Mindfulness at 20 meters below sea level

“Relax, drop any tensions, enjoy and don’t get attached to any goal”….It sounds like a life coaching session, but actually it’s my freediving instructor giving me the last cues before I go under water on a single breath…..

There I am, floating on an ocean with a wetsuit, 1kg of weight on my belt and a diving mask. I am grabbing onto a little buoy in the water while taking a special set of breath cycles that my freediving instructor taught me that morning. I am about to go down on a single breath of air to deeper than 20 meters under sea level. Welcome to the sport of freediving….

In my life, I have literally practices dozens of sports that required keeping a cool mind and focused body. These include extreme sports such as rock climbing, snowboarding, wreck diving, alpinism, breakdancing and slack lining at height. But in terms of the required mindfulness, nothing beats freediving….I’ll tell you why.

Freediving is 30% technique and 70% relaxation and mind control. The purpose is to extend your breath holding capacity and go as deep as you can on a single breath. The key is to compress as much oxygen in your lungs as possible before you go down and then send signals to your body to use as little as it needs while you’re under water. My free diving instructor told me three things, which I think are life lessons outside the water as well:

1. Relax! Whenever the body is holding tension, it uses more oxygen. And that’s very scarce under water! But relaxing is not easy when you’re 20 meters under water and your entire physical system senses ‘threat to survival’ and wants to freak out.

During my first few dives, I came across all my patterns in life: Impatience, tensing in the shoulders, tension around my eyes, wanting to move quickly etc. The moment I mindfully dropped all these tendencies, I doubled my bottom time.

2. Non-attachment to outcome. This sounds really counterintuitive, but the key to freediving is not to get hooked to a certain outcome or goal. On the first day you learn that you need to drop any clinging to a certain goal whether it’s bottom time or depth. In short: People that want to get to 20 or 40 meters depth at all costs will never get there.

The attachment to an outcome that our mind creates puts the body out of relaxation and there is no chance at all to get to those desired depths. So my instructor told me: NEVER look at the end of the line under water and never look up when you ascend back to the surface. It’s like looking at a debt that you need to pay off and automatically your body moves out of relaxation and starts using lots of oxygen. Instead stay in the moment, look horizontally and move one gentle step at a time. The moment I stopped looking down, I was at 20 meters depth before I knew.

3. Slow and gentle. My first few free dives where like my life: quick, impatient, add a bit of adrenalin energy and go straight for the goal! It works up until about 10 meters depth (if you’re lucky). After that, it’s a disastrous strategy. By moving quickly your body uses much more oxygen and you’ll run out of air before you know. The key is to go SUPER slow, but steady. The body knows it’s calm and doesn’t need to tap into any adrenalin energy. When I relaxed my eyes, shoulders, jaw and the rest of my body and had my mind focus on reducing my heart rhythm, I could suddenly stay under water for more than 3 minutes. In an adrenalin state, I am happy if I get to 30 seconds!

So freediving is a lot like what we teach executives: Be mindful in the present moment, relax your physical body, drop the adrenalin energy and have a goal, but don’t get attached to it. And you’ll go on for much longer and have more fun in the process!

Mindful regards,

Gaston, Coach, Asian Leadership Institute