the final three breaths before submersion. I notice that my pulse has quickened so I close my eyes and follow Ken’s instructions, taking my mind into a meditative space. After a final refreshing breath, I gently take my feet off the floor to starfish on the surface, face down in the cool, salty water. My body is soft and laps gently with the waves. The sound of the ocean splashing against my body, and the distant, muffled sounds of Ken’s voice guide me into a peaceful reverie.
I’m not sure how long it is before the feeling in my throat becomes tight and uncomfortable. I have entered the second stage. I signal to my partner using the agreed motion. My mind is no longer calm but instead clamours. I try to still it, aware that I must resist the urge to exhale as I’ll lose some of the precious oxygen my body craves. You don’t need to breathe yet, I tell myself calmly, repeating the mantra until I begin to relax into the second stage, regaining the sense of calm and becoming more still. I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder, and signal with a finger that I’m conscious and alert. Eventually the discomfort threatens to unbalance my peace, and I start to count the seconds. When I reach twenty I can’t resist the urge to surface and I lift my head, taking in a gulp of relieving air. When I open my eyes, the others are already standing around me. Ken grins. ‘One minute and twenty seconds – a brilliant first try.’
When my turn comes around again, I’m determined to improve on my time. I’m enjoying how this sport can be simultaneously mindful and competitive; it’s tapping into two sides of my personality that are often contesting. When I go under again, the first stage is as peaceful as before, and when I hit the second stage, signalling to my partner again, I’m able to relax a little quicker. As the discomfort increases, I start the counting again, but this time, when I feel desperate to take a breath, I try to calmly deny it. Ten more seconds, and then, when those are up, ten more. My body begins to tighten and convulse. It’s a physical sensation, like an aggressive air bubble shooting up from my tummy to my windpipe, my stomach almost retching for air. My mind is howling at me but the convulsing is strangely compelling, the discomfort addictive. I finally give in and re-emerging to woops and cheers. ‘Two minutes’, Ken beams, as I open my eyes to see the group crowded around me again.
A week later we reconvene on the beach for the second session. This time Ken has snorkels, masks, and a big life-ring with a long string and a weight at the end. We’ve graduated to deep diving. Using the same breath-hold techniques, we will use the string to guide us down. Ken ties the rope to the buoyancy ring then releases it into the water ten metres below. In the water, I grip the ring as I compose myself. Once my breathing is slow and deep, I take a final breath, remove my snorkel, equalise my ears and plunge. My eyes open as I reach for the rope and allow it to guide me downwards. With one hand on the cord and the other at my nose, I work my way along as I begin to feel the uncomfortable stage again. This far below the surface it’s harder to ward off panic. I remind myself how composed I was despite the discomfort last week, and continue to guide myself along the rope, deeper, darker and colder.
The sensation is so different to scuba diving. As I feel the water’s pressure against me, my attention is solely on my body. When I finally reach the end of the rope, I feel a huge sense of achievement. I gaze around me, taken in by the freedom of the gliding fish, unencumbered by equipment and worry. Then I remember I have to go back up. I push up with one fin and soar, feeling my body ascending into the air, where my mouth opens and my lungs gasp. I am simultaneously meditative and euphoric - adrenaline pumping. I can’t wait for my next session.