Freediving: a deep dive into Flow

Photo of Eusebio and Christina Saenz de Santamaria. Check out their amazing work here.

(Please, bare in mind that this article brings in nothing else than a few open-ended thoughts and impressions from a novice in the sport)

I have been nurturing, along the years, a special interest on the science of getting into, and being in the Flow. As most, if not all people — consciously or unconsciously — I deeply enjoy being so completely immersed in a certain activity that everything else temporarily vanishes, from your perception of time to some of your physiological needs (food, drink, sleep, etc) and emotions (fear, anxiety, shame, etc), as if you were, during those moments, embedded into a different space-time condition. Getting so absorbed by a book that several hours fly by unnoticed. Having so much fun trying to puzzle out a problem that you don’t even feel the need of sleep. Being so focused on creating a piece of something (a painting, a computer program, an article about Freediving) that you don’t feel hunger. Being so completely engrossed in a process that not even the expected outcome matters, as the process itself is one we do for its own sake because to experience it is the main goal.

I couldn’t agree more with professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist who architected the notion of Flow, when he says that “control of consciousness determines the quality of your work and the quality of your life” and people who “control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”

In the zone

And being someone who has always devoted a good amount of his time to practice some kind of sport (from martial arts and powerlifting to dirt bike and b.a.s.e. jumping), the relationship between sports and Flow (often called “the zone” by athletes) became a particularly intriguing chapter of the Flow science for me. It’s not only exhilarating being completely immersed while racing, fighting, or jumping from a bridge, but it’s also fascinating seeing the amazing impact a Flow state has over your mind’s and your body’s capabilities, even in activities apparently purely mechanical. For example, I remind that, as a powerlifting practitioner, I’d be often able to lift a 20~25% heavier deadlift when I was “in the zone” than the maximum I’d be able to lift when I wouldn’t be able to quiet my mind and fully dive into the moment.

(A little bit of digression: with my last example in mind, think on those stories we all hear from time to time about parents that, when faced with situations in which their children fall in danger, temporarily display enhanced strength or pain-tolerance to save their offspring. What else such ‘marvelous acts’ are than events in which these parents automatically immersed in a Flow state due to the circumstances?)

The Flow sate is characterized by a few key components: a sense of meaning, depth of focus, effortlessness, and suspended perception of time. Together, these ingredients create an optimal environment in which you exhibit increased brain function. It’s easier for you to process data and it leads to deeper thinking, which is vital in the midst of information overload. There is loss of self-consciousness (i.e. suppression of ego), higher confidence, and no hunt for external rewards. You are strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of your abilities.

(More digression: think on the parallels/similarities between the notion of Flow and C’hi, the Life Force, the underlying principle in Chinese martial arts)

With all that together, when in Flow state, all you have studied, trained, and practiced comes along naturally, more harmonically and powerful than in any other situation. Sets of individual actions and strategies naturally flow in an optimal way (based on each person’s training and practice, of course). In Flow state, you don’t need to reflect on the individual pieces of what must be done, you intelligibly perform the whole of what must be done. That’s why professional athletes often say that, when “in the zone”, they clearly understand what they’re supposed to do.

Only one breath

Recently, I started learning Freediving, a form of underwater diving also known as Apnea, the Greek word for “without air”. When freediving, divers rely only on their ability to hold their breath until resurfacing, rather than on, for example, the use of a breathing apparatus such as scuba gear (which is, by the way, also a thrilling form of underwater diving).

Roughly speaking, freedivers train their bodies to move efficiently though the water and to adapt to low oxygen, high carbon dioxide, and high pressure; and their mind to reach meditation states while rationally dealing with extreme environmental conditions and reflexes of their bodies.

When our faces first touch the cold water, we enter in bradycardia, a condition wherein our heart rate slows down, usually dropping to 30~40 beats per minute — thus, reducing our oxygen consumption. The bradycardia, here, comes from a reflex called the Mammalian Diving Reflex, a.k.a. The Master Switch of Life or the Diving Response, that, among other functional bodily adjustments, optimizes respiration and allows us to stay underwater for extended periods of time (which is, by the way, a reflex we share with marine mammals such as sperm whales, whose heart rate can drop to 10~30 beats per minute). The lowest recorded heart rate for a freediver was 14 beats per minute, a third less than the average heart rate of a patient in a coma.

