Freedivers are an independent minded bunch of people. They dive to great depths, alone (although there is a safety buddy lurking). They achieve their goals alone, and reach their greatest achievements from their own ability to disengage and go within themselves. They dive in silence; there’s no crowd urging them on, no atmosphere to lift their spirits.
Freedivers reach their greatest moments in relative obscurity and without the televised fame that most sports lay claim to. It truly is a non-spectator sport. Yet as a sport it has something else, a different kind of appeal; freedivers are independent, self-knowledgeable, inspirational and deserving of deep respect. For it is only once they are out of the water and you get to know them that you discover just how “together” and fragile they really are.
Helen Garner Weaver is a yoga teacher and world-class freediver and KwaZulu Natal’s best-kept freediving secret. She’s dived with the best of them, broken records, travelled the world pursuing her passions for yoga and freediving and has surrounded herself with a loving and understanding family.
We caught up with Helen recently and she gave freely of her time to inspire and educate us on the art of freediving and the disciplines of yoga and how the two create a powerful force when merged together.
Helen will be going back to the Red Sea this year after a hiatus spent nurturing a family. She’s going back to competition, with herself and to see how far she can go in her sport.
Here then, is Helen’s story, philosophy and inspiration in her own words.
Your career thus far has been well documented and recognised, but what were the factors that led you to taking up free diving as a sport and competitively?
I was living in Cape Town and teaching yoga and the alternate activity I was doing was swimming, as I had been a competitive swimmer in my youth. I remember swimming one day, up and down, and thinking “yoga and swimming… what could be better?” And then I suddenly thought “FREEDIVING”. I didn’t know much about it, other than The Big Blue (from which I also ascertained that Jacques Mayol was dreamy) and I tried with no luck to find out more about it here in South Africa. I eventually googled “yoga” and “freediving” and my first site was a dive centre in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt called Desert Divers. I mailed them and said that I was a yoga instructor who had a hunch I might be good at freediving and could I come and teach yoga for them in exchange for freediving? They mailed back the same day and said “please come immediately”. I am a person who believes that when things are right and meant to be, things “click” and this was a “click” situation. Seemed too easy, so it had to be where I had to go! So I said I would pack up and get there a.s.a.p. I left early January 2006 and had to be back for a friend’s wedding in April. I figured if I sucked at diving, the worst that could happen was that I had an adventure for a few months in Egypt, and how many people are lucky enough for that? The resident freediver at Desert Divers ended up becoming my best friend and is one of the best divers in the world, so I was extremely lucky to learn and mix with the best of the best from day one, and I started breaking records in my third week of diving. So that was me … hook line and sinker!
Do you think free diving is an extreme sport?
That is a yes and a no answer. I think that if you were to qualify what “extreme” was, you might find that it was … yes there is risk attached and we have to be extremely vigilant and responsible, so maybe if one was to think of extreme sports in that regard, it is. For me, I don’t think it is extreme as I have a perception of extreme sports as having a very “masculine” energy. That is to say, if I am going to jump out of an airplane or BASE jump or repel, I would be very hyped up and feel powerful and strong. When I dive, I am in a very “feminine” energy. I am quiet, I am gentle, I am centred. I go under the water with limited fuss and splash and adrenalin. My heart rate is the slowest I can get it. So in that respect, I feel that freediving is very different from all the other classical extreme sports.
Do you think free diving is growing in popularity, or is it stable?
I think that freediving is gaining in popularity. I think people are slowly becoming more aware of what it is and what we do. The more courses we (as instructors) can do the better. We need to make sure that people are educated in what actually takes place when you decide to hold your breath and go under the water. It’s an exciting and fascinating physiological phenomenon, and people just don’t know enough. Knowledge is power. The challenge, in my opinion, in South Africa, is that we are all pretty proficient swimmers and have been swimming since childhood. All people need is a wetsuit and they start diving, without knowing the dangers and the warning signs. And South Africa, with its gorgeous coast line, has an abundance of spear fishermen. So if you were to include spearos with this question, I think it is huge and ever growing. The goal for us is to make sure that the spearos are informed and cautioned about safety procedures and how to recognize a potentially bad situation, and how to recover an unconscious diver and resuscitate them.
It’s interesting, the group of people that I taught when I lived and worked in Egypt, were scuba divers who came to Dahab on holiday to dive, and used to check us freedivers out and figured it would be a fun day to find out what the fuss was about. So I was assured that these students could at least equalize! In Cape Town, I taught mainly yogis who were curious of their hidden potential and the ability to withdraw their senses and achieve stillness. And now in KZN I am finding that the majority of my courses are spearos, who don’t have any mystical idea of depth and silence, but rather would like to find out what is actually taking place when they are diving and to finesse their techniques (breath hold and finning)
What are your views on the lack of organised free diving in South Africa?
We did attempt to start a freediving organization a few years ago here in South Africa but at the time I was living in Egypt and was not part of the organizational team. Unfortunately, due to certain personalities, it didn’t succeed as the organization suffered and came second (or third or fourth) a great deal of the time and people were not able to compete and break the records they were hoping to, thus stagnating the sport and disempowering the organisation. The good news is that there is a new organization currently being created here in South Africa, with courses and competitions and with judges being trained and ready willing and available, and it’s going to make our sport a lot more competitive and a lot more visible. And this is how we create awareness and grow. So this is a very exciting time for freediving in South Africa. The organization is called PURE APNEA and it will be dedicated to growing the sport of freediving, and freediving will be the hero and the focus, and not any specific individual trying to further their own career.
What advice do you have for aspirant free divers and particularly women who are interested in the sport?
My advice to anyone wanting to find out more about freediving is to find a legitimate instructor. There are a few of us out there! And come and try it out. I always say that if a person comes to me, I pretty much know that they will be ok in the water. A person who will freak and feel claustrophobic is not even going to enquire about a course. So if there is a part of you that is curious about what it’s all about, and about checking out your potential, they try finding out a bit more on it. For women, don’t be put off by the male dominated side of it, the guys are such good fun and the type of person (male or female) that wants to be out there in nature is generally a good one. Of course there are some egos out there that are best avoided, but that goes for all walks of life. My most important message that I can’t repeat enough, is that knowledge is power. Get the information, do the course and stay safe!
Is free diving gender neutral or is it more challenging (and less rewarding financially) for women?
I would say that freediving is gender neutral, but there are definitely more guys out there. As I said earlier, there are a lot of spear fishermen out here in South Africa (a Russian diver once told me that he thought the best divers in the world came from South Africa but they were too busy catching fish to compete for depth) and that is a very male dominated aspect of freediving. On the aspect of “challenging” the truly great thing about freediving is that you cannot dive anyone else’s dive. I cannot compare myself to another man as they physiologically can dive deeper (stronger and greater lung capacity). But I cannot compete against another female’s dive either. I have to dive into myself and against myself. So the challenges lie in my mental strength, to avoid thinking about anyone else and avoid indulging in the ego at all. It’s about doing what I can, preparing what I know and then doing the dive and trusting. If I was to become egotistical, and worry about how I would look to the divers on the surface if I turned early, or that I had an expectation on myself to be under the water for a certain amount of time, then the dangers and the risk arise. I would no longer be authentic, but trying to fulfill another diver’s potential and ability. And that is where ego and arrogance becomes the freediver’s mortal enemy.
Financially, there is not a lot of money involved in freediving, with regard to prize money and competitions. The best that we can hope for is to find a sponsor that aligns with our own particular ethos and spirit and way of diving, and have a mutually beneficial relationship.
Are there specific risks for women free divers or are the risks gender neutral?
The “bad press” that freediving gets, comes from basically 3 aspects of freediving. That is (1) spearfishing, (2) training in a pool on your own and (3) no limit freediving (this is a freediving discipline where the diver reaches immense depths with use of weights, usually a sled, and then comes back up with assistance and no weights, usually a lift bag or balloon. No Limits takes the diver below 100m most of the time (Herbert Nitsch reached -250m in June 2012).
The common denominator in these 3 aspects is that the diver is pretty much alone. And that is a risk. To be completely honest (and generalize slightly) most of the participants in the above 3 aspects, are men. So I would say that its more risky for men to dive, just in that they have the tendency to lean towards spearfishing and that they have the physiological capacity to reach much greater depths than women (for No Limits)
But if you dive out of your capabilities and limits, and if you get greedy for depth and go down before your body is ready, then you will suffer the consequences. If you allow your ego to guide your dive, then you are taking a risk. This is true for men and for women.
Is sponsorship difficult to find? And if so, why?
Yes! Sponsorship is very difficult to find. For me at least. I am a freediver because of the purity of it. In the water I find stillness, and in stillness all conflict must end. For this, I love the silence, I love the peace and I love to immerse myself and be so deep down that I look up at the vast blue roof of water and know that I am free.
For these reasons, I find it very difficult to throw myself into the media and shout about a lot of things and blow my trumpet, which seems to come easily to some. This is the game you have to play when you want and need sponsorship. At the end of the day, sponsors need exposure, sponsors want visibility. There is not a lot of visibility 60m under the water, so it makes it a very difficult spectator sport. Sponsors also want the Natal Sharks! I am aware that we live in a rugby mad world, and that is a great thing, but it makes it hard to try to sell your very different style of sport. At the end of the day, when it comes to freediving, it’s not (in my opinion) the time spent at the competitions that the sponsor will benefit, but rather the time spent back home training and teaching and mentoring that is the key to the relationship.
The fact is we need sponsorship far more than the mainstream sports do, and the challenge is to start thinking out of the box and creatively on how to be a mutually beneficially relationship with a sponsor or a corporate, be it with courses on freediving, breathing and yoga, and team building benefits but we need to find a way to enhance the exposure for both parties.
You’ve not competed for a while now. What has motivated you to return to competition and what challenges have you faced returning to training etc.
I took the time off my diving when I moved to Salt Rock (KZN) I was busy setting up my yoga studio here on the north coast and I was naively sure that I could “do it all”. I ended up teaching all the yoga classes, planning a wedding and having no time off to even walk my dogs and then, just to really add to my list, I fell pregnant with my daughter Freyja! So the past few years have been an attempt to find balance in my life and a really good lesson for me. I have 2 awesome little kids and I have closed my yoga studio and teach my classes in someone else’s studio, so that I can be a bit of everything. A mom, a yogi and a freediver. And also walk my dogs!
Regarding the “getting back in water” part… I am me when I am in water, I am happy when I am under. It doesn’t feel like a choice really. My mum always told me I never played with dolls or any other toy. I just swam from the age of 2. And my sports coach always moaned that she wished I had the grace I had in water, when I was on land. I just make more sense in water.
The challenges that I am facing in training are the boring ones. Health and time! And I ended up getting sick from my 9 month old last year for about 3 months too, which meant that holding my breath was about as attractive to me as gargling wasps for a while there! So I have to make sure that I get enough sleep (with toddlers) and stay healthy and stop saying yes to everything else and make the time to do the training.
Another challenge is finding a freediving buddy. It’s not advised (read: not allowed) to ever freedive alone, and just because you are in a pool with a max depth of 1.8m (if you are lucky) does not mean this is not incredibly dangerous. I have really had a hard time finding a buddy to watch me so I can do my underwater training and this has definitely made it hard for me to keep momentum. But, we adapt and we find a way if it is important. So I am swim training at the moment really hard with a bunch of people and throwing in a bit of apnea into the equation when I can.
They always say that the scuba diver dives into the ocean but the freediver dives into himself. And because freediving is such a mental sport, I have to be confident that my body is strong enough to take me down and get me back up. I have to believe that this is possible. And then the dive can be done. So I train. And I get strong. And I believe!
What are your short-term and medium-term free diving goals?
My goals for freediving are to try to educate as many people as are willing to learn and grow the sport and try to keep as many people as safe as possible. It’s about responsible diving and it’s about knowing more about yourself. I truly believe that yoga can help with this too and is the mechanism by which to begin exploring your own possibilities. Do you feel up for the dives on that particular day? Are you physically mentally and emotionally in the right place to trust the process? I believe it’s really important to start encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves and to be able to share the love of the ocean and its inhabitants. It’s not a bad way to be.
I am also training at the moment to head back up to Egypt for a few weeks in May and see if I still have the joy and the happiness under the water. I know that the years off have been hugely rewarding – I have such a cute and happy little family – and I have grown and learnt massively on a personal level too – so I am hoping that these factors combined will help me to find even more depth. But time will tell …
What are the personal challenges you faced in your free diving career?
Living in the Sinai desert for 2 years was challenging at times. I loved living in the desert and I loved all the freedom that came with it but being a single white female in a strictly Arabic culture was very hard at times. I remember sitting on my sitting room floor (there were no couches!) crying and thinking how badly I wanted to come home to a place that I understood … but when I considered what I would be giving up … freediving … I found that I could suck it up and keep picking myself up again and again. Where I was, was an incredibly poor town. The best way that I can describe the locals’ side of Dahab is comparing it to a very poor township. No roads, just dirt pathways up and down, no street names and houses put up wherever they choose. Very, very, very poor. But rather than this being a challenge for me, this was liberty and freedom. It was the most freeing thing to not worry about material things. I had nothing that matched in my house and I had the basics and what more did I need? My mum would call and ask if I needed cutlery and I would think “why, I have a knife and a fork?” It was an incredible lesson for me, that nothing is really important at the end of the day, except what you love and who you love. Culturally things were very different however and having to learn a new language and the ways in which to interact in this new culture was a challenge. But hugely rewarding – to be able to be accepted and treated kindly and fairly in a very male dominated society and learning a new language, it was an incredible feeling of achievement. I loved the Middle East so much and became part of the Bedouin tapestry and find myself very homesick for Dahab and miss the ease of the desert very much.
Where is your favourite free diving venue?
The Blue Hole, Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt. It’s my happy place. It’s an amazing natural phenomenon. There are a handful of blue holes in the world (mainly found in the Bahamas) and they were formed during past ice ages through erosion from rain and chemical weathering (common in all limestone rich terrains). At this time sea levels were as much as 100 – 120 metres lower than at present and at the end of the ice age, they were submerged into the sea.
Blue holes are roughly circular, steep-walled depressions, and so named for the dramatic contrast between the dark blue, deep waters of their depths and the lighter blue of the shallows around them.
The Egypt Blue Hole is a small one relative to the Bahamian ones, and is a 92m swimming pool. It’s breathtakingly beautiful – from the view down into it, and the view up from its depths.
And the conditions make it the mecca of freediving … no current, no predators (they are 800m down), visibility of up to 40m vertical and 20m horizontal and warm water (28-30 degrees in summer).
Our challenge is that the tour buses come in their droves; filled with Italian and Russian tourists (a lot of whom do not know how to swim) and they arrive in their high heels and bikinis. Our 92m swimming pool can become a very crowded public pool sometimes and we have even had to life save a few of the non-swimmers who see our freediving buoy as life rafts.
Can you describe your best free dive (in competition) and your most rewarding free dive (in competition or otherwise).
My best competition freedive was at the 2007 World Champs. I did my record dive and when I got to the white tag at the bottom plate, I turned and looked up and all I could see what the biggest blue ceiling I have ever seen in my life. It felt like it went on for miles and miles. I am very used to diving in the Blue Hole, which is a tin can of a reef going down to 92m so I usually see a wall of reef when I turn and it limits the expanse of the sea and sky. I can still remember hanging at the bottom plate with the tag, looking up and smiling with pure joy … and staring and staring and staring up in wonder at the most fluid roof of blue I had ever seen, until I suddenly thought “hmm … I am 60m deep … I better get back up”. I will never forget that feeling of weightless wonder though, and total freedom.
My most rewarding freedive was when I was diving with my very good mates Lotta Ericcson (ex Swedish champ and ex world champ) and Linda Paganelli (Italian champion) at The Blue Hole and we were just training and mucking about and it was my last dive of the day. I had been struggling with my ears and getting frustrated so I just said that I wanted to dive until I felt the need to turn and have no expectation … and so I took my deepest breath and went down. I was sleeping on the way down (eyes closed and equalizing) when suddenly I felt light in my face and I was scrunching up my eyes from the brightness. I opened my eyes and saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life. The Arch! At 52m in the blue hole there is a gap in the reef that goes all the way to the other side into the open ocean. This narrow tunnel is 26m long to the open ocean but it lets in the light from the sea into the Blue Hole. The Arch is named for the archway shape it makes and the light is so bright it appears almost biblical. It was an incredible and surprising moment for me. I have never been so excited to get back up and tell everyone the joyous news. I was shouting and laughing when I got up to the buoy and Lotta and Linda were yelling at me to “breathe Helen! Breathe!” and all I could do was whoop for joy and scream that I had seen The Arch! I can still remember walking home across the desert that afternoon, jumping up and down and laughing with un-abandoned joy at what I had seen and experienced. So so lucky!
Can you describe your most challenging free dive?
My most challenging (and terrifying) dive was when I went out training with an Australian guy one day in the bay (Masbat Bay in Dahab).
He had been in and out of the dive centre a lot over the past week asking me to dive with him and there was something stopping me from agreeing. Eventually he made me feel really uncomfortable and bad for always making an excuse, so I went ahead and agreed to train with him. I know that I should never have agreed, and I should always trust my instincts – this is what freediving, and yoga has taught me, but I felt I had been impolite to refuse.
Anyway it was a gorgeous day and we went out to the 25m line so not very deep at all and I was going to work on my entries and turns. I did my usual 3 warm ups and was very surprised to see that the first time he went down, it was for an actual “deep” dive. I rushed down to safety him and when he came up I asked him why he had not bothered to do the recommended warm up dives to kick start the dive reflex, and also to brief me as to what he was doing so that I could correctly safety dive him. He then told me he would continue to do No Fins.
On his 3rd dive, I went down to wait for him at 15m and didn’t see him, so went a bit deeper. I waited quite a long time and eventually saw him coming, but with huge stress on his face and panic in his eyes. I dove back up with him as close as I could get to him so that I could pick him up when he blacked up and brought him back to the surface as fast as possible.
This was my first blackout on a dive, and I was all alone with someone I didn’t know. We were far out (50m out in the bay) and no one would have heard me yell for help, and no one could have gotten to me fast enough to help anyway. I knew that I was alone and that I had to rescue him if he was going to survive. He was very heavy (he was a grown man and had no more oxygen in his body so there was zero buoyancy) I knew that if I dropped him I would not be strong enough to pick him back up and he would go all the way back to the bottom. It was honestly the single most terrifying moment in my life. I have had an inordinate amount of adventures in my life, and been in some scary situations, but they were always mine and mine alone and I was responsible for myself and the outcome. This was the first time that I was responsible for someone else’s life and I knew what happened that afternoon could affect the rest of my life. I decided to swim under him and push him up as hard as I could (so that he floated almost out of the water) and I came back up fast, jumped on him and closed his nose and blew as hard as I could on his mouth to forcefully open his trachea. He came to almost immediately. He was totally confused about what was going on – and had no recollection of the blackout.
I was so lucky, and so was he, to have had a happy ending to that training session, as it could have easily have gone so wrong. I still go cold when I think of that day, and will never ever dive when I get a bad feeling and I will always trust my instincts. I also learnt that it doesn’t only matter about me and my diving. I naively thought it would be all right as I would adjust my own dives so as not to require any real safety from my buddy (whom I did not know, or trust) – but it depends on the responsibility of your dive buddy too. If your buddy puts himself (and therefore you at risk … as he had … without warming up adequately, going down for dives without informing me of his intentions, and diving well beyond his capabilities), you will be in just as much danger, if not more.
Has yoga helped you with your free diving?
Absolutely yoga has helped with my freediving. I firmly believe that I could not be the diver that I am in the water without my yogic background. The strength training, the flexibility for my rib cage to compress for depth, the shoulders and the hips … all of that has made me physically the diver that I am. And the mental ability to withdraw my senses and “observe” the dive helps with the fact that sometimes I am nowhere near a breath of air. It teaches me to stay calm in a stressful situation and not resort to the luxury of panic and tantrums. It teaches me to find the meditation in motion. And emotionally, I absolutely feel like I achieve “bliss” in my dives. Yoga helps us to face ourselves and even better, yoga helps us to accept ourselves. For me, yoga is the tool to live to be a better me. The attitude of gratitude is the highest yoga, and how can I be anything but eternally grateful for my life, abilities, opportunities and adventures?
Where did you learn/study yoga?
I found yoga when I suffered from a chronic and painful illness (I had glandular fever that manifested into chronic fatigue). I started needing it on a physical level – and the really great thing about yoga – it doesn’t just give you what you ask for – it gives you the whole deal. So mentally and emotionally I started connecting with myself again and facing what needed to be faced and ultimately dealing with the illness and coming to terms and beating it.
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar.
I then went off to India to Yoga Vidya Dham – an ashram just out of Mumbai in a mountain village called Nasik (if you are going to do something, do it properly and go to the source, right) – where I did my teacher training in Classic Ashtanga for 6 weeks. I then came back and studied more styles and qualified in teaching more disciplines and taught and taught and taught at all the top studios in Cape Town.
I am now living and working on the KZN North Coast and teaching yoga at Sugardance Studio in Ballito. Its also a goal of mine to give back and help as much as I am able to, and I am trying to connect with the high schools in the area, to offer yoga to teenagers who need to learn to deal with their stress in a more positive and productive manner. And to become stronger in their bodies as well as their minds. Yoga gives us stress, in the shape of demanding poses, and then asks us to breathe and hold the poses with calm bodies and calm minds. Yoga asks us to choose to breathe rather than find a distraction or rush out of the pose in a panic. We are taught to react in an alternative manner towards stress, to stay focused and calm and to wait it out with deep breathing. And if we can learn this in on our mats, imagine if we could translate this into our everyday lives.
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