The Art and Zen of Freediving

The simplicity of freediving had never occurred to me until surfing the net one day looking for scuba related sites for future articles.

I came across information about how the renaissance of freediving was taking shape here in the U.S. As I began to look more and more, it became apparent that I was onto something more than just a resurgence in freediving.

It was almost a religious experience.

Freediving, which might be confused with snorkeling (and it’s understandable), is a near Zen experience and an art form unto itself say many of its practitioners.

To be released from the weight of scuba gear, to be able to spend long hours cruising at the surface and then to submerge oneself underwater to have a look at a fish or anything else that captures your eye is not only appealing, but almost a right of passage to the minimalist ascension of becoming one with the sea.

No surface intervals. No air fills. No mechanical equipment problems.

To fully understand this sport, one needs to look at the physical, and material aspects that make up this unique experience.

The material aspects of this sport, which are minimal, make this a very appealing sport for anyone looking to experience the ocean realm.

Lets take a look at the equipment requirements for freediving.

Mask:

The mask is our window to the underwater world, and as such needs to fit comfortably during long sessions of diving and yet not leak. Many experienced freedivers prefer not to use clear silicone masks, but instead use the black silicone equivalent of a given manufacturers model. It also is more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, seeming to be softer and more pliable than its clear equivalent.

As such, the mask, should be very low in volume, and very soft, with a comfortable skirt so your face seal is perfect, for many hours at a time in the water.

The Italian Dive equipment makers Cressi-Sub and Mares make excellent masks. They both have models in black Silicone, which gets its color by adding graphite to the clear silicone mixture. The French company, Beuchat, makes excellent masks as well. These companies are well known for their scuba diving equipment and manfacture freediving equipment as well.

Then there are the small, specialty companies for whom the die hard freediver chooses to use for their equipment.

AB Biller and Esclapez are two such a companies.

They make what are considered the best masks, snorkels and fins on the market for freediving.

They each make one mask, which is a very low volume mask.

They are said by many who have searched in vain for a comfortable mask to be the ultimate in wearability for long periods of time.

Snorkel:

Many a freediving purist insist on nothing more than a simple, but quality "J" tube snorkel. They feel that the simplicity of freediving eschews the multiple purge valve models made available on the market today. They also tend to shy away from the flexible hose models, although this is a matter of personal preference.

Many quality J shape designs, such as the Cressi-Sub America snorkel, go for about $20. Some divers do opt for the expensive multiple purge snorkels, such as the US DIVERS IMPULSE, which costs about $50.00… They are known as "Dry Snorkels", but add drag and more cost, and many believe learning how to use the J snorkel is the practical (and least expensive) solution.

Fins:

Ah yes, the Freedivers Fins. These aren’t your typical short and stiff scuba diving fin. These are very long bladed fins that have the flexibility needed for long days of diving, and yet don’t tire out or cramp your legs.

The names associated with this have a deep tradition in freediving, going back over 25 years. A.B. Biller; Cressi Rondine Garas; Esclapez, Beuchat Gold Fin, and Mares Plana-Avanti L’s. All are excellent, and each has its strengths as well as weaknesses, and as such to pick a favorite is akin to buying someone clothing that you like, but they may not. Some favor the Esclapez because of their unique feature of having several different stiffness’ of fin. Others pick Cressi or Beuchat because of their long tradition in Freediving, or cost may be a contributing factor in a divers buying decision.

If you plan on being in the water all day, 7 hours or so, you may want very flexible fins. If you want to go very fast for a much shorter time, you might opt for very rigid fins,…but you had better be a very fit diver to go for stiff fins…Most divers should go with either the softest or the standard rigidity fins available from these manufacturers. While the stiffest freediving fin is still more flexible than a traditional scuba fin, and able to deliver greater efficiency with more thrust, the sheer power and techniques required for using them are beyond all but the best competition freedivers.

Wetsuits & Skinsuits

In warm water conditions, like in Florida or Hawaii, all you really need is a skinsuit to protect you from stinging organisms like larval jellyfish. The added advantage is that these suits are neutrally buoyant, and don’t require any amount of lead weight to be added. But if you are not as fortunate to live in a tropical environment, for instance in California all the way up to Washington, typical water temperature in these areas is going to necessitate wearing a wetsuit or even a special drysuit. Although a traditional wetsuit does a good job, they allow water to seep in through the neck and zipper, thus chilling the diver. There are suits designed for the freediver. These typically have an integrated hood with face, wrist and ankle seals. This helps to minimize water exchange. Some of these suits eliminate the zipper altogether, and although this makes donning and doffing the suit more difficult, it does allow the diver to stay warmer due to less water exchange. The thickness of the suit varies, depending on the conditions that you’ll be diving in. The trade off is that the added buoyancy from the neoprene suit entails wearing a weight belt. The best way to determine the correct amount of lead to wear is to go by this general rule of thumb. Wear your suit in a swimming pool and adjust the amount of weight until you are neutrally buoyant, but can quite easily descend when needed. Then add another 3-8 lb. for saltwater. This is only a rough starting point. You’ll need to fine tune it through experience.

Techniques of Breath Holding

Now that the question of equipment has been answered, you may be asking "How do I get to be good at freediving?"

When you can’t be in the water, bicycling, using a stairmaster, even swimming laps at the local pool are important exercises, for at least an hour at a time. Begin by exercising three days a week. Training in an aerobic heart range will give you definite advantages in increasing your depth capabilities and length of your comfort zone for each freedive. Deep breathing exercises and practicing holding your breath while trying to lower your heart rate will also help. When you can get in the water, it is important to practice slowing your heart rate down and deep breathing. The more often you get to freedive, the better you can become by focusing on these simple exercises.

When trying to slow your heart rate, one of the biggest myths is that you need to study the methods of yoga or some other eastern mystical belief in order to attain a slowed heart rate and inner calm when freediving, tricking the body into some altered state of consciousness.

Actually, it’s about building your body’s tolerance to oxygen deprivation and water pressure.

The average man has a total lung capacity of about four liters; Pipin, the world record holder in freediving, has eight.

One of the first exercises that you should try doing is designed to increase your lung capacity by expanding the diaphragm muscles. Start by inhaling as much as you can. When your lower chest and stomach seem as though they are going to burst, fill the upper chest and pull in every possible ounce of air. Next, exhale so fully that your chest feels like its going to collapse. This complete exchange of air is said to stretch and revitalize seldom used areas of the lower lung, and flushes the body of carbon dioxide. It is not a lack of oxygen that triggers the involuntary urge for air after suspended breathing, but the body’s buildup of carbon dioxide.

This next exercise is meant to teach someone to function while holding their breath. Take a series of deep breaths, and then stop breathing for one minute. Then walk slowly for as long as possible before taking a breath. By marking where you must breathe, you can begin to record your increasing ability to function in apnea. You can also try controlling your breathing while swimming underwater, occasionally surfacing for a breath, like a dolphin or a whale are other excellent training exercises.

The psychological effects of breath-hold diving can cause a certain amount of anxiety when first attempted, increasing the amount of oxygen used in your lungs, thereby decreasing your time underwater. Visualizing the steady flow of oxygen and energy flowing between your heart and brain causes a sensation of relaxation, and thus a reduced need of the oxygen in your lungs will be consumed.

Try to visualize yourself swimming through the ocean like a dolphin, easily controlling your breathing and your body. You will begin to discover that you can suspend your breathing with little conscious effort. It’s a sensation that will begin to emerge after several weeks of practicing in pools.

And of course, the best way to learn to free dive is to… FREEDIVE. The human body seems willing to adjust to pressure at depth and breath suspension only after being repeatedly submerged and deprived of air.

And once you have achieved this, your experiences underwater may never be the same, knowing that you are bonding with the ocean realm, meeting it on its terms, and feeling the Zen like quality in your mind and body from the overall meditative state that only the ocean can give us.