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Freediving is the art of going underwater while holding your breath. Unlike scuba, there is no breathing apparatus to rely on; one has to have the level of physical conditioning required to perform the dive. I picked up freediving with my trainers Chris and Michelle. Chris would talk up the purity of the experience: “No animal breathes compressed air.” He taught his trainees in yoga-influenced breathing methods to get adequately relaxed prior to dives. As part of our training, he and Michelle taught the students of the physiological processes during breath holds, the physics of air in our bodies as we dive to different depths, etc.

Freediving is inherently dangerous on account of the fact that it requires the person to go against their most primal instinct – to breathe. However, adherence to the rules of freediving means that freediving competitions are quite safe. Rules are frequently broken by enthusiasts freediving on their own. The greatest danger comes when one dives alone. Scuba divers, with their compressed air supply, will also tell you to always dive with a buddy.

Unlike Chris, I felt no philosophical appreciation for the art of freediving. To me, freediving was the means of getting closer to sea creatures such as whales than one can while scuba diving. To that end, I was motivated to better myself, to learn to hold my breath for longer and to learn to swim underwater farther than I could otherwise. I was also competitive. The fact that there was only one Indian national record (according to freediving body AIDA), at the time I started, also played a part.

When a human holds his breath, the quantity of oxygen and carbon-dioxide (CO2) in the lungs and blood change. An excess of CO2 causes a contraction of the diaphragm that motivates the person to breathe. This gets more frequent and painful with increasing amounts of CO2. On the other hand, a depletion of oxygen causes the person to faint, eventually causing them to relax their muscles and breathe normally again.

We were doing breath-hold drills one night. Chris, Michelle and another trainee were with me. I had done three warmup breath holds – 1:14 with one contraction, 2:15 with five contractions and 2:45 with ten contractions. I decided to take the next one to thirty contractions. Chris was my safety. I took a last breath, pushed the button on my watch, submerged my face and closed my eyes.

Static breath hold
Static breath hold

My stomach muscles were tense; my legs were floating. I managed to relax my stomach and gluteal muscles adequately to let my legs touch the floor. I then made a conscious effort to relax my arms. Chris guided my floating body away from any walls that I might crash into. I listened to the noises and awaited the contractions. Chris had some music playing underwater on his phone, submerged in an underwater casing. My heartbeat was loud enough for me to hear and the thumping vibrations became very perceptible.

Some sort of reflexes that did not feel like contractions made my throat gulp for air. My mouth was closed and there was no air to be had. I looked at my watch at 2:30 when I observed my first contraction – it was an impressive amount of time for me to stay relaxed without looking at the watch and also unusually late for my contractions. I started counting them. I hit ten at perhaps 3:20. Then fifteen; my target was thirty.

“Breathe, BREATHE!”, I heard Chris and Michelle shout. “I am not yet at my target. What’s the rush?” I thought. Their words rang in my ears and I decided to end the breath hold. I got up and took my recovery breaths. All three of them were staring at me intently.

“Dude, you just had a blackout”, said Chris.

I was standing in the pool, perfectly fine after an aborted but long breath hold and he was telling me that I had a blackout. “I don’t think so.”

They had watched as I stayed underwater while I hit the four-minute mark, clearly prepared to surface, surfaced – and continued to hold my breath. They did nothing for a few seconds. My face then dropped forward and Chris grabbed me to keep it above the water. Chris performed basic safety measures to rescue a blackout victim on the surface. I was back up in seconds, with a lack of awareness of a thirty-second timespan.

Somehow the idea of relaxing during sport just does not work for me. When trying to see how long I can hold my breath, intense focus on the goal is what makes sense to me. My fellow trainees have described the “bliss” and “oneness with the ocean” or whatever new age crap they feel when holding their breath underwater. I never experienced this, for good or for bad.

I had another misadventure while training. I was training in “dynamic” – distance swimming on breath hold. My best at that point was 75 metres. I had on a pair of long and powerful freediving fins. Chris was safetying me. I was feeling very comfortable when I realised that I’d gotten beyond 80 metres and headed for the end – 100m. At the end I asked Chris whether I had done my surface protocol correctly. The surface protocol involves taking off any facial equipment (goggles, nose clip, mask, etc.), showing an OK sign, saying “I’m OK” and keeping one’s mouth and nostrils above the water for 30 seconds. Chris looked at me aghast and described his version of events.

What I must have looked like. Those are my scuba fins, not the ones described here

After 80 metres, my outstretched arms came apart and hit the floor of the pool. This was odd. They rose from the bottom, then hit it again. Seeing this, Chris grabbed me and pulled me out of the water and tried to get me conscious. I did not get conscious but kept kicking with my powerful fins. Chris is a big guy, but I still dragged him all the way to the end of the pool. I was not able to move any farther and he was finally able to focus on waking me up. After a few intense moments, I did come to and asked if I had done my surface protocol right. Chris warned me never to give him a heart attack in that manner again.

No, not really. Another Indian set a bigger record a few weeks prior.
No, not really. Another Indian set a bigger record a few weeks prior.

I went on a couple of dive trips afterward and took part in competition in Bali that year. The organisers and I believed that I had set three Indian national records according to AIDA rules (it later turned out that another Indian had set better records in two events at a competition elsewhere shortly before). I held a conservative Indian breath hold record of 4:04 for about a year before that too was broken.

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