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Escaping the Surface with Freediver William Trubridge
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Escaping the Surface with Freediver William Trubridge

In this episode, William Trubridge will tell us how freedivers use breathing techniques to stay underwater for more than four minutes during a deep dive reaching a state of absolute calm and tranquility.  We will also learn how freediving can be beneficial for our mental health and that everybody has the physical capacity to deep dive. 

Intro: Welcome back to another episode of The Y Circus Podcast. Today I will speak to New Zealand freediver William Trubridge. He holds several world records reaching depth up to 124 meters with one breath at a time. In this episode, we will learn how freedivers use breathing techniques to help them stay underwater for more than four minutes during a deep dive, reaching a state of absolute calm and tranquility. Freediving doesn’t come without risks, and therefore it’s classified as an extreme sport. However, it’s interesting that it’s the opposite of an adrenalin sport like parachuting or snowboarding. It has a very spiritual element to it. And three divers are in a trancelike state of mind while freefalling into the depths of the ocean. William describes how this feels and will reflect on the most significant lessons he has learned during his freediving career. So like always, I hope you enjoy this episode. 

William Trubridge: My family lived on a boat sailing across the oceans; we sailed from Europe to New Zealand over five years. I don’t remember leaving, but we went when I was a child of two years old. I think somewhere along the way, and I started to form long-term memories. And so my first memories were life on the boat, on the water, swimming, playing in the ocean. Back then, the sea was everything to us; it was our highway, home, supermarket, playground, school, and everything. I couldn’t live without the ocean. I think that’s probably obvious to anyone who knows that even remotely. So it’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. And it’s still just as important. I guess I need to be outdoors and in nature. If I’m trapped inside, then I can’t handle that. But the ocean. Yeah, it’s not only a place where I train and have such unique experiences, but it can teach you so much about yourself about the world that life, and consciousness. So I’ve just spent my whole life just learning from the ocean. 

TYC: And what would you say was the most important lesson?

Well, probably one of the greatest ones, for me, at least one that’s a constant state status of revealing itself to me is this idea that we are in, in essence, purely awareness or consciousness and nothing else. We’re not bodies; obviously, you can take those away, and we’re still there. We’re not our memories or thoughts because those happen spontaneously; you don’t know where they come from. All we are is just that kind of presence, that awareness that’s watching and experiencing everything as it comes through the window. And some forms of freediving strip away all of that excess stuff so that you can just experience what it is to be pure consciousness. It takes away all the extraneous stuff, the memories of the past, and the worries about the future. It centers you just on the here and now and what you are at this moment. I would experience this feeling the deepest in the form of diving I call deep hangs, where I’ll go down to like a middle depth around 60 meters or so. And then stay down there holding on to the rope wholly relaxed. And that allows you to go inside yourself and experience this.

TYC: I think for many people who are not familiar with a sport that sounds pretty imaginable, being in a depth of 60 meters, completely calm and relaxed and staying there for a couple of minutes. So excuse my naive question, but how do you do this?

Everyone can hold their breath for longer than they think. And we all have a mammalian dive reflex, an innate response to holding our breath or being under the water that prolongs the time we can be underwater. So training extends that, but everyone has a capacity for freediving that is innate.

Excerpt of the documentary Dolphin Man: “I’m like a wild animal. I live intensely for the moment. The man who descends into the sea wild holding his breath is the same as marine mammals. There’s a dolphin dormant in all of us…”

TYC: This short clip was from the trailer of the documentary Dolphin Man, which traces the story of Jaques Mayol, who was one of the pioneers of freediving. I highly recommend watching the movie to learn more about the origins of freediving. It also features William Trubridge. And there is indeed a dolphin dormant in all of us; we have the same mammalian dive reflex. As soon as our bodies make contact with the water, this reflex kicks in and reduces our heart rate, which is called bradycardia. Studies have shown that the mammalian dive reflex can drop somebody’s heart rate by 10 to 25%. As William already pointed out, it’s an evolutionary adaption that allows us to stay underwater for an extended period. So the slow heart rate results in this nice and peaceful feeling underwater. And the same effect also has a breathing exercise during yoga that slows your heart rate until you feel calm and relaxed. And free divers also benefit from yoga practices and integrate them into that training. 