From that point, freedivers go through their pre-dive mental and physical preparation, warming up, quieting their minds, and relaxing their bodies (a process some will have started during the boat trip to the dive location, and others, maybe days before). And with that in place, comes the moment in which a series of steps previously practiced thoroughly for dozens~thousands of times is put together, from a very specific and elegant movement to start a dive, the duck dive, to a very specific way to safely finish each dive, which includes, among others, a safety diver (“the buddy”) escorting the main diver during the last part of the diving; and a technique called recovery breathing, used to prevent divers of blacking out when they are hypoxic.

(Btw, freedivers NEVER dive alone! This is the capital rule of the sport!)

Of course, the most challenging and thrilling part of Freediving is in between those two moments. Within those intense and stretched out minutes of full immersion, freedivers challenge their whole beings to go through an intimate experience with the ocean, which also happens to be a unique self-discovery experience; an experience that often includes both flashes of enlightenment and therapeutic doses of self-torture.

While freediving — therefore while holding your breath, only one breath — you must keep your mind quiet and your body relaxed; your movements must be gracious and efficient; and, at the same time, you need to rationally and calmly manage the external conditions you are in (in especial, you need to deal with the environmental pressure over the airspaces of your body) and those reflexes of the body I mentioned before. These reflexes start telling you that you need to emerge to breath, and they make a strong case for it. But you know, by your training, that’s not necessarily true. At least not yet. You know you still have enough oxygen in your body, and those reflexes are, in fact, provoked by the excess of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) — which, you also know, is not a problem in that scenario.

However, we all know well that arguing with our bodies is never an easy task, and it is an extra hard one when you both — you and your body — have a disagreement about your most vital function: breathing. Especially when you have to go through such argument without disturbing your focus and the calmness; you must be imperturbable to the end. And that’s the main reason why Freediving is well known as a tough mental game.

But wait, there’s more: during the dive, despite the typical serenity and harmonic movements of freedivers, everything happens in a rapid crescendo — the more the diving last, the more your oxygen decreases and the more intense and frequent the body’s reflexes become, as carbon dioxide increases. And the more deep the dive, the more the underwater pressure grows, trying to squeeze your lungs and sinus. Not to mention that one of the reflexes provoked by the Mammalian Diving Reflex is peripheral vasoconstriction, which is put in place to prioritize the distribution of blood/oxygen to vital organs, such as the brain, which need higher levels of oxygen than, for example, the muscles of your legs. In other words, your legs (and other non-vital muscles and organs) are now not only receiving less oxygen supply, they also lost their means (blood stream) of eliminating waste products, such as lactic acid, that might increase to a point in which your legs stop working. The mental game progressively levels-up. It’s guaranteed fun!

Diving into Flow

Given this quick glimpse of Freediving, I’m sure I won’t need to mention the relevance of being in Flow state for such a fascinating sport/mental game. If you would like to dig more on that specific point, I’d recommend the article Mindfulness in Freediving, by Clinton Laurence, psychologist, multiple black belt, and freediving instructor (plus, you can find further reading recommendations at the end of this article).

What brings me to this conversation, instead, is a open-ended rumination about the peculiar challenge of being in Flow state while Freediving when compared to Flow in other sports and activities. I called this peculiar challenge of The Unavoidable, Rapid, & Continuous Crescendo of Nonharmonic Distractions (yes, I like fancy names).

The Unavoidable, Rapid, & Continuous Crescendo of Nonharmonic Distractions

It doesn’t come to my mind any other sport or activity that challenges you with an always present, fast, and constant crescendo of the level of difficulty/things that pop-up to difficult (which, for simplification, I will call from now on of ‘distractions’), while demanding a Flow state of deep mental calmness and body relaxation.

