Freediving as Treatment for Mental, Physical and Emotional Health
By: Owen Costello, 7/21/2022
The following article attempts to illuminate the immense healing potential of breath hold diving, or freediving, and of apnea in general. By combining four elements that have each been proven to be an effective compliment or alternative to traditional methods of healing mentally or emotionally, freediving stands as a unique medley of all four. Those elements are physical activity, mindfulness, immersion in nature, and breathing. In addition to expounding upon the benefits of each of these elements within freediving, this article also goes into how the ancient yogis would use breathing, or pranayama, and breath retention, or kumbhaka, as the most effective tool to bring balance to the mind and emotions. After the presentation of supporting research, the following article ends in a proposal for what may come to be known as Blue Gyms; an aquatic adaptation of the UK’s Green Gyms where doctors prescribe time in nature, planting trees, hiking, gardening, laying in the grass, and the like as vital ingredients to patients’ healing.
With a culture that is moving ever faster towards finding and advocating the ‘quick-fix’ solution for almost everything, from auto repair to zoology, it’s no wonder (and no secret) that our mental health is subject to a litany of these ‘quick-fixes,’ often to the detriment of our overall wellbeing, and personal growth as these methods do not address how to create lasting change in the form of control over the mind, body, and emotions. It is good to know that freediving – the act of diving underwater using nothing but a single breath of air – combines several elements that have individually been clinically proven to be an effective treatment for depression, ADHD, PTSD and anxiety. Freediving incorporates physical activity, mindfulness, conscious breathing, and immersion in nature to create a perfect storm for transformation and healing. In this way, the act of freediving stands as a potent environment for healing many different mental and emotional traumas and disorders.
It has long been recognized that physical activity alone can work wonders to elevate one’s mood, alleviate symptoms of depression, and rid the mind and body of excessive energy, leaving us feeling happier, balanced, and more focused. It is also no secret that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for you but do we really know how bad? Jodi Skillicorn, in her book Healing Depression Without Medication, says that sitting may be the new smoking! In other words: sitting will kill you. Sedentary lifestyles increase risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, death and more! Fun stuff right? The thing is that billions of people, myself included, can easily fall into the trap of inertia. If I am more lax about my diet and lack the energy to get some exercise, it shows in my cognitive ability and physical performance. This is a slippery slope! “With each passing day, the pull of inertia grows stronger and stronger,” says Skillicorn. Motivation seems to be everyone’s biggest challenge, or at least staying motivated for the long haul. Here is where we must dig deep and find the real reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. If you know your ‘why’ the ‘what’ is easy, meaning that the antidote to inertia is finding what drives us!
Neuroscientist, Dr. Wendy Susuki tells us that exercise is the most “transformative thing you can do for your brain.” Ask anyone who is stressed out if they don’t feel better after taking the time to go for a run around the block or even better, a swim in the local reef. These benefits are obvious and clearly felt by anyone who is willing to strap on whatever gear they need and get themselves moving. If you’re still skeptical, put this down, go for a swim, a jog, do a workout at home on the floor, anything. You are taking deliberate control over your mind, body and emotions by choosing to activate and mobilize your body. “Acute exercise… changes brain waves, increasing alpha and theta waves, … associated with increased relaxation, decreased anxiety, and improved neuroplasticity of the brain. Exercise also increases the productions of our body’s natural opiates and cannabinoids that likely contribute to the runner’s high that many experience,” says Jodi Skillicorn. Freediving is another form of physical activity that trains not only physical output but also our capacity to slow down and find that flow state of full alertness while calm, focused and fully engaged.
At its most basic level, freediving, as a sport and an activity, is an excellent zero-impact way for anyone at any age to get some exercise. It won’t take you very long on Google to find several athletes who didn’t begin their freediving career until their late 30’s or well into their 40’s. Natalia Molchanova went on to being a world record holder in several disciplines and she didn’t begin freediving until she was 42. In Hawaii, we have a friend – Bill Graham – who, though sadly has passed away, began freediving in his 50’s after a career as an airline pilot. He reached 60m by 60-years-old and 70m by 70-years-old. Needless to say, freediving is for everyone. He has even set national records in Static apnea with a 7:42 breath hold. He broke 8:00 in training. There is physical demand even in the set up. Swimming out to the mooring and pulling up twenty-five-to-thirty pounds at the end of a hundred-foot (or more) rope if line diving, or towing all the gear and looking for fish when spearfishing. That is not even to include the diving portion. The aim here is to find the balance between physical output and relaxation. It would be counterproductive to kick really hard to get down since that would produce so much CO2 that the dive would just not be as enjoyable as it could be. In this sense, freediving is unlike other physical activities in that the attitude of “just one more!” or “push harder!” is not typically rewarded. In yoga, there is the concept of sthira and sukha, or effort and ease. Freediving epitomizes this in that while the diver is physically engaged, they remain fully alert while relaxed and non-reactive. Another way to look at this is like asking yourself “What can I let go? What can I tighten up?”
To illustrate the transformational effects of exercise alone, Jodi Skillicorn cites a clinical study conducted by SMILE. They had three groups, all consisting of patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD. The aim of the study was to test the effectiveness of exercise against medication. The groups were medication-only, medication and exercise, and exercise-only. Respectively, the rates of relapse into depressive symptoms were 38%, 31% and only 8%. Not only does this prove the exercise is effective at managing symptoms of mental-imbalance (being conscious to not use the word ‘illness’ because emotions are not illnesses, but they can leave us out of balance and in a state of ‘dis-ease’) but also much more effective achieving lasting results. The very utilization of medications as a treatment for mental health interferes with patient’s long-term recovery and healing.
