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Friday, April 27, 2007

Practical Advice from Free Divers



For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed holding my breath. I won't fault you for thinking this is odd. I don't feel it's odd, but I understand that it probably is. And I'm not sure why I enjoy it, but I do. It may stem from an episode of the 1980's TV show That's Incredible that featured the Yogi Kudu who folded himself up into a 1'x 1' Perspex box and then had it submerged in water for the duration of the show. Incidentally, "That's Incredible" featured Cathy Lee Crosby, John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton of Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants fame, as well as a commentator on Monday Night Football and software magnate(!?), proving that a man can successfully carry the name Fran.

I also had a compulsion to get very limber, but this was just a phase that didn't last very long. Not only is stretching painful, it's also conspicuous and requires some room to spread out. Breath holding, on the other hand, can be done most anywhere. And if you do it right, is fairly inconspicuous.

But it wouldn't have been until I saw the 1988 film The Big Blue that I had my eyes opened to the kind of territory breath holding can take you. I must have seen The Big Blue sometime prior to a 1994 trip to a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. On that trip I did some scalloping. And that brought free diving to life for me. It was on that trip, in trying to figure out why I could only get 45 second dives, while I could easily hold my breath for 2:30 on land, that I did a 5 min dry land hold. This is my personal best, and something I haven't really attempted to better since then. It was on that trip that I realized that there is something special about the quiet you can achieve when not breathing. There's something freely available, right there, right now and it's somehow compelling to me.

I always thought that this skill(?)hobby(?)ability(?) would be very handy if I were to

a. get trapped in a car that had run off a bridge
b. had to swim in through a tunnel to escape a shark infested pool (a la James Bond in Thunderball(?)
or
c. watching movies with extended underwater breath holding scenes. I don't know about you, but I always hold my breath for as long as I can when I'm watching a movie where somebody is holding their breath.

But none of these instances requiring breath holding happen to me very often (thankfully). So it was an ability that lay dormant for a long while. Then we had babies.

Now, at least once a week, I'm faced with a poo that is so heinous, so putrid and smelly that even breathing through only your mouth still brings on convulsive choking. So, hold your breath. This is easier said than done. Mostly long breath holds are done in a relaxed environment after a considerable meditation and visualization, not while struggling to keep her wobbly Tinyness from getting pongy crap all over the change table and her feet. The trick is not only to hold your breath, but also to invoke the Dive Reflex (DR).

Every mammal exhibits the dive reflex. Some mammals, like beak-nosed whales, have mastered this reflex to the point where they can dive deeper and longer than physiologically expected. But as I said above, invoking the dive reflex is usually an exercise in relaxation, slowing your heart and clearing your mind, etc. But in this case, it's going directly up against the crap reflex. I'm not sure if it's the crying, the toxicity of the poo, or what, but my blood pressure and heart rate go way up when I realize Miss WMDs-in-the-pants has released a live ordinance. This makes it difficult to get past that 45 second barrier, and completing a change in less than 45 seconds leaves very little margin for error.

So here's what you have to do:

1. Visualization: Go through the change in your mind. Imagine with as much detail as you can that you execute it flawlessly and at a relaxed pace (it's important to stay relaxed because children can smell fear, even over the stank of their own doo).

2. Dive Reflex: The best way to invoke the dive reflex is to put your face in a bowl of very cold water. When a mammal's face is submerged in cold water several key changes take place (after the initial shock wears off): capillaries in the extremities contract, blood pressure (eventually) goes down, heart rate goes down. The effect is to pool blood in your core and slow the consumption of available oxygen.

3. Plan the dive, dive the plan: Hold your breath and do the change. Take your time. There will be several distinct phases your body goes through after you stop breathing. After about 30 seconds you'll feel a pain reflex inspired not by being short on O2 or abundance of CO2, but by the mere fact that you haven't been breathing. Your body is sending you a brief, polite message requesting that you resume its natural rhythm. This pain will subside and a mild euphoria will rise up as your body "switches gears" into dive mode. This is the beginning of the dive reflex payoff. Your spleen dumps a dose of fresh hemoglobin into your bloodstream to pick up any spare O2 that might still be hiding in your lungs, the capillaries contract, yadda yadda yadda. You should have a good minute of changing time left at this point (if you don't get spooked and succumb to the crap reflex). Then the real pains start to set in. It's very important at this point to be in a closing up phase of the change, and to contain the offending matter in some way that prevents further stinking up of the place. You'll want some clearing-the-air time to get between you and the previous unpleasantness. Now if you're stretching your capacity at this point you might start to get convulsions or spasms of the diaphragm. Now normally people regard these convulsions as the worst and most unpleasant feeling in breath holding. But you, you can feel a sense of accomplishment in that these are diaphragm contractions and not true gagging. And let's face it, that's what you would have been doing for the entire change had you not been holding your breath. So bring on the diaphragm contractions. I'd take those over stomach wrenching gagging any day. There's no need to panic when the contractions start. Some free divers will suffer three or more minutes of contractions before breathing. Lucky for you, you're not 90m under water and you're almost done with this change (if things have gone to plan). When you deem it safe, exhale. And use the exhale to get the cloud of bad air hovering above the baby away from you and your baby (because remember your baby has been breathing through this and every other change, the poor dears).

Now, I have to say, although the information here is factual and the suggestion is genuine, I haven't actually tried the cold water trick. I haven't needed to. But keep in mind that I've been training for this from the early 80's. I've included the putting your face in the water part because I'd love to hear back from someone who tried it. If I ever did any 419-baiting, I'd get the mark to get video of himself doing this very thing.

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