Freediving – The power of relaxation

Freediving – The power of relaxation

The legends of freediving

Jacques Mayol relaxation

Jacques Mayol swimming with his favourite trainers

From a scientific perspective, the understanding of freediving physiology underwent some astonishing progress during the past 50 years. I remember that as a child I got dazzled by a TV show in which a magician was sunk into a barrel of water, fully enchained and had to free himself to get out alive. He took over 3 minutes to do so, convincing the audience that he was endowed either with supernatural powers, or with exceptional illusionism skills.

Meanwhile, the Italian media was celebrating the heroism of one of our fellow countrymen, Enzo Maiorca, who was diving in the ocean to incredible depths on a single breath. Everyone considered him a kind of superman, gifted with some exceptional ability, probably due to some unusual genetic feature. However a Frenchman called Jacques Mayol soon started challenging Maiorca’s depth records. What caught the attention the most was his radically different approach to breathing preparation. Instead of “oxygenating” himself with hyperventilation, as all the other freedivers of his time, he was doing exactly the opposite: he was slowing down his breath until getting into a state of “trance”.

The whole freediving community was shocked, everyone was wondering what kind of sorcery Mayol was doing in order to dive that deep without hyperventilating. His secret lay in his revolutionary way of preparing himself before freediving. Mayol had practiced yoga since a young age and while performing meditation exercises, he perceived that both his breathing and his heart rate were slowing down. He acknowledged that this was due to the reduction of his oxygen consumption induced by his deep relaxation. He therefore thought that he could take advantage of such an effect in freediving and found out that it was actually working better than hyperventilation, reducing even the risk of black out

The Big Blue

The big blue relaxationMaiorca and Mayol kept competing for many years, setting deeper and deeper records. Their long-lasting sporting rivalry inspired Luc Besson to write and direct “Le Grande Bleu” or “The Big Blue” a movie in which the enchantment of this amazing sport oozes out from the fictional reconstruction of their lives. The “Big Blue” achieved a major success all over Europe, inspiring a whole generation of ocean lovers to engage in this fascinating activity. Many new athletes appeared on the scene and deeper records were set, all using the new preparation method introduced by Mayol.

The power of relaxation in freediving

But finally, what is it all about? Isn’t relaxation something we are all familiar with? Aren’t we relaxing also when we get back home after a long day of work, crumbling on our sofa, listening to some music or reading a good book? For sure we are, we do that instinctively and without paying much attention to it. In freediving, instead, it is very important to acquire awareness of what happens within us when we relax in ordinary situations and transfer the same process in the water. Starting from the physiological component, relaxation is strictly connected to our primary vital functions, breathing being the most important. The most efficient way to breathe is by using our diaphragm, gently contracting it during inhalation and relaxing it during the exaltation.

As our digestive organs are soft and offer little resistance, we don’t use much energy in breathing using our diaphragm. Whereas with chest breathing we use our intercostal muscles to expand our ribcage, which is semi-rigid and offers a higher resistance, consuming more energy in the process. What is interesting to observe is that all babies breathe exclusively with their diaphragm, indicating that this is our congenital and most natural way to breathe.

Jacques Mayol pranayama relaxation

Jacques Mayol pranayama

The first component of any beginners’ freediving course is therefore focused on re-discovering our primordial and natural way to breathe. Breathing with the diaphragm at a slow pace, as when sleeping, allows us to achieve a deep state of relaxation and inner well-being. In order to enhance our relaxation even further, we employ mindfulness meditation and visualization techniques. By cleansing our mind from all unnecessary thoughts and worries, we focus on the positive sensations that we experience underwater, reaching a stage of inner peace that reduces our oxygen consumption to the minimum, allowing us to extend our breath hold far beyond what we might deem possible.

These relaxation techniques are the foundations of the freediving learning process, to which even elite freedivers keep dedicating most of their attention throughout their whole career. The continuous progress in our relaxation ability is therefore the key strategy to increase our performance. It constitutes a continuous and never-ending process of self-discovery and self-development, which we carry out throughout our whole life. Differently from other sports, in freediving therefore we never force our limits to obtain better results, as this would just produce stress and anxiety, disrupting our relaxation and performance. On the contrary, we always allow a smooth and progressive adaptation to the new conditions we find whenever diving a little bit deeper, or a little bit longer. This slow progression approach allows us to learn by means of positive, self-reinforcing feedback on our mind and emotions. By experiencing positive sensations, we condition both our mind and our body to progress by means of enjoyment and eagerness, rather than by means of effort and stress. This concept is of paramount importance, as it is what allows freediving to be a fully safe and enjoyable activity. These few principles can therefore be rightly considered the fundamentals of freediving. As such, at Dive Timor Lorosae we teach and reinforce them in every freediving course, from beginner up to professional level.

Giovanni d’Erasmo

PADI Freediving Instructor and AIDA Master Instructor 

Main photo Jaques Mayol (left) and Enzo Maiorca (right)