Since it may be worth mentioning at least once, I’ll share some of my own background which led me to make the claims that I do in this article. I’m not someone bashing a system or methods that I haven’t tried. I’ve been on Lexapro, Vivanse, Adderall (IR and XR), Wellbutrin, Effexor, Prozac, and Concerta. I’ve also been dependent on alcohol, nicotine, and recreational drugs. Whatever the source of my ‘medication,’ be it from a doctor or from a guy behind the counter at the liquor store, or at a concert or party, the conclusion is the same: None of these methods produce lasting happiness and none of them should be accepted as life-long, daily contributors to the minds and bodies of anyone. In his book, ‘Rethinking Depression,’ Eric Maisel warns us that the medicalization of our modern world leads people to pathologize their own existence. What were once normal ups and downs of life are now seen as problems or illnesses that need chemical intervention on a daily basis with weekly therapy sessions. Modern science may have you believe that we’ve only recently discovered things like ADHD, Anxiety disorder, or clinical depression, and not entertain the idea that these are created and exacerbated by certain aspects of modernity. The result is a population that is conditioned to live a lifestyle that produces mental, physical and emotional disease. Then that same population is guided to “talk to your doctor” about a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Years ago, during a very rough stretch of my life, my parents wanted desperately for me to talk to a professional. After much resistance I obliged on the condition that she not try to medicate me, but only try to understand. In the very first (and only) session, she had a list of different medications for me to try. At that moment, I got up and left. I’ve remained off antidepressants since. These symptoms are the body’s way of communicating that change is on the horizon. “Something is not right and it needs to go,” says the body. “While exercise empowered the patients and offered a sense of self-efficacy, the medications negated the immense power of hope and mastery,” says Skillicorn. With every refill of a prescription, the person is effectively surrendering their own power and saying something like, “I am chemically insufficient to lead a happy, healthy, meaningful life. Whatever is in this bottle will fix me because the doctor says so.” If that sounds empowering to you, then stop reading and enjoy your life. Good luck. If you’re anything like me, you’ll read that and think it sounds like total whale shit! Freediving calls for personal accountability in a way that not many other sports do. Many sports ask us to step up, to push out that last rep when our knees are quaking and we want to puke, to ‘play the whistle.’ While freediving asks us to step down, to relax, to let go, and to honor the body’s signals. This is still a struggle for me in my personal pursuit of depth. With patience, persistence, proper training and education, and a gentle attitude, you can achieve depths you’ve never dreamed of in a world more foreign to us than the solar system.
The exact reasons why exercise is so effective are unsure to many scientists. I’m sure some have quantified them but, alas, they remain out of the realm of my awareness and are thus are not included in this article. We could assume that it may be related to the increased availability of neurotransmitters, the release of endogenous opiates and cannabinoids, decreased rumination, increased sleep, and improved self-efficacy. I don’t think anyone needs too much convincing that those are good things, especially when they don’t come with any side-effects.
Freediving is a marvelous way to get some exercise, spend time with friends and make new ones. To slip into a pair of fins, dawn a mask and plunge into the shimmery blue depths is nothing short of transformative if the individual is ready, willing, and humble enough to receive what is needed and let go of what is not. That may ask that we honestly and objectively examine our dislikes and bad habits, as well as the things that we do like and things we think are ‘working’ for us. The yogis teach us that good and bad are both forms of bondage and I’ve heard it said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” though I can’t remember the source of the quote. If we are after freedom and liberation from pain, suffering and misery, we must be willing to examine our relationships, good and bad, with people, things, and beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. As with any scientific process, the first step, once the hypothesis has been established is often observation.
Become aware of your body and surroundings. Notice the sensations produced by whatever you are experiencing right now. No need to try and label or categorize. Simply observe your experience. In writing this, my awareness was first drawn to the texture and pressure of the keys under my fingertips. I’m holding tension in my jaw and neck though. Becoming aware, I let go of this tension and continue. My mind is calmer; my hands less tensed. In reading this, how is your posture? I don’t mean that in an ‘uptight teacher’ sort of way. Rather, how has the tension manifested on your body? Where is the holding physically? Forehead? Shoulders? Toes? Hips and butt? No matter what position you find yourself in, become aware of your body and surroundings. Take a deep breath in, filling belly, ribs, and chest. Pause. Exhale. Allow yourself to melt into a state of balance. Allow yourself to let go of any unnecessary physical tension… Stop reading for a second. Repeat twice more with eyes closed… Come back and become aware of your thoughts and emotions. Good thoughts, bad thoughts. Too many thoughts, very few thoughts. Pleasant, unpleasant. Simply observe your experience. Allow yourself to disidentify with any troublesome or obsessive thoughts. Return to your natural state, balanced, calm, happy, joyful. Stop reading for a second. Repeat as many times as you’d like with eyes closed.
The mindfulness exercise previously described can be applied to literally anything, and especially to freediving. This also helps to cut to what I see as the the most significant part of mindfulness: that it is the cultivation of awareness moment-to-moment, throughout daily life, in our activities, in our interactions, and our decisions. By combining immersion in water with apnea, freediving begs that the oddballs who find out they love this stuff (myself included) become keenly aware of themselves, mentally, physically, and emotionally. If this were a dry sport, maybe the progress would stop there. Simply becoming aware of an issue isn’t what makes it go away. On breath hold, the person does well to be good at letting go. Yoga has also been defined as “skill in action.” In this way, each freedive is a yogic practice of becoming aware of the mind, body, and emotions. Observing what is there. Responding in the best way possible (which could be relaxing further or an early turn, remember). If we become aware of tension, the skilled response is to relax. If we have a sloppy freefall, the skilled response if to apply minor corrective movements. If we’re anxious and stressed and our ears aren’t working right, the skilled response is to turn early. You may hear that freediving is all about letting go, and full surrender and all that. Yes, those are elements but just as important are mental focus and alertness, the refinement of form, and self-discipline over a long period of time. Each element of freediving is akin to those fundamental to yoga. Fundamental to yoga is the concept of mindfulness.
