I went from holding my breath all day every day at my desk to doing it underwater, and it led to some major life lessons. (Plus, one of the coolest adventures of my life.)
Photo: I Am Water Ocean Travel
Who knew that refusing to do something as natural as breathing could be a hidden talent? For some, it can even be life-changing. While studying in Sweden in 2000, Hanli Prinsloo, then 21, was introduced to freediving—the age-old art of swimming to great depths or distances and resurfacing in a single breath (no oxygen tanks allowed). Frigid fjord temps and a leaky wetsuit made her first-ever dive far from idyllic, but just serendipitous enough for her to discover a bizarre knack for holding her breath for really long. Amazingly long.
Upon dipping her toe in the sport, the South African was instantly hooked, especially when she learned that her lung capacity is six liters—as much as most men and higher than the average woman's, which is closer to four. When not moving, she can go six minutes with no air—and not die. Try listening to the entire song "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan in one inhale. Impossible, right? Not for Prinsloo. (Related: Epic Water Sports You'll Want to Try)
Prinsloo went on to smash a total of 11 national records in six disciplines (her best dive being 207 feet with fins) during her decade-long career as a competitive freediver, which ended in 2012 when she decided to focus on her nonprofit, I AM WATER Foundation, in Cape Town.
Founded two years earlier, the nonprofit's mission is to help kids and adults, particularly those from underprivileged coastal communities in South Africa, fall in love with the ocean and, ultimately, fight to preserve it. Fact is, climate change is real—as evidenced by Cape Town's imminent water crisis. By 2019, it may become the world's first major modern city to run out of municipal water. While H2O from the faucet is not equivalent to the beach kind, water conversation, on all levels, is crucial for our existence. (Related: How Climate Change Affects Your Mental Health)
"The more I felt connected to the ocean, the more I saw how deeply disconnected most people are from it. Everybody loves staring at the sea, but it's an on-the-surface appreciation. That lack of connection has resulted in us behaving in some pretty irresponsible ways to the ocean, because we can't see the destruction," says Prinsloo, now 39, whom I met in-person last July while visiting Cape Town as a guest of Extraordinary Journeys, the exclusive U.S. tour operator for I AM WATER Ocean Travel. Prinsloo co-founded this travel company in 2016 with her long-time partner, Peter Marshall, an American world champion swimmer, to support her nonprofit and share their enthusiasm about all things aquatic in a sustainable and responsible way.
Jumping In Head First
The way Prinsloo describes people's relationship to the ocean is actually how I feel about my body. I've been working on building a strong mind-body connection through meditation (albeit, not regular) and exercise (two to three times a week) for years. And yet, I often feel disappointed when my body fails to respond to my seemingly simple requests to go harder, stronger, faster, better. I feed it decently well and give it plenty of sleep, and still, I suffer from stress-induced stomachaches or feelings of uneasiness all the time. Like most people, I get frustrated by my unpredictable vessel, largely because I can't see what exactly anxiety is doing to me internally, though I can feel it. Going into this adventure, I was certain that I would tank at learning to freedive. I've always asked a lot of my body—10 triathlons, hiking up mountains, biking from San Francisco to LA, traveling the world nonstop with little rest—but never to work in conjunction with my mind to keep completely calm while performing a challenging activity. (Related: 7 Adventurous Women Who Will Inspire You to Go Outside)
The beauty of these seafaring adventures is that no one is expecting you to be an expert. Over the course of the week or so, you take breathing, yoga, and freediving lessons, while enjoying some amazing perks, like private villas and personal chefs. The best perk of all: Exploring some of the world's most beautiful destinations, including Cape Town, Mexico, Mozambique, the South Pacific, and, two new destinations for 2018, the Caribbean in June and Madagascar in October. The goal of each trip isn't meant to turn you pro, like Prinsloo, but rather help you strengthen your relationship with the ocean as well as your mind-body connection, plus maybe cross off a bucket list item, like swimming with dolphins or whale sharks. Perhaps, find a hidden talent, too.
"There really are no prerequisites. You don't have to be a hardcore athlete or diver to do this. It's really more about curiosity for learning something new about yourself and experiencing very close animal encounters. We get a lot of yogis, nature-lovers, hikers, trail runners, cyclists as well as city-dwellers looking for something to completely take their mind off work," Prinsloo says. As a self-employed, type-A New Yorker, it sounded like the perfect escape. I desperately longed to get out of my head and away from my desk. (Related: 4 Reasons Why Adventure Travel Is Worth Your PTO)
Trying My Hand at Freediving
We started our first freediving lesson at Windmill Beach in Kalk Bay, a small, secluded, scenic section of False Bay, which includes Boulders Beach, where adorable South African penguins hang out. There, I put on a pair of goggles, a thick hooded wetsuit, plus neoprene boots and gloves to avoid getting hypothermia in the wintry, 50-something degree Atlantic (hello, southern hemisphere). Last, we each put on an 11-pound rubber weight belt to combat "floaty bum," as Prinsloo called our buoyant Beyonce booties. Then, like Bond girls on a mission, we slowly entered the water. (Fun fact: Prinsloo was Bond girl Halle Berry's underwater body-double in the 2012 shark movie, Dark Tide.)
Thankfully, there were no great whites hiding among the dense kelp forest, about a five-minute swim from shore. Beyond a few small schools of fish and starfish, we had the anchored canopies, swaying in the pristine water, all to ourselves. For the next 40 minutes, Prinsloo directed me to grab hold of one of the long vines of algae, and practice slowly pulling myself toward the invisible ocean floor. The farthest I got was maybe five or six hand-pulls, equalizing (holding my nose and blowing out to pop my ears) each step of the way.
While the breathtaking charm and serenity of marine life were undeniable, I couldn't help but feel a little bummed that I, too, wasn't secretly gifted. At no point did I feel unsafe or scared thanks to Prinsloo's constant soothing presence and reassuring "thumbs up" below the surface, plus check-ins and smiles above the surface. In fact, I felt surprisingly calm, but not at ease. My mind was pissed at my body for needing to come up for air so often. My brain wanted to push my body, but as usual, my body had other plans. I was too disjointed internally to make it work.
Getting a Hang of the Breathwork
The next morning, we practiced a short vinyasa flow while overlooking the ocean from the pool deck of my hotel. Then, she guided me through a few 5-minute breath meditations (inhaling for 10 counts, exhaling for 10 counts), each culminating in a breath-holding exercise that she clocked on her iPhone. I didn't have high hopes that I'd surpass 30 seconds, especially after yesterday. But still, I did my best think about all the science that she had been feeding me for the last 24 hours pertaining to our ability to go without air.
"The breath-hold has three different phases: 1) Total relaxation when you're almost asleep, 2) awareness when the urge to breathe sets in, and 3) contractions when the body is literally trying to force you to gasp for air. Most people will start breathing in the awareness phase because that's what the early reminder makes us do," Prinsloo explains. Bottom line: The body has several built-in mechanisms that will stop you from voluntarily suffocating yourself. It's programmed to shut down, or blackout, to force oxygen intake before any harm is done.
In other words, my body has got my back. It doesn't need my brain's help to tell it when to breathe. It instinctively knows exactly when I need oxygen, long before risking any real damage. The reason Prinsloo is telling me this and that we're practicing this on land is so that when I'm in the water, I can reassure my antsy, over-active mind that my body has got this, and that I should trust it to tell me when it's time to come up for air. The breath-holding exercise reinforces just this: It's a team effort, not a dictatorship led by my noggin.
At the end of four exercises, Prinsloo revealed that my first three holds were well over one minute, which was astounding. My fourth breath hold, which is when I heeded her advice and covered my mouth and nose during some contractions (sounds scarier than it was), I broke two minutes. TWO MINUTES. What?! My exact time was 2 minutes and 20 seconds! I couldn't believe it. And, at no point, did I panic. In fact, I'm positive that if we had continued, I could have gone longer. But breakfast was calling, so, you know, priorities.
Discovering New Talents
"We're happy when guests on day one get over a minute or minute and a half. Over two minutes is phenomenal," Prinsloo fills my head with dreams that I never knew I had. "On seven-day trips, we get everyone doing over two, three, even four minutes. If you were to do this for a week, I bet you could be over four minutes." My god, maybe I do have a hidden talent after all! If I had four whole minutes, which feels doubly long when you're in the ocean and moving super slowly, to enjoy complete and utter peace both under the quiet and calm sea—as well as in my body and mind—I might actually get better at managing stress and anxiety at home, too. (Related: The Many Health Benefits of Trying New Things)
Sadly, I had a plane to catch that evening, so putting my newfound skills to the test was not an option this trip. Guess that means I'll need to plan another trip to meet up with Prinsloo again soon. For now, I have a large, framed reminder hanging above my dining table: The drone-shot image of Prinsloo and I swimming in this special bay in Cape Town. I smile at it every day, and feel a wave of calm whenever I think about this extraordinary experience. I am already holding my breath til I can do it all over again.