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Zen and the art of relaxing… whilst taking on a scarey, new challenge


Caramel-coloured mountains, warm, turquoise waters, and sunshine every day –  this is Dahab, Egypt in wintertime. As a ridiculously busy person, I come to this tropical paradise in winter, not to grind to a sudden halt, but for some “downtime“. You know what I mean – have some good, stress-free living to massage my soul…

However, (my) statistics tell me, if you are a busy person, you will always be busy. You will fill your “free time” up like an obsessed lunatic who’s afraid of the word BORED. Well, at least that is what happened to me… I was learning Arabic, teaching several English classes, marketing my women-only travel business, hunched over my computer for hours on end, drinking life-threatening amounts of tea with my Bedouin neighbours (Arabic practice), and squeezing in trips into the desert to have something to write about in my (fabulous) blog – not to mention all the usual daily chores of cooking, shopping etc. I was doing manic 12-14 hour days. So much for downtime. Clearly, the madness had to stop. So what did I do? I decided to ramp things up a bit more…!

“Relaxing and taking on a freaky challenge at the same time might seem like a quirky combo, but apparently it is possible. It is called freediving.”

Dahab is a tropical Mekka for wind and kitesurfers, scuba and free divers and snorkellers.  After snorkelling for a while I knew all the fish on my local reef by name; it was time to take advantage of what this Mekka had to offer.   I was not only in need of de-stressing, but also in need of a new challenge!  God forbid life get mundane! Relaxing and taking on a freaky challenge at the same time might seem like a quirky combo, but apparently it is possible.  It is called freediving. This is where you have to get into a state of total peace and calm before holding your breath and diving deep down into the sea, away from your lovely, safe, oxygen-filled landlubber world. If it sounds a little insane, you are right. Like a bungy jump, it definitely goes against your better judgement. As a sane person (in this town full of kooks – more about that here) I decided it was worth a try. So my similarly busy 40-something friend Christine and I signed up for a freedive course with Brian of  Blue Ocean Freedivers. Brian’s got one of the best, purpose-built pools in the world to learn in... and he is a very chilled person to be around, so these 2 nervous workaholics were in the right spot.

It was all quite easy to start with: some theory, learning to breath-hold and relax properly on land and then in the pool. We practiced breath-holding underwater in one place (static), then dynamic (swimming the length of the pool)  – I managed to hold my breath for 2 minutes and 43 seconds, and also swim 50 meters  – without dying!

However the next step ramped things up a bit – out into the wild blue ocean!  Dahab is THE best spot in the world for freediving as it gets very deep, very quickly not far from the shore.

OK, picture this –  (i’ll skip the boring practice stuff). Now it’s day 2.We have learnt to fight the urge to breathe, we’ve learnt to ignore our lungs having contractions as the CO2 builds up, we have learnt to relax our tense bodies and monkey-minds from freaking out.  I’m facedown in the sea (snorkel on for a 2 minute relaxation “breath up” to get in the right headspace) . Staring, staring down the rope into the deep, blue, disappearing yonder anchored at 20 metres. I try to focus on just one thing: calmness and achieving. I can do it. It’s all fine (really?!). I shut down my rambling, distracting thoughts. I let my body turn into a relaxed jelly. Small, smug tropical fish saunter past, blatantly showing off their underwater skills. Well, I’ll show them a thing or two. Now my time had come. There was no time for nervousness. It’s verboten. You have to be in a TOTAL state of relaxation if you want to get to a nice depth.

“switching off your mind and not listening to the gremlins in your head is so very, very Zen, that it is almost beyond description ”

Brian gives my arm a gentle squeeze to let me know I have to inflate myself with as much O2 as I can. I spit out the snorkel, and kiss my ass goodbye (so to speak)!  I duck down and grab the rope, pulling myself slowly, arm over arm, into the increasingly dark blue underwater universe. I’ll be honest; at first it’s quite freaky. Depriving yourself of air is very unnatural and your mind does it’s best to tell you so. But you can’t afford to let your mind get in the way, that would only make things worse. Thinking is barely permitted because it gobbles up too much oxygen – the brain uses 30% of the body’s oxygen levels (no wonder I’m so tired, all that scheming I do!) But the sensation of switching off your mind and not listening to the gremlins in your head is so very, very Zen, that it is almost beyond description  – you just relax your entire body and your mind and focus on your goal: Get as far down as you can, as calmly as you can, turn, and come back up. You either go to a certain depth that you want to achieve and turn around, or you go as deep as you think you can (at which time a head gremlinusually tells you it’s time to turn around).

OK, I’ll be honest again. Coming up was the worst bit, because when you get to depth – say 20m and look up – it seems like such a loooong, damn way! And your mind is telling you “Ok, we got to 20m now LET’S GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE”. That was the bit I had to change – I needed to visualize total peace coming up – I know I had enough air in me, it’s all just a mind-game. Seconds (feels like minutes) later I pop back up to the surface. After a few deep, gasping breaths, everything is fine again. What a great sense of achievement and above all PEACE. You don’t come up screaming and shouting and high-five-ing everyone. You are at peace. You just surface and go “That was cool”.

“It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re not freaking out. ”

Brian set us goals of what depth to reach. On one of my first dives I was aiming for 12m – which seems very deep in the beginning – but I didn’t see the mark and accidentally went to 18m, and it was fine!

And finally… taking the stress out of your life helps you perform better in every aspect of your life. It’s a well-known fact: athletes, top brass businessmen, anyone who needs to be at their peak performance level has to be in a calm state  to achieve anything. There are special techniques (and courses) on neuro performance and stress, which help you get into a state of relaxation using your mental strengths. The peace you achieve in freediving is something you can apply to many things in your life to unleash your potential. So if you are in need of a new challenge – but also some peace in your life, you can get your downtime with freediving. Yes, I am still manically busy. But I now know where to find my downtime in the true sense of the word. I go for a freedive. You can’t get more downtime than that.