On a stormy Saturday, I joined my friend Tracey and four guys at a high school pool south of San Francisco for a class instructed by charming South African freedive record-holder Hanli Prinsloo and champion swimmer Peter Marshall.
It was a one-day workshop that’s designed for surfers, using an approach they call Surprise Apnea, which is Greek for “the cessation of breathing.” It combines mental and physical strength with relaxation techniques so you’re prepared for most hold downs. I was a little nervous going in, but Hanli’s thorough explanations and gradual approach dispelled my jitters well before it was time to get into the pool.
Hanli took us into the swim coach’s little office where we got to work on breathing, and not breathing, while learning the science behind both. Unlike dolphins who are “conscious breathers” – to the point where in captivity they can commit suicide by deciding not to breathe anymore – we humans are hardwired to have to breathe. Your diaphragm, a muscle that pulls down to fill your lungs and pushes up to empty them, will start to flutter, or convulse. Breathe, dammit! In the past, that’s always where I gave in and took some air. But this class taught me to go farther.
The urge to breathe is triggered not by a lack of oxygen, but by a rise in carbon dioxide, which activates the body’s warning system. If you keep holding your breath in the face of rising CO2 levels, your body will take concrete actions to conserve the oxygen you have left. And you have more left than you think. Hanli explained that we have a seal inside us. Seals can dive far and long on a breath, and as soon as we put our faces in the water, our inner seal emerges. Immediately our heart rates slow, conserving oxygen. This bradycardia is the first step in the mammalian diving reflex. Next is peripheral vasoconstriction, the redirection of blood flow from the extremities to the core, which is experienced as a sensation of pressure or tightness in the limbs. If the breath hold continues even longer, the spleen will release oxygenated red blood cells. At the limit, with oxygen levels very low, the body will shut down blood flow to the brain, causing a blackout. At that point, it is critical to start breathing again within about three minutes to avoid brain damage. The key is to relax and let your inner seal take over because your body knows just what to do. Thinking uses oxygen. Struggling uses oxygen. In a hold down, panic is your enemy. Hard as it may seem, you need to try to clear your mind and let the wave take you where it will; don’t fight the ocean because you are powerless against it. Save your energy and your oxygen and wait for the wave to release you before pushing to the surface for air.
As we lay with our eyes closed, close together on the tiny floor, Hanli lead us through deep belly breathing, taking much fuller, slower and more conscious breaths than usual. Then she asked us to take a last deep breath and hold it. I didn’t fight my diaphragm’s contractions for long before gasping for air. On the next try, she had us concentrate on not concentrating, relaxing and clearing our minds from the start of the breath hold. “When a thought comes into your mind, don’t grab hold of it; watch it pass, like a cloud in a clear blue sky.” A clear blue sky became my breath-hold non-thought. The second time, I went farther, letting the contractions buck my belly for a bit before succumbing to the lure of air just above my lips. Still, I felt like it hadn’t been a very long hold, and I was pretty sure I’d caved before my five classmates. On the last hold, Hanli urged us to extend the relaxation period before the diaphragm started to kick, talking us through it all, and I went a bit longer than before. When she read our hold times, I was surprised to hear that not only had I lasted longer than some of the others, I’d made it all the way to 2 minutes, 40 seconds!
Next it was time to get into the pool. After more belly breathing, floating calming on our backs, Hanli had us each in turn flip over to put our masked faces in the water and awaken the inner seal. We’d partnered up, to emphasize that for safety one should always have a buddy when practicing breath holds in the water. Tracey went first, then I gave it a shot. Hanli had to tell me to relax into the water because I was holding my head up. After few more deep inhales and slow exhales, I held my breath and rolled over face down. Hanli spoke encouragement throughout. ”I can feel your heart slowing. Relax your shoulders… You’re doing great.” Blue skies… blue skies…. “Let the contractions come and go; don’t fight them. Good.” It was almost like I imagine being in a sensory deprivation tank: just floating, relaxed, not thinking (as much as that’s possible). “OK, if you want you can put one hand on the wall… and then the other. Very good. Now count my fingers in front of you: 1… 2… 3… 4… 5. And come up. Excellent!” My time: 2:40.
After everyone had done two breath holds, with others getting times in excess of three minutes, Peter led us through swimming exercises intended to simulate what happens in the ocean: being immersed with a heart beating fast from paddling and less than a lungful of air. When we surfaced from swimming underwater, we practiced taking hook breaths, a short exhale and short inhale filling about 50% of the lungs, which is more effective for recovery than gasping. By the time we finished I was happily tired and the rain was pouring down.
I don’t know how much farther I’ll try to go with breath holding – extending my time is not an immediate need since I don’t plan to charge Maverick’s anytime soon (or ever) – but I’m glad I took the class. I feel better equipped to deal with the lesser hold downs all surfers experience from time to time. Now I know that under near-ideal circumstances, I can go without breathing for over two-and-a-half minutes, which is much longer than any hold down I could reasonably expect at my surfing level. Blue skies.
What we practiced in this workshop has inherent risks and is best learned with an instructor. For more information on training with Hanli, see www.hanliprinsloo.com.