I think that Aharon and MT deliberately chose a house up the steepest hill they could find. This would be in order to test our fitness as we arrived every morning. I had received the email about the course a few weeks ago, which suggested that a good level of aerobic fitness would be required.
The closest I had got to exercise recently was running after a taxi after I had left my house keys in it. I staggered up the hill, completely out of breath, for our first lesson.
We lay on yoga mats, on the terrace, whilst the morning sun dappled through the olive branches, listening to the calm, soothing voice of MT as she talked us through the various stages of the full breath. If Aharon is yang then MT is yin. Soothing, conciliatory, calm.
I felt incredibly peaceful and was amazed to find out new things about my body, just lying there on the mat. I had done yoga for a few years so thought I knew a lot already, but MT’s knowledge was extensive. She then introduced us to Uddiyana Banda and variations, reducing her already tiny frame by half. After feeling so mellow and feeling the urge to go out and hug a tree, we went back inside to watch peace in practice. Aharon and MT showed us videos of them both pulling down to 50 metres so, so slowly. It was so beautiful and exactly what drew me to freediving, the peacefulness of it, being totally in the moment. Aharon then took each of us aside to see how we equalised. I was half way through my prepared speech about how every person I met had tried and failed to teach me the frenzel, how I was obviously a freak of nature, and if he could teach it to me then he would be a miracle worker, when he told me to shut up and just show him what I did to equalise. I did it and he threw his hands in the air before walking off.
‘You are doing the frenzel goddamitt woman!’
Oh. Well that was a bloody quick miracle! We all then walked down the hill to go out for the first dive. Aharon and MT have four lines set up at different depths and we were to start on the 18 meter line which was anchored by a yellow buoy, suspended three meters below the surface to avoid boat traffic near the shore. I was amazed at how they would spot it and sure enough, they went up and down, up and down with the boat, to no avail.
Eventually Aharon got in the water to take a look, to find that someone had removed the line, blocks, buoy and all.
Someone was going to pay. MT tried to find reasons other than malice for the disappearance whilst Aharon blamed a mad old Greek man called Nyonios.
We moved out to the 50-metre line and looked down into endless blue. This was the classic freediving image I had in my mind – a white line disappearing off into nothingness. Perhaps it was the safety briefing that we had had the night before but I was bricking it.
I hid from Aharon on one side of the boat whispering to MT ‘I’m really scared’!
She was brilliant. She calmed me down and held my hand as I did my first of two static warm ups, eyes closed, trying to relax. It worked, and I was soon on the line as we took it in turns to pull down to no more than ten metres and hang there, feeling the sensations and allowing every last bit of tension and stress to leave our bodies.
We were not wearing weight belts and so were very buoyant in our 5mm suits. It felt incredible to open my eyes and look at the tiny fish that were swimming round my hand.
Back on the surface, Renata had a problem. ‘Er, where do we pee?’ We all looked at her.
‘In our suits, where do you think?’ ‘No! No I cannot! I cannot pee here!’ The thought of peeing in company, let alone marinating in it was all too much. It seemed that Renata had discovered the mammalian dive reflex and wasn’t very happy about it. Try as she might, she just couldn’t do it, and as Vicktor and I practised our duck dives, she sat on the boat in agony waiting to go back to shore.
That afternoon, after a break for lunch and to hang up our suits, we walked back up the hill to debrief on the morning.
Aharon talked about the difference between thinking versus feeling in freediving. For Aharon and MT, bodily awareness is the objective, and if we can learn to relax and feel comfortable shallow then we can take that sense of calmness with us as we go deeper. If we can stay a minute, totally relaxed at 15 metres then we know that at twenty or twenty-five metres there is no need to panic and rush back to the surface. Aharon and MT believe that in order to progress in freediving you should never go to your limit, you should always feel that there is more inside you.
Softly, softly is their approach and it works.
Aharon then took us through the physics of freediving: Archimedes’ principles, Boyle’s law, Dalton’s law, and Henry’s law. Having never touched science or maths at school I was a little overwhelmed and wondered where Murphy had got lost in all of it. Despite a few incredulous glances from Aharon, he explained patiently how it all worked and I did understand in the end and seemed to nod in all the right places.
Next morning was yoga on the terrace with MT, using postures to open the chest. Despite my yoga experience it never ceases to amaze me how difficult it is and how one works up a sweat. I would ask anyone who thinks yoga is just ‘stretching followed by a lot of lying around’ to actually take a proper class. MT is tiny but so, so strong, and Aharon is proof enough that you can take up yoga later on in life and still achieve incredible flexibility. They both studied Ashtanga in India for many months but were teaching us more gentle postures.
