The day was long, so I broke it into 2 parts.
In the morning two experienced guys went spearfishing with local instructor Wolfgang. And for the rest of us a training on “static”, i.e., static breath-hold was scheduled. It is clear that the breath-hold abilities are of first-rate importance for freedivers: the longer you can hold your breath, the longer you can stay under water and the greater depth you can reach. Besides, the “static” in itself is one of the competitive disciplines in freediving.
That morning it all started with Julia’s lecture on how to properly hold your breath. Here, again, psychology is no less important than physiology. Nobody knows exactly how the human body works physiologically. But for a freediver it is important to understand that any muscle tension consumes oxygen. And we know even less about how our brain works. However, it is known that the brain is one of the most active consumers of oxygen in the body, especially when we are thinking hard. Therefore, during the “static” it is necessary to achieve two things: complete relaxation of all muscles of the body and the absence of thoughts. But due to the way the brain works, it’s unlikely that someone can stop thinking at will. Therefore, freedivers learn to purify their minds and seek the state of detachment, and yoga and meditation help in that.
After the lecture we did some breathing exercises. I’ve already talked about The Complete Breath. Furthermore, there is a muscle in the human body called the diaphragm. It is located under the lungs and controls the expansion and contraction of the lower section of the lungs. Because the average person breathes mostly with the chest, that is, the upper parts of the lungs, this muscle is not usually well developed. With the help of special breathing exercises originating from yoga, divers develop this muscle which allows them to breathe more efficiently and store more air in the lungs. After the breathing exercises we suited up and went to the pool. Static breath-hold is done in the pool rather than on land, because only immersing the body in the water switches on the diver’s reflexes. Each “static” session usually consists of three or four approaches with some recovery time between them. As a result, despite the fact that the water in the pool is quite warm – about 30 degrees – an athlete stays stationary for a long time in the water; hence he might freeze without a wetsuit.
Julia separated us into groups according to our experience – our beginner team had come together again. We took our positions at the edge of the pool and started to relax and breathe deeply. After a few minutes Julia instructed us to take the last six deep breaths, then put on the masks, and, once we were ready, take the last breath and lower our faces into the water. Holding our breath, we were completely relaxed in the water, face down, eyes closed, and lightly holding the edge of the pool with our hands. I relaxed all the muscles of my body as much as I could, yet still needed to distract my brain. Even though my eyes were closed, the sunlight was reaching through my eyelids to my retinas. The light patterns formed into images, and at one moment I clearly saw an image of a sandy bottom through the water column. I imagined I was suspended at 10 meters depth, holding the rope and looking at the bottom 15 meters below me. And that helped my mind to drift away.
The physiology of breath-holding is quite interesting. The air is a mixture of about a dozen gases of which three are the most important to us: nitrogen (N2) 78%, oxygen (O2) 20%, and carbon dioxide (CO2) 0.03%. When we breathe, these gases are dissolved in the blood. In fact, saturating the blood with these gases is what the function of the lungs is. Nitrogen is not involved in the process of respiration; it is excreted from the body in the same amount as it enters. As for oxygen and carbon dioxide, magical transformation happens to them. We all know from school that a person inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide. That is a highly simplified view, but true. The role of the lungs is to saturate the blood with oxygen, which then is spread throughout the body in red blood cells (erythrocytes). This stored oxygen in the blood is the most important source of energy for all the internal organs and all body tissues. Oxygen is absorbed from the blood, and “slag” (CO2) is returned instead. Blood saturated with carbon dioxide then returns to the lungs. CO2 gets released into the air volume of the lungs through the alveoli and exhaled. This process is repeated with every breath and every beat of the heart. When a person holds his breath, it leads to the oxygen content in the blood falling, because there is no breathing. But the level of CO2 is still increasing, because the heart continues to pump the blood, and tissues of the body continue to suck out the remaining oxygen from the blood and return carbon dioxide. As a result, the level of O2 in the blood falls, and the level of CO2 grows.
The brain, being the chief regulator of everything in our body, reacts differently to each of these indicators. If the oxygen level in the blood drops below a certain level, a person loses consciousness. That is why there are oxygen masks in the cabins of planes, of which passengers are told during the pre-flight briefings. Aircraft’s depressurisation may lead to falling oxygen level in the air, and the crew really doesn’t want a lot of unconscious bodies on board. Yet in one movie this method was used to neutralise the terrorists: the captain lowered the oxygen content in the passenger’s cabin, and all the passengers, including the terrorists, lost consciousness. The brain reacts even more interestingly to increasing CO2 content in the blood: when the level of CO2 rises to a certain level, the brain gives the command to inhale.
Probably everyone at least once tried to hold his breath. If you did, it most likely was like this: at first you felt quite comfortable and there was no urge to breathe, then the discomfort increased, then more and more, and finally the urge to breathe became so strong that it could not be ignored any longer and you took a breath. That was the reaction to the saturation of the blood with carbon dioxide. Correct pre-breath-holding ventilation, relaxation, and the “detached” state of mind help to soften the uncomfortable sensations.
That is how it was for me on that day. The first phase of breath-holding brought the sensation of nirvana. My body was relaxed, my brain was clear of any thoughts, and I did not need to breathe at all. Then a feeling of discomfort and a creeping urge to breathe came. After that I no longer could “detach” my mind. At that point, Julia asked me to open my eyes and focus on something at the bottom to think about the negative sensations as little as possible. The first serious signal – involuntary contraction of the diaphragm. That means it’s time to breathe. Strictly speaking, one can go further, suppressing the urge to breathe by willpower. Experienced athletes do that, but I don’t think everyone should. Freediving should be filled with pleasant experiences, joy and serenity, rather than discomfort. Moreover, an athlete with a strong will can suppress the urge to breathe for too long, the oxygen level can drop below a critical point, and he can lose consciousness. That happens often in competitions where athletes go all out. And that is why you mustn’t ever do a static breath-holding in the water alone without the supervision of experienced instructors: if something goes wrong, there will be no one to save you.
When I raised my head from the water and took a breath, I saw Julia standing over me with a watch in her hand. She asked whether I did this before and what was my best result. I tried to remember and said that I did not remember exactly but I thought I would be able to do two and a half minutes, although not on the first attempt and not every time. Her answer stunned me: “You already did it.” My first result was 2:40. I did not even know what to think about it. Then we began to breathe again and prepare for the second attempt. The diving reflexes of the body do not kick in at once; hence the second breath-hold is usually longer than the first. The third is yet longer, but after that the breath-holding times do not usually increase. That’s why three to four attempts are made. The second time I did three minutes. On the third – a little less than three – something went wrong for me. I realised that I could not fully relax my neck muscles and, besides, began freezing slightly. Julia said that I had done enough for that day, but if I wanted, I could make another attempt. I tried and did 3:20. When I was told about that, I was only able to say: “I think I won’t be able to sleep tonight again!” I surprised myself, oh yes. I did not know that I could achieve such results, moreover, to do it easily and without any tension. And it wasn’t just me – all the beginners surprised themselves. Everyone did more than 2:30. And Olga, a girl who never dived before, did 3:00.
I’ve always wondered how it happens that all the sport records are eventually beaten. Is indeed human potential increasing with every Olympic Games? But now I am even more interested how we, ordinary people with virtually no technique and no training, have shown such results. And I can see only one plausible answer: we humans have no idea what we are capable of.
The fourth day to be continued…
The text and the photos 2010 Sergey Stadnik