02 December 2012

The Seal Within: Learning to Hold My Breath

Maverick's frequently doles out two-wave holddowns
On a stormy Saturday, I joined my friend Tracey and four guys at the Half Moon Bay high school pool for a class instructed by charming freedive record-holder Hanli Prinsloo from South Africa and champion swimmer Peter Marshall. "This one day workshop is specially developed for surfers, using a training approach we call Surprise Apnea. Apnea is the Greek word for ‘the cessation of breathing’. We will combine physical and mental strength with relaxation techniques to prepare for any hold down, heavy sea or any challenge the ocean may throw at you.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.

We started off with yoga under two hastily-erected canopies, crowding into the dry space on a bed of mats. When the light rain turned heavy, streams of water found their way inside and soon we were stretching slippery hands and soggy-socked feet into puddles. Wet yoga: it's the next new thing after hot yoga.

Cutting the stretches a bit short, 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. Try to hold your breath right now. Soon your body starts to say please breathe. Then it becomes more insistent. 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, a waste product of respiration, 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. (A note on hyperventilating before a breath hold: Don't ever do it. That shuts down the body's warning system, and you will go straight to blacking out. If you're in the water, you'll likely die.) While all this is going on, the urge and then demand to breathe is getting stronger and stronger. 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 holddown, 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. Conserve 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." (This reminded me of an episode of Dollhouse, in which Echo uses "blue skies" to mean everything is fine. That became my breath-hold non-thought, picturing a clear blue sky and trying to think of nothing else. It's better than my previous holddown mantra, the HHGTG-based "Don't Panic!") 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 I had lasted longer than some of the others.

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.
At a prior class, Hanli coaches my friend Shawn, who encouraged me to sign up
We were wearing wetsuits in the heated pool and I swam a lap to warm up a little, but by the time my next turn came around, I was shivering again. Hanli had explained that while water temperature doesn't affect breath hold times, being cold shortens them. So she said I probably wouldn't go as long the second time, and I didn't, coming in at 2:15. That's something to keep in mind at the end of a session on bigger days; she said if you're shivering in the lineup, it's probably time to come in.

After everyone had done two breath holds, with others getting times in excess of 3 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. I normally hold my breath when I swim, after a few laps setting into one breath halfway across a 25-meter pool, so initially it wasn't too hard. My challenges were that the buoyancy of my 4/3 wetsuit constantly floated me to the surface, and that trying to keep up with the boys left me winded a lot. By the time we finished I was happily tired and the rain was pouring down. We changed into mostly dry clothes and crowded back into the office for a wrap up. When I asked where I might find a training partner in San Diego, Hanli suggested attending a meeting of spearfishers. "I bet I'll be the only vegan there," I said wryly. 

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 holddowns 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 holddown 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.

An edited version of this post appears on The Inertia.


  1. That sounds amazing. Would love to have a go at this, so I'm gonna have to hunt down my local freediver.

    And congratulations on your 2:45 time, not sure I could get near that.

  2. Thanks! It was only 2:40 though.