“Pain is not a sign of “gain” but an indicator of pushing too far, too fast; a signal to pause and listen, and see what the body needs.” Very well put by Dr. Jodi Skillicorn. Beyond the physical postures and stretches, practicing yoga implies that we are also practicing self-inquiry. We are investigating our state of being and restoring balance. Strengthening areas that are too weak or insufficient, and loosening the grip in areas where we hold too tightly. To my knowledge, no such study has been conducted of freediving but there have been studies conducted on the benefits of restorative yoga. Due to the parasympathetic dominance experienced while freediving due to deliberate breathing and conscious relaxation methods, I would like to imagine that many of the benefits of restorative yoga would also come from freediving.
Yoga is a system that can release buried and blocked emotions and memories lodged in the nervous system from past trauma. Talk therapy can only go so far as well. “A decade or even lifetime of talk cannot rebalance and recalibrate a hypervigilant nervous system, or release trauma from the body,” says Skillicorn. Yoga allows emotions to come up and come out, to breathe through experiences pleasant and painful. The physical practice softens muscular tension and improves lymphatic flow which results in the release of toxin. The flow of the breath oxygenates the blood and energizes the body while balancing the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The list goes on. Yoga helps us modulate the stress response, decreases inflammation, increases beta and theta brainwaves up for 40% after one class. The person can relax, focus within and connect with emotions, intuition and creativity. It reduces depressive symptoms and improves mood and self-efficacy. In her book, Healing Depression Without Medication, Dr. Skillicorn says, “It enhances connections on the brain, allowing the brain to function and regulate itself better, so that one is less easily highjacked by intense emotions and stress.” There’s only one catch: you have to do it! This isn’t a quick fix solution. This may ask for a change of lifestyle, partially or wholly. Without putting in the proper effort, even after having learned from and been in the presence of well-trained, knowledgeable, teachers, there will be no change in circumstances or situation. My teacher would say there is no good or bad, but rather good and more good. For example, this study shows that yoga asana and pranayama alone, reduced anxiety 42% in the control group. Yoga with meditation, showed 72% reduction in symptoms of anxiety. Now that begs the question: Is it so out there to think that freediving could be providing many of these same benefits to people? It may seem less farfetched once we understand how our breathing affects out brain.
“Take back control of your limbic system by harnessing the power of your breath” reads the most enticing headline ever… “Sounds sexy… But what the hell is limbic system?” asks the curious websurfer. “I’m glad you asked,” reply the words on the page. The narrator drones on and informs the websurfer that “the limbic system is home to your hippocampus which is your fear-based memory storehouse, and to the amygdala which is the emotional threat-detector. If trauma exists, the limbic system can be stuck in overdrive, always expecting the worst, or preparing for some impending threat, real or imagined. It’s part of the primitive brain meaning that it is preverbal and cannot be calmed down with words, no matter how hard you or someone else tried. It speaks the language of body and breath,” – Skillicorn, 91. How we breathe influences our limbic system. Physical tension, and rapid or shallow breathing triggers the limbic system, whether the threat is big or small, real or imagined. A car accident, a fight with your significant other, an impending deadline, a whining child, the “doom reel” at the bottom of the screen on the news, or even someone’s snarky comment on facebook. If we’re breathing in a way that says we’re threatened, the limbic system then highjacks the frontal lobe, impairing bloodflow up to 80% to this region. It’s worth it to mention that the frontal lobe is responsible for executive function, planning, organizing, critical thinking and discernment and self-monitoring behaviors required to move forward with actions and goals. It’s necessary for growth and survival but it isn’t healthy to be triggered all the time. For example, if primitive-you is being chased by a lion, or tiger or bear, there’s no time to rationalize the ins and outs of the situation. You run! Your vision narrows, all extraneous thoughts vanish, blood flows to your limbs and your digestion shuts off. This is survival and no time to ponder life’s mysteries. Once we escape and can calm down and the threat has moved on, we know we are safe and can relax again. We are designed to return to this relaxed, calm, content state of being. A healthy nervous system goes right back to “rest & digest,” or parasympathetic dominance, once the threat is gone. An unhealthy one gets stuck in “fight or flight,” or sympathetic dominance. The way to get unstuck is to learn to control the breathing.
Suffering from any number of chronic conditions such as depression, anxiety, stress, anger, or fear, can be controlled and managed by controlling the breathing. Our breath reflects our emotional state. With a simple check-in with ourselves, we can alter our thinking and feelings. Taking conscious control of the breath stimulates the vagus nerve which then tells the limbic system that it’s time to relax. We are safe, and we can heal, recover and rest. “It is a fundamental tool for accessing information about our inner states, balancing the nervous system, and shifting responses from automatic limbic responses to more thoughtful, evolved ones.” – Skillicorn, 92. However, knowing that breathing alone can sooth a raging limbic system is only half useful. We need to know first, what improper breathing is and second, how to breathe.
Proper breathing is the fundamental first step in balancing the nervous system and establishing emotional stability. After my first yoga teacher training, at the graduation ceremony, I was given a card with some small words of advice, written anonymously from several of my teachers. My favorite was “Inhale the good shit. Exhale the bullshit.” It has stuck with me ever since, and that card remains in my wallet to this day almost four years later. With every breath we can take in fresh, oxygenated air, prana or vital life force, revitalizing our system and energizing every cell in our body. With every exhale we relinquish toxins and waste from the body. Sadly, most people breathe improperly which leads to fatigue, brain fog, poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients, diminished sleep quality, weakened immune system, slow metabolism, and the accumulation of toxins. All of which lead to physical, mental, and emotional distress and disease. By becoming aware of our breathing and acknowledging any unhelpful breathing habits, we can then learn to breathe properly which can lessen all of the aforementioned symptoms of improper breathing.
Proper and improper breathing can be simplified into, respectively, slow, rhythmic, belly breathing and fast, shallow, breathing into the upper chest. There is also something called paradoxical breathing, where the person’s belly contracts and gets flatter as they inhale and expands as they exhale. It should be the opposite: the belly should effortlessly rise as you inhale and fall back to a relaxed neutral state on the exhale. Breathing into our upper chest sends a threat signal to our limbic system which then fires on the fight-or-flight mode. Even if you’re sitting on the couch while simply breathing fast and shallow, you can stimulate a sympathetic response. This may result in experiencing anxiety for “no reason.” Remember, we said earlier that the limbic system does not differentiate between the source of the stress. Real or imagined, as far as your nervous system is concerned, is the exact same physiological response. You’ll be happy to learn that that diaphragmatic breathing oxygenates the blood six times more than breathing with the upper chest. This is due to the higher concentration of alveoli in the lower lobes of the lungs. The alveoli are the tiny air sacs in the lungs where the gas exchange takes place. Inhaled O2 gets distributed to the body, and CO2 gets removed through your exhale as a byproduct of metabolism. Four to six breaths per minute reflects a well-balanced nervous system. Most people are way higher than this. Very simple way to help correct old breathing patterns is to just pause briefly between breaths.
Now we are getting into some therapeutic use of breath holding, to achieve and promote healing. Not a competitive use, to achieve personal goals or a medal. The amount of time doesn’t matter in the former. There is no “poor performance” when we’re using kumbhaka (yogic practice of breath retention which will be talked about in the last section) for a therapeutic end. In the space between breaths, we find a potent area for transformation. When we suspend the breath, we are in a space where we can suspend our own identification with the stuff in our mind. This in turn, gives the practitioner immense potential power to redefine or clarify who they are, to shed old labels, to re-write a more beneficial and uplifting narrative for life, and to let go of aspects of the personality that are dead weight. Conscious belly breathing also balances our nervous system, making it less reactive to external situations and stimuli. It can lower our resting heart rate (RHR) and thereby increase our heart rate variability (HRV) and studies have shown that there is a link between a low HRV and mental health disorders.
Heart rate variability is the difference between our lowest and highest recorded heart rate in a day. Our circulatory system, respiratory system and autonomic nervous system (ANS) are all greatly impacted by every breath we take. A healthy heart is flexible and adaptive to constant fluctuations based on our emotions and activities. For example, when we are scared our HR will increase. When the fear subsides, our HR will drop down to its resting rate. An unhealthy heart is on that becomes rigid and resistant to change. When we want to get exercise (pick your favorite) but the maximum HR is only 20-30 beats higher than RHR, that indicates a heart that is resistant to change, or has a low HRV. It is unable to lower when relaxed, and therefor can only increase so much before maxing out. This low HRV is linked to several mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD. In her invaluable book, Healing Depression Without Medication, Dr. Skillicorn tells us that the resonant rate of breathing is 3-6 BPM and that it can increase your HRV tenfold! Knowing that, improving circulatory and respiratory health is accessible to literally anyone. Running and HIIT workouts aren’t the only way to lower your RHR, though well-trained athletes routinely show RHRs well below the average. Athletes and doctors aren’t the only ones to understand and harness the breath to create and sustain positive change in the mental, physical and emotional bodies. The yogis, and other groups, have been doing this for thousands of years. In addition to the ancient Indian Yogis and wise people, Hawaiian kahunas, Chinese Qi Gong masters, martial artists and Russian Special Forces (*this research for this article was conducted before Russia invaded Ukraine. I stand with Ukraine and do not agree with or support ANY of Putin’s decisions) all emphasize the importance of controlling the breathing. Some of these traditions going back hundreds, even thousands of years. Modern science is just beginning to catch up.
The yogis explain nine obstacles on the yogic way of life. We won’t go into all of them here but one of them is samshya, or doubt. As a culture, here in the West, the constant need for proof is a symptom of chronic doubt. “Who says that works? Why should I believe you? I tried that once and didn’t feel anything. Clearly it doesn’t work…” This doubt obstructs one’s ability to progress on the yogic journey, getting too wrapped up in the analytical mind and not being in tune enough with the present experience. At a certain point, this would hinder progress in most if not all areas where we’re striving and aspiring to progress be that in our relationships, our job, a hobby, a talent we want to develop, an entrepreneurial endeavor, etc. A major difference between the East and West is that Westerners tend to think “First I need to know it. Then I’ll experience the benefit.” The East thinks “first I need to feel it, to experience. Then I’ll know it.” The knowledge and benefits from a yogic practice are experiential. In other words, YOU HAVE TO DO IT. There is no other way. Through one’s one efforts of continuing to show up, developing a keen discerning attitude and refining interoception (awareness of your own internal environment) so that one might not slip into traps of doubt, laziness, despondence, etc. When we experience these unpleasant emotions, or pain somewhere in our being, it is due to lack of prana flowing to that area. The wheel that powers the mill is useless unless the water can flow unhindered. Any debris or damage to the structure would impair the productivity and functioning of the mill. Energy is restored once the blockages are removed. So in order to reestablish health and balance, we would take control of the flow of prana within the body. The yogis say our breath is our prana, or ‘Life Force.’ Yama is ‘to control.’ Pranayama is thus ‘to control Life Force.’ By slowing down and lengthening our breathing, we can lengthen our lifespan, and manage the mind and emotions, allowing us to perceive things from a more enlightened point of view. Basically, not coming from a place of stress, jealousy, insecurity, anger, pre-occupation, or scatteredness, etc.
Randomized controlled studies show that slow, deep breathing decreases symptoms of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression, while showing simultaneous improvements in mood, energy levels, motivation, attention and overall quality of life. “One study compared the effects of yogic breathing practices to the antidepressant, imipramine and to electroconvulsive therapy. By the fourth week of the trial, breathing was equally as efficacious as the antidepressant, but without the side effects – or the price tag,” – Skillicorn, 100. Not only can breath be our emotional regulator, to cool the flames when things get to heated, but also as an emotional barometer. Don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself.
Everyday twenty minutes a day for six weeks, practice conscious, slow diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale for a count of five, exhale for a count of ten. Six to eight weeks of regular practice is enough to change the structure and function of the brain. The amygdala – remember, that’s our fear-based memory center – becomes less reactive, the frontal lobe – responsible for executive function and other vital capacities – is less easily highjacked. The brain can be rewired from early childhood trauma. People can develop greater resiliency to stress and increase their flexibility and adaptability to the unavoidable stressors in life. Freedivers utilize the breath to plunge into a deep state of relaxation before the dive. The breathing techniques used stimulate the vagus nerve, lower the heart rate, balance the gasses in the blood, and stabilize the mind and emotions. In this state, the diver is well-prepared for life between breaths and is able to maintain that relaxation throughout the dive. By now, in the year 2022, we’ve had science come a long way to be able to quantify, prove and articulate, what Yogis have been practicing for thousands of years and freedivers for not quite such a long time. The yogis knew the interplay between mind and emotions and harnessed the power of the breath to achieve optimal health, mental and emotional balance, and spiritual enlightenment.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the foundational texts of all modern yoga, we read that pranayama (“control of Life Force(breath)”) is good enough even for the Gods. “Even for Brahma and other gods in Heaven, devote themselves to practicing pranayama because it ends the fear of death. Thus it (pranayama) must be practiced,” (2.39). Pranayama has been traditionally used to overcome the fear of death and hasten one’s progress towards enlightenment. The breath was and is also a means of energetic purification with the intent of arousing a very powerful latent energy within each person; kundalini. The yogis were very precise in every aspect of the breath: the inhale, the exhale, and the holding the breath in between. In this section, we’ll go into these various aspects of the traditional yogic use of what is now widely referred to as breathwork.
To “conquer the fear of death” is a fundamental aim of the yogic path. Patanjali describes five kleshas, or five causes of pain, and one of them is abhinivesha, or ‘the fear of death.’ These kleshas act as a veil over our perception and can lead to a distorted perception of reality and of ourselves. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that pranayama is designed to lift the veil of ignorance so that one may see clearly. To attain enlightenment, these kleshas must be dissolved, or the veil must be lifted. The other four kleshas are avidya, or ignorance/mistaking one’s identity for the contents of the mind, raga, or attachment, dvesha, or aversion/hate, and asmita, or egoism. Along the way, luckily for us, the impact of these causes of pain are reducible through meditation and other practices. Swatmarama says that pranayama is what conquers abhinivsha, the fear of death. Pranayama strengthens the brain centers responsible for emotion and fear. In other words, it dispels irrational fears and stabilizes the emotions. How often have you psyched yourself out due to an irrational fear or an imagined catastrophe? If we, as freedivers, can apply that same intention to our diving, the breathe-up (our breathing before we dive to prepare the body and mind) can become much more than an obligatory, robotic phase of our dive. By expanding our understanding of the possibilities of the breath, irrational fears can evaporate and our emotions can stabilize before we dive. Even if that is an overwhelming positive emotion like excitement. If we are to dive at our best, we need to be able to tone it down, relax and become centered. Needless to say, diving while unjustly terrified or emotionally chaotic will not lead to a happy, clean, comfortable, long and safe time underwater. Not only have the yogis used the breath to transcend fears big and small, but pranayama is also used to purify energy pathways in the body.
In the yogic perspective, any pain, depression, misery, anxiety, stiffness, dis-ease of any kind, physical, mental, or emotional, is partially or wholly the result of prana being stuck somewhere in the body. Prana by now has become one of those words that I almost disdain using because of how ubiquitous it has become and the cliches that have come along with the westernization of yoga. Its original definition is “Life force.” It is the energy within all living things that gives them life, vitality, and strength. When this is not freely flowing throughout the body, there will be associated consequences in the same way a town would suffer if the water was not flowing enough to turn the mill to produce power.
“By systematically restraining the prana (breath) the nadis and chakras are purified. Thus prana bursts open the doorway to shushumna and easily enters it,” Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.41.
Pranayama is used to purify the nadis, or energy channels, and chakras, energy centers, with the ultimate aim of activating shushumna nadi, our central energy pathway located along the spine, so that kundalini, a powerful, dormant energy within each of us, can awaken. When this occurs, one can expect tremors, shaking, sweating, tingling, intense emotional arousal, and/or perhaps out-of-body experience. To experience this, the yogis stress the importance of preparing the body with continual, and correct practice of asana and pranayama. Practicing correctly is like sowing potential seeds in fertile soil. Incorrect practice could create imbalance but no catastrophes. This is more like planting tiny stones in fertile soil, believing them to be seeds and expecting plants to grow. The worst that will happen is nothing at all. My teacher put it the best way I’ve heard yet. He said that trying to awaken prana/kundalini without first preparing the body thoroughly is like trying to run two-hundred volts of electricity through a cable that can only handle twenty.’ These purifying and balancing properties are even more potent when retention is introduced. In yoga, the retention of the breath is called kumbhaka.
In the second chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, in verse 71 pranayama is broken down into three types: rechaka, or ‘exhalation,’ pooraka, or ‘inhalation,’ and kumbhaka, or ‘retention.’ Kumbhaka is then again broken into further categories. There is sahita, or ‘connected’ and kevala, or ‘unconnected,’ kumbhaka. Sahita kumbhaka is when the breath is consciously retained using deliberate effort. You could say that all our breath holding in freediving or for therapeutic reasons falls under this category. Kevala kumbhaka is a spontaneous retention with no apparent cause or reason and no association with rechaka or pooraka. To go even a step further, the yogis have terms for internal and external retention, respectively: antara and bhaya kumbhaka. Verse 72 tells us that “until kevala kumbhaka is perfected, sahita kumbhaka has to be practiced. When freed from the inhalation and exhalation then the breath or prana is retained easily.” For the breath to be retained automatically, we have to practice with deliberate effort for a long time first. Verse 73 goes on to say that “perfection of isolated retention is freedom from inhalation and exhalation. This pranayama spoken of is verily kevala kumbhaka.” Once this level of perfection or proficiency is achieved, verse 74 says that “nothing in the three states of existence is unobtainable by him who has mastery of kevala kumbhaka, and can retain the breath as desired.” The Western scientific approach clashes with the Eastern experiential and faith-based approach of the yogis. The point being that the proof is in the pudding. TRY IT. The methods of the yogis do not flip some magical switch and cause overnight transformation. But the results are permanent so long as practice is maintained and done correctly. Health, happiness, and balance are restored. The Western world prides itself and its members and followers on rational, scientific, profitable, things. If it cannot be proven by science then it does not carry much weight. However, I can say from personal experience that the methods and techniques of yoga (so long as you find the right yoga for you) do work.
I’ve overcome chronic, at times debilitating back pain, asthma, knee pain, very limited mobility, and clinical diagnoses of depression and ADHD. I’ve been on Lexapro, Vivanse, Adderall, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Prozac, Ritalin, and now take no pharmacueticals at all. Anti-inflammatories and anti-histamines were a daily thing when I was younger and now I don’t even take those. Yoga was the foundation that gave the tools to look at the deeper route cause of my issues. I know plenty of people who spend so much time looking for “proof” that they don’t practice day after day after day, or they try once and don’t bother to learn more or try different styles. For example, a friend comes to you and says they’re stressed out, chronically anxious and easily agitated. You invite them to a hot yoga class. Your friend joins you but afterwards they’re blood is boiling, they are more anxious, the mind is going even faster and they are less patient with the people they interact with for the rest of the day. Ignorance led this person to a practice that will actually exacerbate the issues they were suffering from. I hear this a lot, actually, about hot yoga specifically, more than other styles. After the class, the friend is left thinking “what a load of bull! You said this would chill me out!” That person may be reluctant to trying yoga again and may draw the conclusion that “yoga isn’t for me. I know, I tried it.” What a sad story this is. The result being that they draw their conclusions on a limited understanding that stems from impatience and doubt (two explicit obstacles in the yogic path). Thus, little to no progress is made. A more appropriate class for this person would involve strong grounding asanas, long holds, and about 30-50% of the class practicing pranayama and relaxation. Many spend their time working too many hours to make enough money to keep going to new and different classes and workshops and courses and such to develop their practice and knowledge. As a result, practice is always different and inconsistent, or their motivation only exists when someone else is saying what to do. Without the practice and consistent effort, no benefits will come to you. Sitting in a lab chair or at a desk researching will not provide relief from anxiety, back pain, knee pain, depression, chronic stress issues, etc. But to contradict such a way is almost blasphemous is some circles. The knowledge, benefits and transformative powers of yoga are gained through experience and practice. Not theory, not debate, not books and not Instagram or TikTok. These sources eschew the purpose of yoga (which includes pranayama. They are not separate). “The purpose of all pranayama practices is to create a perfectly still state in the body so that the inhalation and exhalation stop with the cessation of pranic movement. Control of the breath, prana and body means control of the wavering tendencies or oscillations of the mind. All hatha yoga techniques eventually lead to this state of kevala kumbhaka when prana and mind stop moving,” – commentary from Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati, p. 268. With this cessation of the breath, the mind becomes free of all fluctuations or modifications.
I’ve always been a fan of the metaphor comparing the individual to the ocean. When we are experiencing depression, anger, anxiety, panic, etc. its like thinking the ocean is nothing more than the stormy seas and waves on top. In the same way, we mistake the unpleasant thought, feeling, circumstance, for who we actually are. This mis-identification (avidya) is the root cause of a lot of pain in the world and it is a simple remembering that eliminates this suffering. You must remember that you are the ocean from which the waves arise and will dissolve back into, and correct this mis-identification with the waves on the surface. Beneath them is an infinite stillness that gives rise to all things manifested in our lives. By stopping the breath we can slow or stop the incessant mental chatter. Chatter that consists of labels, limits, outdated belief systems, fears, habits and more. When the chatter stops, we enter a space for transformation as we can go from “mis-identification” to “dis-identification.” Where at first, we were wrongly defining ourselves by trauma, fear, the past, negativity, doubt, whatever else, we then find ourselves severing the tie to these limiting stories. Once the pages are blank again we can write whatever story we want… but the trick is… YOU HAVE TO DO IT and it is not easy or quick. Yoga is, among other things, a process of getting back to one’s own true nature. That implies a large degree submitting to the pace of nature. The easiest and most healing way to slow down to the natural pace is to immerse yourself in nature.
IMMERSION IN NATURE
Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City and was a key figure in the development of the national park system says that immersing oneself in nature “reduces mental and nervous excitability, moroseness, melancholy or irascibility.” Being in nature is fundamentally good for us. That is why all over the world, medical professionals, communities, and governments are looking to nature as a compliment, catalyst, and potential alternative to existing treatment programs. In Great Britain, Green Gyms are becoming increasingly popular. Doctors prescribe time in nature and their communities instead of weightlifting or cardio. Instead, having people do things like planting trees and creating wildlife ponds. Dr. Zarr from Washington D.C. and the founder of Park Rx America says his mission is to “decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness and foster environmental stewardship by virtue of prescribing Nature during the routine delivery of health care.” Could freediving, community catch-and-cooks, and beach and reef clean-ups be prescribed as effective means to alleviate, if not irradicate, depression, anxiety, PTSD, BPD, ADHD, etc. – enough acronyms for ya’? Also in the US, the National Park Service created Healthy Parks, Happy People. This organization partners with medical schools, leaders in healthcare, businesses, and scientists to utilize the space in public lands to reestablish connection between people and nature for “mental, physical, and spiritual health, and social well-being and sustainability of the planet.” In the Shetlands, the national health board sponsors a program which “encourages physicians to prescribe mindful activities in nature to counteract depression, anxiety, stress, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. The program offers monthly ideas to mindfully connect with nature such as “be still for three minutes and listen,” “feel the sensation of the breeze on your skin,” “feel the texture of a single bud on a tree,” “bury your face in the grass,” … “hold your breath underwater and listen to your own heartbeat.” Ok, I added that last one. With all these organizations promoting the healing power of nature, could freediving not hold an equally high healing potential by literally immersing oneself in the most abundant natural element? If Great Britain can have Green Gyms is it really that farfetched to think we can have Blue Gyms too?
