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Static apnea is possibly the weirdest sport in the world. Normally, you’ll associate sport with physical exhaustion, muscle strain, performance, sweat, tears, toil, possibly blood; you name it. Static apnea, or STA for the aficionados, is an altogether different game.
Static apnea is the sport of lying completely still, totally relaxed, face down in the water – for as long as possible. It is simply about holding your breath. And to me, in this simplicity lies its beauty.
Relaxation is the key. Many freediviers engage in yoga and meditation, and this is understandable. If you want to hold your breath, you need to control your entire body. Muscular tension means loss of precious oxygene. Even thinking consumes oxygene. Deep relaxation, knowing every single muscle fibre in your body, controlling your mind, is necessary.
Static apnea is mainly a mental game. Basically, it is about dying. When you hold your breath for an extended period of time, the level of carbon dioxide in your blood will increase. The oxygene hunger comes from this increase in carbon dioxide, not from lack of oxygene. This is the basic reason for the mental game: your body will tell you that you are dying before you actually are. This is a safety valve, it will cause you to breathe before you pass out. If you pass out while face down in the water, you will die. Period.
So back to the dying thing. The first minute is, to me, quite uncomfortable. I’ve filled my lungs with air to the max. Muscle tensions, the feeling of being an overinflated balloon. This settles after anything between 30 and 60 seconds, and the best period kicks in: when I’m ’in the zone’. The pulse drops to about 35 beats per second. Total, complete relaxation. The feeling of floating in nothingness. Just enjoying the feeling of… I don’t know what. Bliss? The thing about static apnea is what settles in after the bliss. For me, at about 2’30”. The first contractions appear. Blood pressure rises. The diaphragm contracts, as if I was breathing; but, I’m not. For the first 30 seconds or so, I try to remain in the zone, but then I usually lose it.
My body tells me it is dying. Oxygen stores are running low. If they run too low I blackout, and if I blackout I die. (But fortunately I have a dive buddy who pulls me out if this happens.) However, all I have to do is raise my head up above the surface and start breathing again. Easy-peasy. Air, oxygene, just a tension of the neck muscles away. This is the game. Convincing my body that it is a good idea to continue dying when survival is so close. At first, there’s an increasing discomfort. This slowly and inevitably explodes into full-fledged anxiety. My inner voice telling me that this is unnecessary, I should be doing something else, I might just as well quit, it’s no use… The body twitches, I start slamming my fist into the tile, trying to focus on some other pain.
I raise my head, gasp; I hook-breathe and do the surface protocol: remove goggles, remove nose-clip, do the ’ok’-sign and say ’I’m ok,’ all in this order and within 15 seconds.
And then everything is ok. About 30 seconds after resurfacing, everything’s back to normal. And the thoughts start coming. I made it. And there was a margin. Of course I could have pushed it more. Of course I had more to give. I can get closer to death.