What to think about during a static apnea breath hold

Static Apnea is one of the hardest freediving disciplines. There is no movement, no need to equalise. Nothing to take your mind off the fact that you are lying face down in a pool, against all received wisdom, holding your breath.

You can probably hear sounds around you, children playing, people stopping and asking your buddy what on earth you are up to. You need to concentrate, cut out all distractions, focus your mind, but you can’t. Your mind is scattershot, conspiring with your mind to get you to breathe.

Go Freediving - Carl Atkinson - Freediving Competitions

Carl Atkinson

What do people think about when holding their breath?

Over the years of teaching and practicing static apnea, the question always arises ‘what do you think about?’ What can you concentrate on that stops you thinking about the urge to breathe? When people first learn to hold their breath, their mind is racing, yelling at them to stop this craziness and take a breath. Hardened Scuba divers will burst out of the water after only 20 seconds of a static apnea breath hold, adamant that they cannot hold their breath any longer despite not being out of breath at all.

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When people become more accustomed to static apnea, they start to move beyond the initial stages of mental panic and they then have to find things to think about. I have had students thinking of all kinds of things to take their mind of the breath hold, from sex to imagining looking at their dead body lying in a coffin!

Proper breathing preparation

The process of stilling the mind actually comes way before the static apnea breath hold. It is useful to follow a plan, create a preparation strategy that maximises routine and minimises stress. Breathing correctly is key to this, ensuring that you do not hyperventilate. By keeping levels of CO2 stable in the blood and your breathing preparation gentle and relaxed, your body moves into the parasympathetic state and this in turn relaxes the mind.

freediving competition - relaxing

Focus on breathing as if you are falling asleep, gently extending the exhalation. Keep your lower jaw relaxed. I have many time seen freedivers actually fall asleep during their preparation for static apnea, proving just how relaxed their mind and body is.

Techniques to use during a static apnea breath hold

Here are some of the most useful things to think about when holding your breath

  • Initially, try to allow your mind to drift off and think of nothing at all
  • If you can hear your heart beat, visualise it slowing down
  • Use the sound of your heart beat as a metronome, counting very slowly up to ten using five heart beats per count. When you reach ten, start again at zero
  • Slowly scan through different parts of your body, checking that they are completely relaxed. If you find you always have an area of your body that tenses up then keep coming back to it
  • Use the rotation of consciousness from yoga nidra practice to bring your awareness to different parts of your body in turn
  • Sing the lyrics to a song you love, or recite a poem
  • Follow the sounds around you, from the furthest away to the closest and then back out again
  • Imagine walking in the front door of your house and what you see as you walk through every room
  • Visualise your body being filled very slowly with white or coloured light

static apnea relaxationOther tricks to help you hold your breath longer

There are lots of other techniques that can help you with static apnea. I advise starting the breath hold with your eyes shut, and then opening them when you can’t seem to control your mind any longer.

Remember to use your buddy. Some freedivers don’t like any sound at all to distract them, however others use their buddy very effectively, to act as a coach, giving you things to think about and encouraging you to stay down.

Everyone is unique and you will find your own method for stilling your mind. Keep experimenting though as often new techniques can help even if you then decide to turn back to the old ones. As always, only ever train in water with a qualified and experienced buddy with you at all times.


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One Comment

  1. Mark 07/07/2015 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    I can share what I do, but I am not sure if it should be a recommended practice for freediving training. It is, at least, probably quite helpful if your aim is to deepen a meditation practice, and perhaps also to maintain your abilities during off season.

    I do 2 statics every morning when I wake up as part of my meditation routine and to maintain some of the “software” now that I’m not able to freedive so regularly. My technique is two-fold.

    First, I sing a song in my head that makes me smile. Usually this is Sinatra’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” or “Swinging on a Star.”

    Then, once contractions begin, I shift to passively counting them. Now that I think about it, though, the song almost always continues in some form in the “background” of my mind. I usually count to 20 contractions on my first hold. And anywhere between 30 and 50 contractions on my second.

    I don’t know if it would be recommended to count the contractions, but I find it a nice way to set goals for each static while allowing them to vary in duration depending on how my body is doing that day. That is, if my body is tired, the contractions come sooner. If I am rested, later.

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