Sara Campbell Launches Her Online Relaxation Program for Freediving
Former world champion, world record holder and one of the deepest women of all time, Sara Campbell, took the freediving world by storm in 2007, breaking the constant weight world record just months after learning to freedive. She's always maintained that the secret to this success was her solid grounding in yoga, and especially Kundalini, which she now teaches, along with freediving itself, from her base on the shores of the blue hole in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt.
Her latest project is a series of videos teaching all aspects of yoga for freediving, from her own unique and well-proven perspective. Here she talks to Freedive-Earth about that most critical of all skills for freediving - relaxation. Check out the teaser below, or access the platform here
So…err… isn’t relaxation just about lying on the sofa watching netflix and drinking wine?
Followed by great sex – yeah, I can see that that would be a pretty relaxing evening, but it’s a different kind of relaxation to what we’re looking to achieve in the water. Particularly the wine bit ☺
When we watch tv, drink alcohol etc after a hard day at work, we are switching off, but we’re not processing the stress effectively – we are simply deploying avoidance techniques which give us the illusion of relaxation. Ultimate relaxation is a deeply spiritual experience where we recognise we are all One, connected, taken care of, utterly safe and there is no fear. This takes more than a bottle of wine to achieve, I’m afraid.
DEEP RELAXATION is about giving people a greater level of awareness of their place in the world. It is about learning through experiencing the concept of being taken care of in the water so that they can find a true deep relaxation, which is then integrated in body, mind and spirit.
I’ve always thought that relaxation is quite an individual thing. Are there specific techniques for relaxation that work for everyone?
When we talk about relaxation from a yogic perspective, we’re looking very much at the physiological process, which is triggered by the mind, and has a profound effect on the entire system. We are particularly interested in the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; the first is our ‘fight or flight’ response, and due to the speed at which we choose and are forced to live in the modern world, with our almost perpetual communication through technological ‘advances’, this system rarely gets switched off. Even in our sleep many of us grind our teeth and toss and turn, clear signs that the subconscious is busy processing, and unable to completely relax. The parasympathetic, on the other hand, is the counterbalance to fight or flight, it is where our bodies regenerate, rebuild, heal and recover from injury, illness, and the stress of life and training. If we don’t give ourselves enough time in the parasympathetic zone, we will eventually end in exhaustion, burn-out and over-training. And it’s not simply a matter of setting aside time, we need to learn how to effectively switch off the sympathetic system so that the parasympathetic can get a look in and take care of us – and this is the fundamental problem. Even when we THINK we’re relaxed (shoulders loose, arms relaxed, breathing calm), there can be a maelstrom of negative, conflicting and confusing thoughts going through our mind, making true relaxation impossible.
So, to get to your question – are there relaxation techniques that work for everyone – I think there are some universal techniques, which we all respond to due to the similarity in our physical make-up. But of course some people will respond more quickly or be more receptive than others. I once had a guy who told me that he couldn’t meditate because he was too intelligent! Utter bollocks – totally in his ego and with zero understanding of what meditation really is. So, yes, even he would be able to relax, if he allowed himself to be open to it. I often have people fall into a deep sleep in the relaxation that we do before getting into the water – the combination of the movements, visualization, breathing, and how the body is able to process stress in a whole new way is really, really effective.
I don’t preach that my way is the only way, there are a great many fantastic freedivers, yogis and instructors out there teaching different ways to relax, but ultimately we are offering slightly different routes to the same destination. I encourage everyone to ‘shop around’ – don’t take anything as gospel from anyone. Try out different techniques, approaches, philosophies and find what works for you. Much of it is about finding the elements of different philosophies and approaches and building them into a new approach that is effective for YOU!
Is it all in the mind?
I would say that it starts in the mind. We can have a more or less relaxed musculo-skeletal system, arms relaxed, shoulders dropped, belly soft. But if we look deeper into our core, our connective tissues, we will invariably find tension. The classic places are the jaw and neck, below the shoulder blades, the solar plexus, deep inside the abdomen, and within the pelvic bowl. The great thing about the body is that it is always the mirror of our mind; if we are experiencing conscious or subconscious tension, this will manifest somewhere in the physical body. The challenge is that we are simply so used to walking round with bundles of tension stored up inside of us, that we no longer notice when it is there, so just carry on, and miss the signals that our bodies are trying to give us.
Our mind is really the first layer of how we process the world around us and our experiences of it. We build up a ‘protective shield’ of beliefs, which we feel keep us safe. However, these beliefs are simply projections of our insecurities, given to us by our upbringing, the society we live in, expectations from our families, friends, peers and ourselves. It is very hard to figure out what is real, and what is projected fear but it is safe to say that the majority of our thoughts are projections, which come from our ego’s need to control and limit us. Of course we are so involved with our thoughts and our mind that we believe that they are real, and letting go of them is extremely hard. And this is where meditation comes in. Meditation – and freediving is a form of meditation – is really the only way that we can get the stillness we need within ourselves to start to discern which thoughts are ego and fear-based, and which are true and come from the expanded, higher part of ourselves. One simple rule to follow is: if it’s complicated, it’s coming from your ego. Anything from Spirit is simple and easy – but then we over-complicate it with our doubts, fears and insecurities all over again!
So, if we look at freediving, setting a PB is actually a very simple process. Say, for example, you performed a good, clean, relatively easy 38m dive and want to now attempt 40m. These round numbers are great for helping us see the trickery of our minds. Suddenly, a jump of just two metres becomes overwhelmingly hard – even though we progressed easily from 36m to 38m just a few days before. The complication of reaching this new depth is created by the ego – and when we can see, and understand this, we can much more easily let go of it and recognise there is nothing harder or more challenging about this two metre progression than the one before. It is just the mind that makes it seem harder.
I find it fascinating how powerful the mind can be – and of course this power, when harnessed, can be used to serve us, to create the most amazing dives, relationships, lifestyles… We just have to choose whether we want to start training our mind, putting the very same energy that goes into our fears and anxieties, into disciplined sitting. And then just watch the magical outcome unfold…
What about during freediving competition? Does the competitive environment present particular challenges for relaxation?
Of course. Competition is a unique additional challenge to the relaxed state we need to achieve when diving. When we compete there are a whole load of additional factors that we need to manage in our minds:
- rules and our understanding of, and compliance with, them
- the whole official set up and timings of when to get in the water, moving from the warm-up zone to the transition zone, and then the official zone, wearing an official computer, and of course Official Top
- financial investment to be at the competition
- the potential of becoming a record holder, or even World Champion, and how that affects our ego
- the stress of other athletes around us
- often diving in a new environment with unfamiliar water conditions, including temperature, thermoclines, surface conditions, visibility – and often new equipment and weighting to accommodate these changes
- for top athletes the pressure of having sponsors on board, paying your expenses or even a regular fee, expecting certain results to justify their marketing spend on you
If we go back to the physiological response to stress – the switching on of the sympathetic nervous system - we see just how huge a challenge relaxation in freediving, and particularly in the competitive environment, really is. All of these stress factors of competition, as well as the fact that we are pushing our limits of what we believe is possible for us, holding our breath beyond what most people would deem normal or healthy, plunging to depths where most scuba divers wouldn’t be able to go, mean that without training, our sympathetic nervous system will be hugely triggered. When this happens we go into ‘fight or flight’ and our body releases huge amounts of adrenalin into the system, causing our heart rate to rocket and our muscles to tense ready for action. As we know, a high heart rate and muscle tension for a freediver are two of the worst things that can happen – we burn more oxygen, sense that the dive will be hard, get more stressed, and will be lucky if we don’t black out or suffer a squeeze.
So all freedivers, but particularly competitive freedivers, must be able to relax at the deepest level; a level where they completely trust that their body knows how to do the dive, that they will make it to the depths and back to the surface whole, safe, and without a struggle. This goes beyond pure physical relaxation, and goes right to the core of our psyche and spiritual beliefs.
How do I know when I’m “properly relaxed”?
The only way I can describe this is that it is a ‘deep knowing’. I remember the final training days leading up to my first three world records. I planned my training to be as close as possible to the event days, and set out to nail the dives before making them official in the competition. I clearly wasn’t ready – I turned early on every single training dive as my mind wasn’t ready to deal with the fact that I was attempting three possible world records. It all seemed rather crazy. So, rather than entering the competition relaxed, and with the reassurance of having done the dives in training, I was facing three world record attempts on consecutive days, and every single one of them would be a new PB! I was far from relaxed.
It is interesting for me to review what then happened with hindsight. I have always said that my intuition was my coach, and it really kicked in for me here. I spent the two rest days before the competition in meditation and visualisation. I chose a meditation called ‘To Know the Field’ which is included in the DEEP RELAXATION course. It is a powerful meditation given by Yogi Bhajan to the Canadian swim team in 1972 before the Olympics. In this meditation I was able to get in touch with my deeper energy systems, my life force or Kundalini energy. I also spent a lot of time looking at my logged dives and analysing my final performances. By combining these two techniques I could very clearly see that a) my mind had been the sole reason I had turned early on my final training dives, and b) my body, mind and spirit, when released from the fear of doubt, failure and even success, were absolutely capable of doing those dives. What came then was a ‘deep knowing’; every cell in my body knew that those three dives were inside of me, and that with relaxation, ‘trust and surrender’ (this is the title of another video in DEEP RELAXATION), I simply had to get into the water and let them unfold. It was an amazing and very beautiful experience.
Is it possible to be “too relaxed”?
It is possible to be too unfocused and sometimes people confuse the two. I used to dive with a girl who had great potential, but she had been told that all she had to do was relax completely. She would close her eyes, do her beautiful, relaxed duck dive - and then swim in pretty much every direction other than straight down. She would swim away from the line, pulling it with her lanyard, then realise she needed to come back, would overcompensate and swim into the rope, and then in her attempts to correct her position, would circle and spin around the rope and end up turning way ahead of her target depth and true potential. This for me was an example of someone who had taken their trainer absolutely at their word, but the trainer had only given them part of the picture.
Relaxation is essential, but we also need to be focused. Finding focus with relaxation is a skill which needs to be developed because often we confuse focus with tension and exertion. We need to find relaxation in that focus so that we an effortlessly perform the many, many motorskills required in deep diving (duck dive, finding and keeping a hydrodynamic position, finning, equalisation etc) and yet ensure that we have minimal muscular and mental tension within us. Much of this comes with time in the water and practice, but time and practice alone won’t help if you’re not given the correct information in the first place. So relaxation, yes, relaxation without focus, no!
Are there wider benefits to being relaxed? Will it help me in my everyday life?
I find it interesting to observe my physical body when I’m working on my computer, like now. My fingers need to type and my mind is working hard, but beyond that there is not much else that needs to be going on. Yet often I find that my stomach is contracted or my feet are tense – neither of these are relevant for me to write a kick-arse interview, and yet I am so deeply trained, ingrained, in the fight or flight zone, that when one part of me senses that it needs to be ‘on’ and I have a task to complete, often my whole system reacts. You might find you do the same without having previously been aware of this.
It isn't simply the time I spend completing a task either. Very often, when I’ve closed my laptop for the day, I may be watching a movie, or natural history documentary or reading a book, and find that my shoulders are tense. The stress has long passed, but my body has remained in the fight or flight mode, waiting for the next signal to respond and be ready.
My freediving has brought far greater awareness into these subconscious patterns, and my response to stress and I believe that this growing awareness is a universal response to freediving. We come into very intimate, honest communication with ourselves, often for the first time, and once this awareness is gained in the water, we can start to see the parallels in our daily lives – and to make significant changes which can drastically effect our health, wellbeing and effectiveness in all areas of our life.
I’ve tried meditation before and I find that after a couple of minutes I get fidgety and anxious. Is there something wrong with me?
No, this is completely normal but sadly this is the stage where most people say, “I’m no good at meditating” and give up. Our understanding of the process and state of meditation is deeply misunderstood in the West. Most of us believe that in order to be meditating, our mind should be completely blank and if it isn’t then we are failing at meditation and it is a waste of time.
Imagine you have a very large storeroom in your house. Nobody ever trained you to clear out this room and so everything that you’ve ever had, no longer use regularly, or meant to throw away ends up there. Over a lifetime that’s a huge amount of stuff and you can see that it’s getting not only pretty crowded and messy in there, but it’s probably starting to smell a bit! The thought of opening, sorting through, cleaning and organising this storeroom has become really, really unpleasant, and so you keep avoiding it, but it is playing on your mind and bugging you and you’re noticing that you are getting stressed far more easily than you used to.
So, one day you decide to open it. And of course what happens? It is so full to bursting of old, useless stuff, that the moment you open the door, mountains of rubbish come crashing out and land on your head. So you stuff it back in, close the door, walk away and promise yourself to deal with it another day. Whenever that might be…
Let’s say that storeroom represents our subconscious, and all that stuff is every experience, thought, feeling we have ever had, good and bad. It is all stored away waiting to be processed. But of course because we are not taught how or why to meditate in the West, how or why to process our emotions, walking away seems like the only option. It gets messier, more and more crowded and smelly – until ultimately we reach breaking point, which can manifest as stress, depression, breakdown, addictions and all other mental illness or dysfunctional behaviours, which are so rife in the West nowadays.
When we sit to meditate, we have to accept that there will be an initial period of discomfort as that stuff comes crashing out each and every time we open the door. However, it is a necessary process, and one which passes quite quickly. Every time we open the door and the stuff comes crashing out on our head (restlessness, boredom, anxiety etc) our subconscious is beginning the process of cleaning and organising. The more regularly we sit, ideally daily, even if just for three minutes, the more quickly this process will ease. Gradually we create order in our storeroom, we clean out the smelly stuff, throw away the stuff we no longer need, and eventually (this is a longer process) we have a beautifully organised and sweet-smelling room with neatly labeled boxes where all our experiences are stored for quick and easy access. It has become a room where we enjoy spending time, hanging out, just being.
We also need to recognise the ego’s role in meditation. Imagine the Spirit and the Ego as two separate personalities living inside of you; one represents expansion and growth, the other represents limitations and fear. They are in constant conflict, even battle. Every time you sit down to meditate, you are focusing your energy and attention on Spirit and the Ego feels very, very threatened. And as we see in the world around us, when someone feels threatened, very often their strategy is to attack as a way of defending themselves, and their beliefs. The anxiety, boredom and restlessness that arise in meditation, are also ways that the ego has of trying to establish itself as boss, to keep control (after all it’s been running the show our entire lives, why change things now?). It will also manifest in a huge resistance even to come to your mat, beliefs that this is a waste of time (‘see, you’re no good at this, what were you thinking anyway – better go back to the sofa, the bag of chips and netflix’) and limitless other ways that the ego has of sabotaging our attempts at elevation and awareness. If we can begin to visualise these two aspects of ourselves, and see it as a rather childish internal battle, one which simply requires our endless patience and love, then we can quickly overcome the discomfort that comes back again and again through meditation.
And for those with experience, you will recognise this is not a problem exclusively reserved for beginner meditators – the further we go in our practice, the more inventive the ego can become and we will go through phases of grace and ease and phases of intense discomfort, resistance and even rejection of our practice. Hopefully we will return to it and be able to recognise the intrigues that took us away from ourselves in the first place.
What’s the secret? Can you name the one thing that’s most important when trying to relax?
I don’t think I can narrow it down to one thing, but I can tell you one thing that for certain is going to take you further away – self-judgement of how well (or badly) you are doing at relaxation and meditation, or diving, or anything! Acceptance is really such a fundamental aspect of relaxing in life. All of our suffering is caused by lack of acceptance; either we want things we can’t or don’t yet have (50m, 100m, perfect boy/girlfriend, dream job etc), or we don’t want things that we do have (squeeze, shitty boy/girlfriend, boring job, crappy car etc). Every experience in life – and in diving – is an opportunity to learn about ourselves, and Yoga for Freediving is all about understanding the principle of spirituality in our lives and in our freediving; if we can truly accept everything as it is, trust in the truth of the universe, we can truly relax.
This is all very well, but I’m too busy to spend time doing all these exercises… can’t I take a pill or something?
Dr Crawshaw, I prescribe three minutes of Learn to Meditate, daily, followed by 11 minutes of Corpse Pose/Savasana/deep relaxation. Now get out of my surgery! ☺
Oh my Goodness!
DEEP REAXATION program is live, so check it out: