One of the lesser-known facets of Japanese culture is that of the Ama pearl divers. Ama in Japanese is ‘woman of the sea’. This ancient art of sea foraging dates back as far as 2,000 years. These women freedive 40 feet deep into cold waters wearing nothing more than a loincloth, holding their breath for minutes at a time to gather abalone, seaweed, shellfish, and pearls.
The reason the Ama are mostly female is said to be their thicker layer of fat, which keeps them insulated. Freediving up to four hours a day, the tight-knit community of women are able to support themselves. But perhaps most surprisingly is the age at which they skin-dive. They start to learn the trade at 12 and 13, diving into their 80s and 90s. New fishing methods paired with the younger generation’s refusal to follow in the steps of their elders, have caused the number of Ama to dwindle. In 2010, only 2,714 remained.
In parallel, freediving for the sake of it has gained momentum. Our newsfeeds are interspersed with willowy, long-limbed and bubbleless creatures wearing fins and… not much else. Freediving is the art – or science – of diving underwater on a single breath.
The current record stands at 24 minutes without a single gulp of air. Lungs of steel. Superhuman. But there is an explanation. Just like dolphins, seals, whales, and other aquatic mammals, all humans are born with the Mammalian Dive Reflex. It is innate, a piece of evolutionary hardware that enables us to hold our breath underwater for longer than we can on dry land. It kicks in when the face is submerged in water: the heart slows, peripheral blood vessels constrict, the spleen compresses, doping the body with red blood cells. Oxygen is used more sparingly and efficiently.
Then comes the moment when the urge to breathe is unbearable. Your lungs feel like they might burst. There is a burning sensation. Spasms. It is not lack of oxygen that causes the urge to breathe but rising levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. The urge to breathe, a survival mechanism, is the metric for a safe dive. An experienced diver knows their threshold. The rules of free diving are common sense. Never attempt anything alone. Take a course with a certified teacher. The Maldives, which are 99 percent water, are a great place to learn. To experience the womblike feeling of floating and reach a state of zen, it takes practice, a tenacious mind, an ability to stay calm, and lots of breath work.
3 PRACTICES TO GET STARTED
Belly breathing: Diaphragmatic or belly breathing slows your heartbeat and can lower blood pressure. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Take a deep inhale through your nose – the hand on your belly should feel your stomach expanding. Tighten the muscles in your abdomen as you exhale through your mouth. Practice for five to ten minutes. Extend your exhale: If you’re anxious, try making your exhale twice as long as your inhale. Inhale for a count of four and then exhale for a count of eight. Repeat for several rounds.
Body scan: Start at the top of your head and mentally scan down your body. Bring your awareness to your head and neck, and notice if you feel any feelings, sensations, or discomfort. Repeat this practice for your shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, hips, legs, feet, all the way to your toes. Don’t try to change anything – you are a simply an observer assessing your current state.
Today, notable athletes use visualisation as part of their winning strategy. Mentally rehearse your freedive. See yourself going through the motions. Smell the salty air, feel the pull of the water around you, hear the sounds below. The body and mind are a whole, and training the mind will have a strong effect on what your body can achieve.
South Ari Atoll is the world’s largest whale shark congregation, making it an ideal spot for freediving.