What is Yoga and is it necessary for Freediving?

I love interacting with the global freediving community and since launching my first online Yoga for Freediving course, I have had lots of great feedback and a few questions from people who are curious about what it is that I’m doing and whether it’s for them. The question that has arisen most is why yoga is relevant to freediving, and therefore if practicing yoga is a necessary part of our training. 

Teaching at the One Breath Jamboree in Bali. Photo credit Lili Cottier

Teaching at the One Breath Jamboree in Bali. Photo credit Lili Cottier

In order to answer this question, let’s start by looking at what yoga actually is. There has been a massive boom in the yoga ‘market’ over the past few years, the result being that the true essence of its meaning has become rather lost in all the noise.

The term ‘yoga’ comes from Sanskrit and means ‘union’. There are eight original limbs of yoga; 

  • Yama : Universal morality
  • Niyama : personal observances
  • Asana : posture
  • Pranayama : breath control
  • Pratyahara : withdrawl of the senses
  • Dharana : concentration
  • Dhayana : meditation
  • Samadhi : absorption in the Spirit

It is clear that the West, in its obsession with the material world and the body beautiful, has focused primarily on Asana or posture and the other seven limbs are rarely included in practice, at least in any depth. It is therefore not surprising that, to the non-practitioner, it appears that yoga is simply a form of physical exercise, with a fuzzy and somewhat tenuous link to spirituality. 

As freedivers it is essential that our bodies are in optimal working order and so therefore asana is a great way to ensure we are in shape, strong, flexible and our energy can flow unimpeded. However, as a freediver you are probably also aware that a great deal of the outcomes of you dives lies more in your mental state and understanding and confronting your fears, and developing a more gentle, subtle approach. This is where the other seven limbs come to the fore, and when true yoga is practiced, we find we come to the water as much more rounded, balanced and relaxed beings. Let’s explore how each of the seven other limbs serve us in our diving:

Yama – Universal morality

There are five ‘yama’s; Ahimsa - compassion for all living things; Satya – commitment to truthfulness; Asteya – non stealing; Brahmacharya – sense control; and Aparigraha – neutralising the desire for wealth. 

Yama is a form of yoga that relates to social behaviour and as such is the least relevant to our training as freedivers. However, Satya – truthfulness, here mainly in relation to how we interact with and can either uplift or hurt others, is an essential aspect of our training. For coaches and instructors it is essential that we can convey the lessons our students need to learn in a loving and motivating way. And for each one of us, we need to be truthful with ourselves in terms of our experiences, what lies behind them and the lessons we can learn from each one. 

Niyama – personal observances

There are also five ‘niyama’s: Sauca – purity; Santosa – contentment; Tapas – discplined use of energy; Svadhyaya – self-study; Isvarapranidhana – celebration of the Spiritual. 

We see already how crucial Niyama is to our freediving; 

  • Sauca is purity of body and mind – we cannot dive if our tissues are full of toxins, lactic acid and our mind is cluttered with negativity. 
  • Santosa means we enter the water in a happy and relaxed state and the dives unfold accordingly. 
  • Tapas ensures that we remain focused on our goal and don’t go off on wild whims, partying hard the night before a big training session, and being aware of the temptation to go into over-training. 
  • Svadhyaya is about developing the clarity and honesty we need to examine our dive experiences; why did we turn early, what fears were sabotaging our performance, and holding us back from the ability to surrender completely. 
  • Isvarapranidhana is the act of surrender, without which our dives are ultimately ego-driven and therefore will be tense and never truly joyful.

Asana – postures

As I’ve said, this is a crucial part of our training as freedivers, but it is only ONE of EIGHT aspects that needs to be trained. Asana is particularly useful for people who have poor body, and body-breath awareness or are stiff and inflexible from long hours of sitting at work. Asana will bring in a greater sense of connectedness to the physical self, as well as improving flexibility and core strength, both of which are necessary for freediving.

Pranayama – breath control

I don’t think I need to explain this one in relation to freediving, but it is worth mentioning the link between the breath and our minds. Our breath directly reflects the state of our mind; stress results in shallow rapid breathing, a relaxed state means we breath slowly and deeply. The opposite is also true; when we consciously direct our breath to become slow and deep, our mind has no choice but to follow and slow down and relax. Therefore freediving training and correct breathe-up techniques are an automatic way of relieving your stress and calming you down. Which is quite probably why you love freediving so much!

Pratyahara – withdrawl of the senses

Our senses are the way in which we connect with and experience the world around us. In order to freedive we must learn to draw our attention inwards, to the body and the mind to achieve a state of focus and deep relaxation. Beneath the water we have complete silence, and there is no distraction from smell or taste. Diving with our eyes more or less closed brings our focus inward and can completely transform our dives, particularly early on in our training. And our sense of touch or sensation and learning to read and understand the very subtle messages passing between our body and the water is the key to knowing exactly what is going on at each stage of the dive, and how to respond. 

Dharana – concentration

This is often referred to as single-pointed focus, or the ability to concentrate purely on one thing. If you have ever tried to do this you will know that it is extremely hard and really possibly only for a few seconds at a time. When we dive we ideally want to hold Dharana for the entire duration of our dive. One moment of lapsed attention can mean we miss an equalisation and the dive is over. This is essential for freediving, without it progression is very hard, slow and frustrating.

Dhayana – meditation

Concentration is an essential element of meditation, but meditation goes further; 'we learn to differentiate between the mind of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived, between words, their meanings, and ideas, and between all the levels of evolution of nature.' Essentially for freediving, meditation is the process of acknowledging but rising above the needs of the Ego, surrendering to your own Higher Power, and courageously facing your truth. Freediving is therefore an extremely powerful tool for self-awareness, because our fears and our confrontation with our selves is unavoidable. 

Samadhi – absorption in Spirit

This is the ultimate goal of true yoga, and the ultimate goal of freediving. And when you have a dive that feels easier than any before, effortless, peaceful and blissful all at the same time, this is the experience of Samadhi we are looking to achieve in the water.

Is yoga necessary for freediving?

So, to return to the question whether yoga is essential for freediving, it depends on how deeply and completely you embrace the fullness of true yoga. Asana on its own will take you some of the way, but if you stop there you will also reach a point where you stop in your freediving progression and will experience frustration rather than continued growth. All eight of the limbs of yoga are essential for our growth as human beings – thousands of years of thousands of yogis practicing and achieving enlightenment are proof of the soundness of this path. 

My Yoga for Freediving courses reflect this full and balanced approach. Each course contains at least two lectures on how we can better understand and integrate this yogic philosophy into our training. I place a huge focus through every course on meditation and pranayama, and the asanas are included as tools to support the rest of the work you will do. The entire focus in Yoga for Freediving is to help you to understand the concept of true yoga, and discover the bliss of complete surrender in the water and in life.

So, if you are practicing with a yoga teacher who is themselves limited in their understanding of what true yoga is, then you will not understand and experience the full benefits. But if you are truly practicing yoga, beyond asana-only classes, and are going deep, then yes, for me there is no other way to achieved the united state of mind, body and spirit which is essential to dive safely beyond our perceived limits, with grace, ease and a huge smile. 

My next Yoga for Freediving course, MANAGE YOUR MIND will be released for sale on 26th August, in celebration of the birthday of Yogi Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga.