“The one who controls his breath is the ruler over his mind and body”
Swami Satyananda Saraswati.”
Photographs courtesy of Cdelacy / www.apneista.com
Learning to free dive
Amed with its rugged mountain scenery and vibrant coral reefs is increasingly known as a centre for free-diving in Bali, and is home to Apneista, the island’s first free-diving school. With a beachside yoga shala, cafe and juice bar on the picturesque bay of Jemuluk, Apneista offers a range of courses that combine the essentials of free-diving with yoga, stretching, pranayama and advanced breath work – all components of going ‘down the line’ into the big blue. “Yoga breath is the bridge between mind and body, the conscious and the unconscious says Matt, founder of Apneista. “Rather than yoga being simply part of our free-diving training, we see free-diving as the oceanic part of our yoga practice.”
People have been free-diving for thousands of years, scraping the ocean floor for pearls, shell fish and sponges, but free diving as a sport was relatively unknown until the iconic film of the 80’s, The Big Blue. The movie, loosely based on the real life rivalry between two champion free-divers, Jaques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, captured the glory days as divers reached record depths and in so doing challenged the notions of human biology. It was discovered that humans, like sea mammals possess the mammalian dive reflex – when the body is submerged in cold water all major systems slow down, minimising the need for oxygen. Known as the dolphin man, French-born Mayol mastered his free-dive technique by swimming with dolphins – in mimicking their behavior he learned how to integrate himself with the ocean. By adding the power of yoga and meditation, he revolutionised the sport, becoming the first free diver to reach 100 meters. As yogis have always taught us, when we become aware of our breath, incredible things can happen.
While adrenalin junkies still strive to go ever deeper, these days many are drawn to the more gentle, recreational aspects of free diving, and the opportunity to enjoy the peace and stillness of the underwater world unencumbered by a tank. While scuba diving enables you to stay underwater for a longer time, passively observing the reefs and marine life; free-diving allows a full aquatic immersion as you float gently on the currents, completely at one with the ocean. There is an extraordinary sensation of weightlessness and silence, time seems to stand still – in fact it doesn’t seem to exist at all. The outer peace of the surrounding deep blue ocean creates an extraordinary sense of inner peace – or perhaps it’s the other way around… its hard to tell when the body and mind are acting as one and flowing effortlessly, seamlessly into an intensely beautiful experience.
Asanas and free diving
Just as yoga asanas are often inspired by animals, free-diving – sometimes referred to as ocean yoga – teaches us to move like a fish, gliding slowly and gracefully through the ocean. “Yoga teaches us alignment of the body, with practice the body becomes more fluid in nature as we develop flexibility and make space, but this is not a thing only of ligaments and muscles, it is a thing of energy,” says Matt. “We don’t do this for the sake of sitting in ever-more complicated postures, we do this so the body’s subtle life juices can flow better. With free-diving our focus is precisely on this type of fluid movement, to move like water through water. We learn that rigid movement is wasteful movement the forgiving nature of water allows us a fluid realignment of the body.”
The benefits of Pranayama
“The list of benefits of yoga for the free diver are long – from teaching mental clarity and thoracic flexiblity to emotional well-being, but the benefits of free-diving to the Yogi, when practiced in the right spirit, are equally profound,” says Matt. “ The most obvious is the control and understanding of the breath, free-diving as a door into the science of pranayama.” Those who practice pranayama regularly are naturally able to hold their breath longer and are accustomed to exploring the breath and the mind’s reactions to the body, perfect tools for free diving which requires a range of breathing techniques, including a pre dive ‘breathe up’ and a ‘post dive’ recovery breath.”
Yoga and meditation teach us to let go of tension, to be in the moment, as we learn to passively observe thoughts and physical sensations without putting energy into them. This is essential to free diving where the mind may initially rebel against the idea of going deep and being unable to breath – but it is only by confronting our fears that we are able to move beyond them. “This drawing together of mind and body into one focused moment is some of the essence of yoga,” says Matt. “In Bali the sea is considered a place of many dangerous spirits yet also a place of purification,” he adds. “In a romantic way we can see free-diving in the Balinese context as a ritualised confrontation with the our ‘low spirits’ of fear and needless anxiety. When we free-dive sometimes the mind turns against us becoming mischievous or fearful, we can become plagued by our own inner ‘demons of doubt’. But with the ritual of our weighted line and safety procedures and our faith in physics we can see beyond the doubts to the deep blue face of mother nature. Then we free-dive mindfully, infused with calm and a sense of home coming.