Combining immersion in nature, the control of the breathing, the physical activity, and mindfulness, freediving is a melting pot of powerful, proven, natural means of healing mentally, physically, and emotionally. Individually, these elements have been shown to effectively combat multiple mental and physical health disorders. If doctors, healers, teachers, therapists, were to start prescribing Blue Gyms what would that look like?
Static Breath Holds
The simple discipline of holding your breath – could be effective at helping people overcome mental barriers. Ask almost any freediver and they will tell you that static is the most mentally demanding discipline. In static apnea, it is just you and your inner world. It is here, in this space between the breaths, where we find a massive potential for personal transformation. For example, Joey’s first breath hold was one minute and thirty seconds. He says he experienced anxiety from the urge to breathe. After understanding that cause of the sensation was just elevated levels of CO2, and not anything life-threatening, his anxiety dropped. Going a step further, Joey comes to understand the relationship between his thoughts, feelings, body, and behavior. Understanding that the stories in the mind to not define who we are. If we remember from earlier, Joey is the ocean, not the waves on the surface. The body reacted by tensing up and surfacing when the anxiety was interpreted as a sign of immediate danger or discomfort. With a new understanding, Joey attempts three more breath holds ultimately achieving three minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario and individual experiences and results will vary. Freediving as a whole demands a level of trust and care for one another as well. For some patients, trauma manifests as trust issues. Their inability to trust another person leads to many problems in their personal lives and relationships. Freediving requires that you have a buddy and each person is responsible for each other’s safety.
Descending to a certain depth and then hanging there until deciding to ascend – at neutral buoyancy call upon the same skills as a static breath hold, but include the act of physically diving to the desired depth. Performing a hang, say at 10 meters, begs that the diver not only allows the tension to dissolve while staying still, but also while in motion. This may be most applicable to people’s lives because, let’s be honest, how many people are actually stationary or motionless in their day-to-day lives? Very few. Even fewer exist in a world that doesn’t require their physical, mental and energetic participation. The fridge in the shared space where I live in Hawaii had a profound little magnet that read something like ‘peace is not being separate or removed from the business and activity of life. It is being in the midst of those things and still remaining calm in your heart and mind.’ I think the exact quote is more concise than that but the point is the same. Performing hangs could enhance one’s ability to go through stress in the form of energy exertion while mindful of accumulating any tension along the way. The terrestrial equivalent would be like driving to a meeting or presentation in the most calm way possible. Aware of our reaction to that driver that cut us off on the way to work. Noticing where that tension resides on the body – probably in the neck, shoulders and upper chest. The drive would be analogous to the diving portion of the hang. The presentation, where we must be engaged, alert, while at the same time, calm, in control and energized would be more like the hang itself where we arrive at our destination and are able to collect our thoughts and emotions and rid the body and mind of any residue of the stress we just went through to get there.
Approaching Fascial Immersion/Breathe up as meditation
Fascial immersion is exactly what it sounds like. It is immersing your face without a mask in water while breathing through a snorkel. This is actually how I start every one of my sessions, with students and my personal training alike. The intention behind this is to stimulate the mammalian dive reflex by initiating bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate). This is accomplished by activating the trigeminal nerve located around the eyes. You could be submerged in water up to your nose but bradycardia would not kick in. It is specifically exposing the face to cool water that triggers this response. In order for this to be an effective tool for the treatment of mental health, more benefit would come if we take it a step further and combine fascial immersion with conscious meditation techniques. The following also applies to the breathe up – the breathing we do before a dive to prepare the body and mind. Many more advanced freedivers already apply meditation techniques in one form or another. Techniques like visualization and body scan can be used during the breathe up and on during the dive itself.
Yoga by the Water
I’d like to refer back to Wallace Nichols’ book, Blue Mind¸ where he explains the litany of benefits of being on, in, under, or even near water. Studies have shown that happiness levels are higher, stress levels are lower, and overall well-being is better in those individuals and communities that have access to water. Even if people are in an arid state and work in a city. Those who choose to take their breaks by a fountain or a fish pond will show marked reductions in cortisol as opposed to their coworkers who opted to eat lunch in the break room. The only water you’re likely to find there would be in a five-gallon jug. Now combining the healing effects of connecting with water with those of yoga asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing) leads the logical marriage of the two.
Even though I am a yoga teacher, practitioner and huge advocate for many aspects of the yogic lifestyle, it still seems cliché to have a yoga class on the beach. Often people may be more focused on what angle the sunlight is hitting their body so as best to suit their followers on social media, but there is real scientific data to support the physiological changes in our bodies by being around the water. As opposed to a typical yoga class, imagine that the class begins sitting in the sand, beside your mat. You would be guided to become aware of the texture of the sand, and the feel the subtle vibrations of the waves crashing on the sand, allowing it to pull you out of the ever-oscillating monkey mind and into the present moment. Notice your heartbeat. Then move onto the mat and begin the asana portion of class. After dissolving tension in the body, the practitioner my opt to sit at the water’s edge, letting the waves gently rush around them. A step further, the final resting pose Savasana, or corpse pose, could be taken in the water. Floatation would of course be available to anyone who needs it. I believe this would facilitate deeper shifts towards inner tranquility, and lay the stage for the arousal of personal insights, breakthroughs, or connection with a deeper inner truth. If each person made the effort to connect with their authentic self, and by way of connecting with water, begin to grasp the interconnectivity between all things in a very literal sense the collective aim of our whole species would be enlightened as each member could be more in line with a certain calling or mission, or dharma, life’s purpose. In order to develop this connection, however, we first need to calm the mind, heal the body and stabilize the emotions. With these three out of balance, our whole being is out of balance and we are not perceiving clearly. Perhaps that looks like someone telling themselves they need to keep a job they hate because it makes Daddy proud. The inability to see a better reality beyond that is a sign of imbalance. In this case, the individual’s ego is actually underdeveloped. They are unable to stand up for themselves enough to begin taking the steps to living a fulfilling life. The first step is making the time and finding the space to be still.
Spearfishing and Foraging to Foster Deeper Connection with the Environment
Spearfishing is hands-down the most sustainable way to fish. There is zero bycatch, no more harm to the reef than the occasional spear hitting it, and it demands that the hunter be keenly aware of his or herself, the surroundings and what the local status is of the targeted species. Hunters and spearfishermen are some of the most concerned with the health of the ecosystem as they are in direct contact with it for hours on end, multiple days a week in some cases. Some people still think they’re incapable of pulling the trigger at a fish, saying that it is too violent. On the contrary. Some of these same people will order from McDonalds without a second thought of the violence and cruelty behind those golden arches. Spearfishing is exponentially less violent than supporting industrial farming. There are of course some spearfishermen that are a disgrace and simply enjoy shooting whatever they can. I implore you, please do not take guidance from these people. Most of us care very deeply about the ocean environment. If the oceans are not healthy and cannot support life with its regenerative abundance, there is none left for us. Not only does spearfishing provide all the benefits of breath holding as discussed throughout this article, but you end up getting the highest quality fish you could ask for too. Can’t get much fresher than an hour or two. By being in the water, targeting a fish, pulling the trigger and hauling it back to the surface, there is no cleaner way to eat (the same applies to hunting on land and growing your own organic food) and there is a profound sense of satisfaction. This satisfaction can provide a newfound self-worth in an individual that can be at the center of a lifestyle shift that leads someone away from depression, poor health, and chronic stress, to having purpose, connection with community and the environment, and to being a calmer and more collected person. Not to mention getting a few Badass points. With a trained guide and instructor leading groups on land before entering the water with spearguns, each person will receive a foundation of ethics, sustainable values, respect, moderation environmental stewardship and humility.
If you’ve made it this far, I appreciate you. We’ve discussed how freediving combines physical activity, breathing, mindfulness, and immersion in nature to be a perfect storm of healing potential. Freediving is a rapidly growing sport with a massive potential for utility outside of taking photos for social media and competitive settings. What is, and has been for the past several decades, growing is the number of people diagnosed with some mental health disorder. Isn’t it funny how in the age where we have more medicine, more treatments, more access to doctors and to information, that we are also seeing the highest levels of depression, anxiety, ADHD, unhappiness and general dissatisfaction with life, obesity, diabetes, and cancer just to name a few? Basically, as we see more options for ways to be happy and healthy, we see an equal rise in the exact opposite. The silver lining is that we are seeing a pushback from all sorts of alternative means of health, wellness, and happiness. Many people all over the world are turning to natural means to achieve balance in their bodies, minds, and souls. The methods discussed in this article: physical activity, mindfulness, breathing, and immersion in nature, have all shown to be effective compliments or replacements to traditional therapies, and freediving combines all four of these into one activity and lifestyle. I can only speak from personal experience, but I believe that these methods are sufficient to replace western methods of chemical intervention and talk therapy, but the transition period will almost certainly be rough. In order to move past something, you must move through it. There is no bypass, no shortcut, and no way to move beyond something without experiencing it. Years ago, I was in a nightmare for about two years as I confronted my own addiction and my own depression and inability to focus or make much progress in life. My reality did not make sense. Everything I had learned so far was eligible for removal as it did not amount to me being happy, healthy, or feeling like I had any purpose. Along the way, there are hard truths to be confronted, things, people, ideas, beliefs that we have held to so tightly that need to be let go of, and perhaps an uprooting of one’s life to let the wind take them where it may so that seeds may be planted in more fertile soil elsewhere. Yoga was what started this process of looking within myself, into my environment, my social groups, what and how much I was allowing into my body and mind by way of food, drink, gossip, and media. Eventually, freediving joined the party and I was hooked. It was the perfect mix of something I enjoyed doing, people I enjoyed being around, and places I enjoyed living or visiting. I can honestly say that yoga and freediving has given more to my life than anything I’ve tried. It is for this reason that I propose that freediving can be an adequate compliment or even replacement for modern means of treating mental health disorders. It may be out bounds for me to say this but I think that more doctors would prescribe nature, breathing and mindfulness alone if it weren’t for the fact that they don’t get paid every time their patient goes freediving, or sits in meditation, or practices their prescribed pranayama.
Thank you for reading and I hope it has benefitted you in some way. If you would like to talk directly, please reach out to me via email, or call or text me (info provided below). Meetings, group and private sessions can be held in person or on Zoom so you don’t need to be in Hawaii or even by the water to start applying some of these methods in your life. I am thrilled when I am able to inspire others to explore this path and am happy to help them along and point them in the right direction.
Owen Costello, 500-Hr Yoga Teacher, PFI Freediver Instructor, Owner of Ocean Deep Yoga: Freediving & Yoga
Call or text: (860)575-1493
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