I’m a freediver. I hold my breath for more than five minutes and dive to over 100 meters, and most people think I'm probably the craziest person they know.
I came to freediving in 2006 as an experienced yogi, and I progressed in just nine months from complete beginner to three-time world record holder — nine, crazy, insane months! The freediving world was shocked, I was shocked, and even the physiologists were shocked. Apparently what I did was beyond the realms of normal adaptation to pressure at depth.
Since then, I've become one of the top freediving coaches, and I integrate yoga and meditation into all my teaching. Only in hindsight, working with other freedivers and learning what holds them back, have I seen how powerful my yoga and meditation practice has been. When I freedive, I take yogic philosophy and put it into action.
When we practice yoga, and study yogic philosophy, the sutras and other teachings, we start to hear about detachment, letting go, and being in the flow of life. I think that most of us can understand this as a concept, but if you’re anything like me, translating that into real life — into meeting a guy you REALLY like but finding that you can’t stop obsessing about what to text, when to call, what to wear, and go into meltdown when he hasn’t called for a day or two, for example — can feel impossible. Our behavioral patterns are so ingrained, so much a part of our protective survival mechanisms from childhood (even though we see and feel, again and again, that they’re doing the opposite of what we hope they will achieve most of the time!) that it's almost impossible to let go and stop controlling.
Freediving is the perfect mirror because it doesn’t lie. It doesn’t give us half-truths to soften the blow or protect our feelings ("I’m sure he really likes you, but he’s probably too busy to call right now"); freediving shows us WHAT IS.
When I dive beyond 100 meters, I have to accept that the pressure on my body is going to compress my lungs to an 11th of the size they are on the surface. I have to accept that my heartbeat is going to slow to around 20 to 30 beats per minute. I have to accept that I will not take another breath for around four minutes.
The magic of freediving lies in the fact that I'm simply tapping into a dormant natural instinct that we all carry in our DNA — the mammalian dive response. What enables me to dive deep is not my intellect, my ego, my ability to control and direct my life with pinpoint precision, as I may execute in my work-life and managing my household. My desire to achieve or set another world record will not bring me closer to my goal. The only thing that can allow me to dive deeper and more safely is trust and surrendering. I have to relax into the fact that my body, as a part of creation, as we all are, has greater knowledge, higher wisdom than anything my intellect could cook up. When I dive, I tap into nature, or God, and trust that this higher power will do what's necessary to keep me safe and deliver me back to the surface with a smile on my face.
If I forget these profound truths — that I am part of creation, that my body knows how to do the dive — I will be in resistance to what is, and I will tense up. This tension creates resistance to the compression of the ocean on my body, and I will experience difficulty the deeper I go, even putting myself at risk of injuring my lungs. If I'm stressed, my heart rate will also increase and I'll burn more oxygen, making the dive harder and infinitely less enjoyable.
But when I recognize that my body is part of nature, and I allow myself to be in the most natural state that my body knows — where I let go of all expectation, relax my body and my mind, surrender to the process of the dive, accept each moment as it unfolds, and trust that all is exactly as it needs to be in each moment, then the dive will not only be safer, it will be a beautiful, joyful expression of life and the most profound lesson I have ever experienced on how to live.
Photo Credit: Michael Pitts
To learn more about yoga, check out our video course The Complete Guide To Yoga With Tara Stiles.