Learning How Not to Breathe
LAAMU, Maldives — A fast-moving rainstorm blew over the small atoll late in the afternoon, briefly cooling a typically humid day just 100 miles north of the equator. But within 20 minutes the sun was back, hot and bright, the air even thicker. Aaaaaah, paradise!
I was desperate for some cooling off, having spent the morning wrestling with something I thought I’d mastered long ago: how to breathe.
The lessons had taken place in a pool behind one of the guesthouses at the new Six Senses Laamu resort, where I’d joined a dozen superstar water athletes from around the world—surfers, kite boarders and windsurfers—for a unique conference of ocean doers and thinkers, dubbed WaterWoMen.
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The morning test was actually less about learning how to breathe and more about practicing how not to.
Our supervisor stood waist-deep in the pool, the Indian Ocean serving as backdrop, as we dunked our heads. Stopwatch in hand, German free diver extraordinaire Anna von Boetticher was serious about the task and admitted to being a little daunted by the water talent in the pool with her…even though she is an elite as well: one of the world’s best at holding her breath and going deep.
While we were experimenting in the relative safety of a four-foot-deep, suburban-variety chlorinated pool, Anna has dived to record depths of more than 200 feet with one breath wearing just a pair of oversized swim fins and a mask.
“…Anna has dived to record depths of more than 200 feet with one breath wearing just a pair of oversized swim fins and a mask.”
The goal of the four-day conference was to connect water-doers with water-thinkers and see where their lives and experiences overlapped and what they might learn from each other’s experiences.
While intellectual surfing may sound a bit presumptuous, that’s exactly what went on between sessions in the pool and ocean.
Talks held under the shade of palms took on some of the trickiest questions facing the ocean today: how to protect more of it, how to provide clean drinking water for island nations and how to preserve and regrow damaged fisheries and reefs.
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To my right in the swimming pool, taking deep breaths and then hanging by fingertips to its edge, was one of the best-known big-wave surfers in the world. This was a guy who had on many occasions been washing machined by 60-foot waves, having to fight to get back to the surface for a life-saving breath before being hammered again by thousands of pounds of crashing water.
It made sense that he’d lower his pride to hang out in a swimming pool to pick up some pointers on how to stay under longer. I think we were both surprised that his initial try lasted barely two minutes. Others in the pool were keeping their heads under nearly five minutes (and admittedly nearly passing out). It became quickly clear that thinking about holding your breath under water only made it more difficult.
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My skimpy personal best was just under three minutes; if you’d asked before the lessons began, I would have guessed I’d make it 30 seconds, tops.
“It’s all about the first breath you take,” said Anna, “and then relaxing. You can think about anything you want while you’re underwater except when you are going to get your next breath. Think about your girlfriend, or climbing a mountain, or the book you are reading. Whatever you do, don’t think about how desperate you are for a breath.
“When you are about to give up, don’t. Stay under.
“And when you come up to the surface, don’t gasp and suck in air. Be calm, relaxed.” She explained that when she comes up from record free dive attempts— formally known as competitive apnea—she has to take off her mask, smile and wave with one hand, beauty-contest-style, to show judges she’s made the dive successfully and is not suffering from hypoxia and about to pass out.
“You can think about anything you want while you’re underwater except when you are going to get your next breath.”
During the morning pool session, to my left was 20-year-old Bethany Hamilton, recently in the media as the subject of Soul Surfer, the feature film about her being bitten by a shark off the coast of Hawaii and losing her arm when she was 13. Somewhat shyly, she had agreed to subject herself to Anna’s testing (she’d just come in from a dive and would later in the day try kite surfing for the first time). Her first attempt was just over two minutes, her second three and a half.
“It’s not as hard as everyone thinks,” said Anna, congratulating her. “Holding your breath is mostly about learning how to breathe.”
Anna’s big take-away came at the end of the session when debunking the Baywatch image of saving near-drowning victims by pumping violently on their chests and blowing spittle into their mouths.
She demonstrated the preferred method—the most efficient at actually saving people, she said—which involves light blowing on the cheeks and a little slap.
Of course if that doesn’t work, she admitted—and it had happened to her recently, on the way up from a record attempt to nearly 600 feet below— then move quickly to the chest pumping and spit swapping.