William Trubridge: I do incorporate a lot of elements from yoga that must mourn particularly the not so much the physical side of though I do those stretches, but a more the breathing aspects of yoga such as pranayama, Nadi showdown and particular uses of banders, which are locks in our body. And then, a lot of the concepts that I use to slow the mind down and concentrate on emptying the spaces between thoughts. And we teach the techniques that we’ve developed in freediving, the mental techniques or ways to control your mind and deal with stress and anxiety. We teach those to people who aren’t going into the water but who have many difficulties in their life, like anxiety, stress, or even kind of corporate people, to handle the stress in rapidly changing businesses, that kind of stuff. So it’s applicable outside our sport a lot as well. Recently, because of COVID, I’ve been doing them mostly online as webinars or virtual presentations. And in those, I try to have kind of interactive elements to them as well. So I’ll talk to them about how we can use mental techniques and specific types of breathing to calm the mind and the body. But then we’ll also allow everyone to demonstrate themselves by trying a breath-hold together employing these techniques. And pretty much every case everyone has kind of they blow themselves away by how much they’re capable of doing. And that proves to them a couple of things, it demonstrates to them these methods work, but it proves more so that they have the capacity for so much more than they thought they were capable of. And if that’s the case, in something like breath hold, then it’s probably the case in almost every other aspect of their life as well. So it builds confidence at the same time.

TYC: You’ve been learning and applying these techniques for years now. So how has your personal life benefited from these learnings?

People say I have a calm personality. And I guess I usually don’t react to negative situations or scenarios with a lot of emotional outpouring. I still feel probably the same emotions as everyone. And sometimes I can control them, sometimes not. But the process is that I try to see those emotions, the feelings that well up in us, whether it’s anger, irritation, frustration, all these kinds of negative things like jealousy, as information. It’s just information sent from one part of your body to another or one part of your brain to another. It’s a signal, and you’re just in the center of it all, experiencing it in the same way as if I’d feel the urge to breathe when I’m holding my breath, or I’m underwater, which is also a highly intense sensation. But I’ve learned that this is also just information. It’s just information about two different gases in my bloodstream: carbon dioxide and oxygen; carbon dioxide is going up, and oxygen is going down. So if I can see it purely as information, then I can detach myself from that reaction to it. The one thing that I one word that I often get back to and that I’m constantly in the process of seeking out is equanimity, just this ability to be in difficult situations while still staying centered and focused and calm and freediving has taught me that.

TYC: What is the part of the dive you most enjoy?

The freefall is probably one of the most beautiful parts of the dive because you are being accepted into the ocean, your lungs have been compressed to the point where your body is negatively buoyant. So you can stop swimming and still fall at a significant speed close to a meter per second. And that means that you can relax and allow yourself to be drawn down deeper into the ocean. If you didn’t do that, if you carried on swimming, it would be unnecessary, you’d be a little bit quicker, but you’d be wasting energy. And then, when you turn around, you’d have less energy and oxygen to come back up. So you’re conserving everything for that ascent, which will be a lot more complicated than your way down. And the important thing is to really get into that relaxation, like a kind of trancelike state, and the ocean, the depths, the darkness will help to do that.

TYC: Can you describe a little bit how that feels like this trancelike state? 

It’s definitely an altered state of mind. And usually, it just enhances anything that’s happening in your mind. So if you’re feeling really good, then the narcosis is going to make you feel blissful. If you’re feeling kind of nervous or worried or slightly panicky, then the Narcos will make you feel like you’re going to die. So it stretches out and enhances anything that you’re feeling. It’s pretty easy to get into a trancelike state. I’m not sure if I’m good at doing that. Or if it’s more the ocean and the effect of pressure and the slightly narcotic impact of gases and pressure that contribute to having this effect.

TYC: So you mentioned the freefall is one of the most beautiful parts. And the ascent is the most challenging part because you need much more physical strength. And what would you say is the most mentally tough part of it?

William Trubridge: In reality, it’s probably the start before you even take your last breath. You are trying to stay relaxed and composed on the surface before the dive; I’d say for me, at least, that’s always the most challenging part. Once the dive begins, everything has happened so many times before that it’s programmed into your subconscious mind. You’re operating on a script playing out these motions and maneuvers that you’ve done so many times before. But physically, the most challenging part of the dive is the ascent because that’s where we’re doing most of the work. On the way down, I take seven strokes before freefall. On the way up, it can be as many as 35.

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TYC: We’ve now talked a lot about the benefits the sport holds. But I feel we need to address the risky side of freediving as there have been some deadly accidents in the past. And it’s not uncommon for freedivers to lose consciousness underwater. Can you tell us a bit of your experience with that? 

William Trubridge: That’s what we call a blackout. You become unconscious underwater because your oxygen has dropped to a level where your brain acts similar to your computer when it gets to a low battery. It shuts itself down to conserve the remaining battery that it has. The brain shuts itself down with a lot of battery left. There’s still quite a bit of oxygen in your body when it decides to blackout. So even if that happens, and it takes your safety divers to get you to the surface. It usually only takes a few seconds, but in that time, you still have plenty of oxygen flying in your blood, your heart’s beating. It looks gruesome, but it’s not in reality by a huge threat to your life. Obviously, we want to avoid it because it’s a failed drive. It means you’ve pushed too hard, and you’ve screwed something up. But at the same time, if you are pushing limits and trying to break world records, it’s going to happen sooner or later. So it has happened a few times in my career. And the most important thing is to analyze what went wrong so that you can use that to improve and make sure it doesn’t happen again or change anything that needs to be changed.

TYC: You just mentioned that you challenge your human potential to know how far you can go. How do you know your limits? 

William Trubridge: With experience, you develop a perception of those boundaries. Like this morning, I was training, and it wasn’t my deepest dive, but it was still very deep, and I started to get a sense on the way up. It’s more kind of an intuition nowadays, just a feeling that I wasn’t going to make it. Usually, when that happens, I persist a little longer to see how it goes. If it intensifies, then I can abort the dive. So if I’m coming up with no fins, I start to pull on the rope, which makes the drive a lot easier and signals to my team that I’m aborting the dive. And so they can pull the rope up quicker. So then, all I have to do is hold on to the rope, and I get a free ride back to the surface. Even though it seems like we’re pushing the envelope and risking our lives, it’s not necessarily the case. And almost all of the accidents that have happened have been cases where that safety system has failed. Or cases where an athlete has been pushing up against other kinds of injuries like lung injury, pervading lung injuries, or something else that has made the dive more dangerous. But in general, diving with a good safety team shouldn’t be too dangerous in a controlled scenario.

TYC: What do you think? How will the sport evolve in the future, because it’s still quite a young sport?

William Trubridge:  There’s a lot of scope for it to evolve more and become more mainstream and progress. The safety side needs to stay concurrent with that understanding a little bit more about what’s going on in the body and in the lungs in particular, and what causes accidents, and becoming more professional as a sport so that safety teams aren’t just comprised of whoever wants to put up their hand but professionally trained safety divers who have to meet certain standards and have a lot of specific kind of airways training. Those are the main areas. But I think we’re heading in the right direction. I don’t think it will change a lot from the format that we have now. So the primary disciplines that we have diving with fins or without fins are the two best definitions of human aquatic potential. And I see those as remaining the two main ways of freediving in the future.

TYC: As William just mentioned, freediving has two main categories, diving with fins and diving without fins. And unlike other water sport disciplines, for example, like swimming or surfing, when you still rely on the surface and the air to breathe, freediving is challenging the aquatic potential of the whole body. William explains that very well during a TED talk in Christ Church in New Zealand. And we will now listen to a short clip of that talk…

TYC: I still have one final question. Where lie the origins of our fascination with the ocean? Do you have a theory in mind?

William Trubridge: That’s a good question. I’ve always asked why is it that we are drawn to the ocean? Why is it that we want to spend vacations there? A piece of property on the waterfront will cost ten times as much as it does in the countryside. And it’s difficult to tell there’s something about it like alluring magic, even to watch the ocean, which I think is deeply embedded in our psyche. Somehow it might have something to do with our very distant past and evolution. Having evolved from the oceans might have something to do with it. The fact that we spend the first nine months of our lives encased in an ocean in a certain sense, but I still feel like there’s more to it even than that. So yeah, it’s a mystery even to me. And there have been books written just specifically about answering that question, but I still haven’t heard of one theory that gets it right.

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