Back out in the water we were shown the extensive safety precautions and mechanisms that they have in place, from the lanyard system to bring a diver up from depth faster than any scuba could, to the oxygen and phone straight through to the emergency services. We did our static warm ups and a few pull downs to concentrate on our bodily sensations before putting on our weight belts to start practising our finning. It was like learning to drive a car.
So much to think about in the first few seconds of the dive. Good duck dive with straight legs, first equalisation as part of the duck dive, big kicks with the fin to get going, tuck head in, so on and so forth. The marker peg was set at 15 metres and then to 20 metres as we finned down and back, followed at all times by Aharon or MT. Renata was becoming more at ease with her bodily functions, but from the wrong end. She was sick upstream and I remember breathing up and trying to relax as I simultaneously was working out what she had eaten for breakfast.
On the way back we stopped off in the bay to get some monofin practice in. We donned front snorkels for the amusement of the tourists on the beach, and practised finning on the surface, on our fronts, backs and sides. We were also shown a very powerful exercise where you hold onto the side of the boat, vertically in the water and do the monofin kick with straight legs. The one thing I had not been expecting was how much the stomach muscles were used. Forget sit-ups. If you want a washboard stomach then get a monofin.
After lunch we reviewed the morning and were all encouraged by Aharon’s praise, even for our little steps. We then moved onto the physiology of freediving. More science. We covered the respiratory system and were taken through detailed anatomical diagrams of the lungs, cardio vascular system, ears and sinus’s. We went through the various reflexes of the body, including the cold water-drowning reflex, illustrated by wonderful stories and anecdotes.
This was the most fun I’d ever had at school and I was actually learning something.
Aharon then took us through the static and dynamic tables that they had devised based on those of the Apnea academy in Italy. Usually the time period you chose is based on half your maximum breath hold. But Aharon and MT have found that better results are achieved by taking the time to the first contraction, or start of the struggle phase, roughly about 60 percent of your maximum.
In the morning we were straight in the water for warm-ups, pull downs and constant weight training. We then did an empty lung pull down under the strictest of instruction. Aharon and MT use these to practice at a shallow depth the pressures of the deep when there seems no more air is to be had to push into your Eustachian tubes. We were told to breath up, empty our lungs, fill our cheeks with the last bit of air, and then pull slowly down to no more than four metres, equalising more frequently than normal. I had seen
Aharon and MT do this to over 15 meters and thought that it couldn’t be that difficult.
I managed one equalisation at about one metre and then could not do any more. Every time I tried, the vacuum in my lungs would suck the air back from my mouth. The feeling of pressure was just intense and the whole absurdity of the situation caused me to start laughing and pop straight back up the one metre I had gone. I tried one more time but got the same results. This was not easy for a beginner.
As we were preparing to go back around the headland, back into the bay, Aharon spotted a yellow buoy near one of the beaches. We motored closer and sure enough, it was the 18-metre line, complete with rope and base. Aharon stormed onto the shore as the first wave of attack to find Nyonios, closely followed by the diplomatic core in the form of MT. They soon returned to relay Nynios’s paltry excuses and we dragged the buoy in to replace it at the right depth.
Aharon had told us the previous night about these incredible sea caves up the coast, and we persuaded him that he should take us if the sea was calm. He very kindly motored us out there and it gave us a chance to take in the spectacular nature of the island. There were the signs of great geological movements millions of years ago as the rock folded in on itself before crashing into the sea, huge cliffs, and a rock out at sea which looked like a giant submarine.
The caves were at the base of huge cliffs, from which sheep sometimes fell to their deaths, and kids with a death wish threw stones. The rock around the caves was a mixture of the most incredible colours, oranges, pinks and greens, and the water was so silver and turquoise it looked unreal. We did not have any torches so we couldn’t take the boat to the very back of the cave, where there were steps, built into the rock which led to a monastery at the centre of the island, but we motored through a second, smaller cave, bending down so as not to crack our heads. It was so beautiful, and we anchored the boat a safe way off and slipped into the water to play.
For me this was the moment in which everything came together. This was what I had wanted to be able to do. To slip below the surface, equalise to the bottom, and slowly swim around the underwater garden of another world. There were huge rocks and tiny fish, white sand and light and shade. It was the most incredible experience and I didn’t want to return to the surface. Further on I saw MT gracefully gliding along the bottom. She had ditched her wetsuit and seemed completely at ease in the water, a sea creature with her giant fish tail on.
It was late when we got back so we had the rest of the day off and went up to the house for a curry in the evening. I had asked MT if she had wanted anything bringing over from the UK and she said Cardamom pods. Aharon cooks a mean curry and I ate mine watching Scooby Doo with Ze’ev, their four year who had become my new best friend.