And, here, please note that I am not saying that Freediving brings in a faster crescendo of distractions than other sports, or a higher crescendo, or more intense distractions, etc. What intrigues me is this very specific and peculiar way the distractions increase in Freediving, their inherent nature to the sport, and their nonharmonic relation with the Flow state — thus, The Unavoidable, Rapid & Continuous Crescendo of Nonharmonic Distractions.

Let me break that down: we see distractions and crescendos of distractions in any other sports — for example, progressively sharper pain and progressively harder obstacles — and in many of these sports such distractions are very intense and last incomparably way longer than the total time of a freedive. Notwithstanding:

Unavoidable, Rapid & Continuous Crescendo

In other sports, distractions such progressively sharper pain and progressively harder obstacles usually are a fluctuating variable, sometimes even not present — e.g. a fighter can train without having to go, every time, through the pain of an opponent’s punches and kicks; and a weightlifter will most of the time train without going to the limits of her/his strength, therefore avoiding at least part of the distractions.

In Freediving, the distractions are always there (i.e. unavoidable), whether you’re training or competing, in the pool or in the ocean, or even training at home from your couch (dry training). And for every single dive or swimming lap performed in Freedive, the distractions will always gradually increase in their intensity along the dive or lap (i.e. continuous crescendo), and that happens considerable fast (i.e. rapid), given the obvious limitations. You can easily bear out this trying to hold your breath while sitting in a chair: you always will get to the distractions; they always will get progressively harder as seconds and minutes pass, with no breaks to recover during the process; and you will reach your limit within a couple of minutes.

Note, however, that such characteristics might end up being an advantage for an athlete, since the previsibility should make preparation (training and practice) easier. Anyway, still a peculiar, hard, and pretty interesting challenge one has to adapt to.

But wait, it still gets a little bit more tricky.

Nonharmonic

In other sports, athletes answer to a crescendo of distractions with a crescendo of reactions, i.e. the stronger the intensity of the distractions, the stronger the intensity of the reactions expected from these athletes as well. Returning to our previous examples, the fighter and the weightlifter: the stronger an opponent hits a certain fighter, the stronger that fighter is expected to hit back; the harder is the lift the weightlifter is about to perform, the more she/he will psych herself/himself out. There’s amazingly beautiful harmony in such chain of actions and reactions.

By contrast, in Freediving your imperturbability is expected to be an imperturbable constant, while, as already mentioned, the intensity and frequency of the distractions is a crescendo. Doesn’t matter that your dive gets progressively harder; as long as everything is according to the plan, you must remain undisturbed and steady. The distractions, in this scenario, are nonharmonic, and, instead of directly reacting to them, you must be resilient; you must keep your mind quiet and your body relaxed, and you must keep moving graciously and efficiently.

Moreover, note that, in other sports, since there’s harmony, often the distractions will nurture the Flow state. As long as the distractions are somehow expected within that activity, you tend to tune in even more when they pop-up, since such distractions play a part in psyching you out even more. The more action during the fight, the more momentum for the fighters; and the more challenging the lift the weightlifter will perform, the more she/he will dive into Flow; etc.

In Freediving, instead, the distractions seem to fight the momentum, therefore being a stronger opposition to a Flow state. Yes, the distractions are rationally expected; we know they will unavoidably happen. But because their nonharmonic characteristics, they are a very peculiar, hard, and interesting challenge, against which one has to properly strength her/his ‘Flow skills’; against which one must shown Stoic posture, having Wu Wei in mind: action without action, effortless doing; the way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.

A School of Flow

All that said, let me wrap up saying that I see in Freediving not only an thrilling, unique sport, but also a remarkable School of Flow. Although still just a novice in the sport, I already strongly believe that one who is able to improve her/his ‘Flow skills’ as required by more advanced levels of Freediving might be able to greatly benefit of such improvements in other areas of her/his personal life.

Csikszentmihalyi often says that happiness can be cultivated by learning to achieve Flow in our lives. In Flow state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively steered by external forces. And Freediving clearly can work remarkably well as a mean to gain such control of consciousness — and that just as a bonus of an activity that already is, by itself, uniquely beautiful, pleasurable, and breathtaking.


Further reading recommendations: