10 Jan 2021

The art of holding your breath

From The Weekend with Karyn Hay , 10:06 am on 10 January 2021

Hailing from Central Otago, Kathryn Nevatt is a national record holder in freediving - a sport that also goes by the name of breath-holding diving or skin diving.

Nevatt has consistently ranked as one of the world's best competitive freedivers for more than 10 years, and has a best breath holding time of 7 minutes and 45 seconds.

She joined The Weekend and tells Kathryn Hay one of the tricks to holding your breath is to switch off your thoughts.

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Photo: Screenshot / The Breath Connection

“The brain burns about 20 percent of the body’s oxygen, so if your brain is going at a million miles an hour, you’re going to hold your breath a lot less.

You need to calm your whole body down so it starts to conserve oxygen and control your thoughts. It takes a lot of practice and patience.”

Panic does happen however, and that can be a problem when you’re far from the surface.

“If you do panic, you burn through oxygen much faster. Your body has a whole load of signals that it gives you to tell you to breath and it’s really hard to work through those signals to understand when you actually need to breath. There’s a difference between the urge to breath and the need to breath.”

Nevatt says the first few minutes of holding her breath underwater are pleasant and relaxed, but then the spleen reacts to a lack of oxygen and contracts sending out oxygen-rich blood cells.

“That can feel quite nice but, as it comes on, you start to get the urge to breath which is not very nice. As you become more experienced, you learn to accept it and deal with it.

“For me, I get the dive response around two or two and a half minutes. By around four minutes, my heartrate is down to about 24 bpm. At four to five minutes, I start to have contractions… it becomes quite physical and it gets more intense as time goes on.”

She says she’s normally feeling OK up until around six minutes of holding her breath.

“I have to really work beyond there to keep going through to the point where I have to breath.”

While it might sound stressful and a bit torturous, Nevatt says it’s actually a meditative experience.

“It resets you… but you’re also getting this real physicality out of it. It’s a real match between mind and body.”

The main risk for free-diving is blacking out, the body’s last ditch response to make you breath. Nevatt says that while black outs don’t happen often, they can be dangerous and having a competent buddy is extremely important. They can also happen when people finally come up for air.

“There’s risk of blacking out even after you breath. People will come up in competition then fall over after breathing a couple of times, there’s a real technique in how to breath when you come up.”

Nevatt says anyone can get involved with free-diving, but should find a good established group with people who know what they are doing.

“There’s no age limit, I’m 41 and getting better with age. There are people in their 50s and 60s doing it and doing really well. It just takes practice and patience so if you’re willing to give that time to it and work at it, you’ll do well.”

Watch the trailer for short documentary The Breath Connection.