Several months ago a friend of mine, Arianne, asked me to travel two hours north deep into the Northern Central Florida pine flats just outside of Gainesville to the Blue Grotto, one of just over a thousand of Florida’s springs and one of the most beautiful hidden gems in the Sunshine State. Arianne had just lost her husband not a year before to pulmonary hypertension. He was thirty years old. Pulmonary hypertension is a type of high blood pressure that causes the arteries in the lungs to become narrow or blocked, slowly restricting blood flow and oxygen to the lungs and eventually, in some cases, in his case, causing the heart and lungs to fail. Robert Rohmann was a father, a professional surfer and fishing charter captain. He left behind two young daughters and my friend to pick up the pieces and carry on. In the midst of her grief she met Forrest Simon, owner of Go Native Freediving, who invited her to come up to the Blue Grotto and experience the sport of freediving, which is a sport of diving under water without the use of any breathing apparatus (like scuba diving). We traveled up to the Blue Grotto late one night, talking along the way about her journey through grief and mourning and trading stories about loss, trauma, heartache, and fear. We cried, a lot. She was terrified to get certified in freediving; truthfully, we both were. I was going to support her and to learn how to be my husband’s safety and freediving partner (he’s been certified for a few years now); she was going just to experience something new. Neither of us could hold our breaths for :15 seconds at best.
The next morning, the classroom session was rough. Words like oxygen, lungs, blood clots, carbon dioxide, oxygen deprivation…I held her hand as she teared up and struggled to stay focused. In fact, she’s struggled with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression since the day he died. I struggled with the same things myself a few years before and the remnants of those memories—breathlessness, helplessness, spiking heart rates, horrible thoughts—they still haunt me occasionally and when I least expect it, though less intensely and less often these days. I didn’t know what my friend was going through in losing her husband so unexpectedly, but I could resonate with those feelings and the tears streaming down her face as the instructor, Forrest, moved through the physiology of freediving.
He talked about the incredible Mammalian Dive Reflex we experience even as babies the moment our face hits the water: how the water triggers an immediate decrease in heart rate; how, when underwater, peripheral vasoconstriction also occurs, which means that the blood flow moves from the body’s extremities to our most important organs (the lungs, the heart, and the brain…we share this phenomenon with marine mammals, by the way). How, the further down we dive, the more pressure is put on our lungs and the more compressed they become, and the diaphragm collapses, and the rib cage squeezes inward, and the deeper you go, the more oxygen dissolves into the blood, and, incredibly, the spleen contracts, releasing much-needed oxygenated blood, and, even more incredibly, the capillaries in the lungs actually fill with blood to prevent collapse at a particular depth…and then the process reverses itself as we come back up to the surface. Scientists used to think that, according to Boyle’s law, our lungs would simply collapse under the pressurized water at depth; thanks to the freediving community, we now know this isn’t the case. We now know that our human potential and relationship with our underwater friends far surpasses all previous understanding.
It’s absolutely fascinating, the way our body acclimates to these changing circumstances…how we simply adapt and keep living.
After our classroom session, it was time for our pool session and static breath hold training. We gripped the side of the pool and allowed our bodies to float, weightless. Forrest instructed us to take some time to prepare for our breath holds by doing “breath ups”, which entailed spending several minutes breathing deeply into the diaphragm (belly) and exhaling slowly.
Ted Harty, owner of Immersion Freediving in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, explained this breathing technique to me in detail in a recent conversation.
“You want to be breathing in and out using just your diaphragm, not your chest; so while you are inhaling, your diaphragm/stomach is slowly pushing out and your chest is not moving at all.
“Take a slow inhale like this for 2-3 seconds, then exhale slowly using your teeth and tongue so that when you exhale there is a very slight sound; this ensures you are exhaling slowly. Exhale to whatever is comfortable then repeat the process. This type of breathing will slow the heart rate and calm the mind. If you watch an infant breathe on its back, you will see their belly moving. All infants are belly breathers; it’s the best and most efficient way to breathe…infants don’t need a freediving class or yoga class to learn that.”
On the side of the pool, for several minutes, Forrest repeated a mantra reminiscent of yoga chants I’d heard in the past. He’d repeat, over and over in a rhythmic, sonorous tune: “Inhale…pause, pause…exhale….”
And I’ll tell you what happened next.
I began to notice things I hadn’t before: the soft lapping of the pool water against the tiles on the side of the pool; the wind purring through the pine needles above; the quiet whish of Arianne exhaling through her teeth next to me. I could feel my muscles relax and my body sink further into the water. And I could feel my friend melting away beside me as well. I felt the heaviness of the classroom session lifting in the space between us. We took one last deep breath and let our faces sink into the water…
I could spend time here telling you about the rest of our three-day adventure and certification process. Things like: we held our breath for three minutes. Three minutes. We were stunned at what our own bodies were capable of. We went on to dive deep into the prehistoric, crystal clear waters of the Blue Grotto down 30, 40 feet and further. Arianne went on in the months after to dive down 96 feet (96 feet!). To us, this was monumental. On those dives we were able to listen to the absolute quiet of the underwater world. The stillness and the peace. Our springs here in Florida are some of the most incredible places on earth, and Arianne and I were, even if just for a little bit, a part of that world of limestone, cypress knees, freshwater fish and friendly turtles, crisp, clear blues you cannot capture in words.
But I’ll focus instead on what took our breath (literally) away: neither of us had ever, ever experienced that kind of calm before. For me, no amount of yoga, mindfulness, meditation, therapy, tears, or prayer had ever gotten me closer to the peace I felt during those breath ups, and that breath hold. It was as if we’d discovered the cure-all of our heart’s ailments. And for Arianne, the raw and blissful irony of a sport that leverages the evolutionary power of the lungs, heart, oxygenated blood, and diaphragm bringing the deepest peace she had felt since her husband had passed was visceral. We both drove home feeling as if we’d stolen some coveted secret solution and we wanted to share it. Now I finally understood why my husband was so fascinated with freediving. I’ve been a scuba diver my whole life—my father is an instructor and the underwater world is my home since I was able to walk…but I’d never experienced that level of calm in my life.
So, what did we learn from these men and women who descend 100, 200, 300 feet below the surface with such grace and trust and tranquility? What can we learn about ourselves, the power of our breath, about stress…about life?
From a performance perspective, freediving presents an enormous amount of potential benefit. Ted of Immersion Freediving went on to tell me that Kirk Krack, founder of Performance Freediving International, trains all of the Red Bull athletes, as well as the Women’s Olympic Snowboard team in freediving and breath-hold training. From lung capacity to V02 max (the amount of oxygen uptake into the lungs per minute), to heart rate control, to mindfulness and mental strength…any athlete could see the benefits of this type of training. In a recent Outside Magazine article, world record freediver William Trubridge, sums it up perfectly: “Freediving requires body, mind, and even spirit to be aligned and directed toward a common intent.” It’s no wonder athletes outside of the sport seek freediving to improve performance.
But for us normal folk, freediving can reveal a whole new side of ourselves we don’t know exists; this power we possess not just physiologically but mentally. Yogis and regular meditators get it: the power of mindfulness, the power of our breath to keep us focused and present. But free divers seem to understand this on a deeper level. Maybe it’s the element of water—this deeply ingrained, evolutionary relationship we have with the water which most of us become disconnected from early in life—maybe that is the missing link to the inexplicable, deeper level of peacefulness. It’s as if freedivers have found the missing ingredient to peace, joy, and being able to stay truly in the moment, even if for just one breath—and the power of our breath to transform our lives.
A few weeks later, Arianne faced another of many anxiety attacks. Thankfully, she reached out for help from her friends, and we went back to our breath ups. This new strategy enabled Arianne a healthy, safe antidote to this darkness. We can talk about mental health here, or depression, or the need for more conversation about these conditions, about medicating and self-medicating, and the millions suffering in silence. Or, we can shine a light on this story of hope in the darkness: the story of a widow who can turn to her own breath, and the water, for solace and healing. Since then, she’s spent more time underwater than she ever has…and as for me, I’ll be chasing this feeling for the rest of my life under the surface of the sea (or the springs)…I guess you can say we’re hooked.
French freediving champion Guillaume Nery said it best: “Breathing gives rhythm to our lives. Learning how to breathe better is learning how to live better.”
I love when life reminds me how interconnected it all is, and how powerful our bodies really are.