Cyndi Clark (CC): Today, Yuliya and I are talking about qigong and freediving, which is a new interest of hers that I think is really fascinating.

We know that qigong practice improves athletic performance. Now and then stories pop up about well-known athletes doing qigong. For instance, the most famous example I read recently about is Tiger Woods and his father. They attributed the regular practice of qigong with increasing his skills in golf. I also read about an Olympic hammer thrower and a hockey player speaking about their benefits from qigong. What’s your take on this connection between qigong and athletics? 

Yuliya Gulmi (YG): Yes, Cyndi. Of course, the benefits of Qigong are endless.  Improving athletic performance, mastering breathing habits, being able to relax and focus better are just a few to name.

The beauty of it is that when you practice qigong regularly, it becomes an intrinsic part of your body, mind and lifestyle, then it has a positive impact on all aspects of life. Qigong skills are universal, and if done properly, qigong works on three levels – physical, emotional, spiritual.  That means that it affects your body, breath, feelings, thoughts, levels of joy and contentment, self-realization, and so on.  What’s your favorite life-enhancing experience with qigong?

CC:  There are so many areas of improvement – various aspects of health and well-being. Seems intuitive that athletes would want to embrace posture, balance, bones, and spinal strength, definitely, the mental training, focus, maximizing performance, better mood control, quicker bringing yourself into that flow.

And of course, the low impact aspect of qigong makes it perfect for people who are looking to complement their main sport or recovering from injury. We could go on all day about the wonders and benefits of qigong, but especially breathing and learning how to get the most out of each breath is invaluable.  Different sports call for different athletic skills but the breathing is universal.  This brings me around to this new interest of yours, and it’s most closely tied to the breath training.  Would you, please, share your new adventures in freediving?  You first started with scuba diving; that’s right, isn’t it? 

YG:  In retrospect, I can see clearly how it affected me on those three levels – physical, emotional, spiritual, but when I started doing it, none of that was obvious to me.  When we practice qigong on physical level with breath and energy, we create so much power and then athletically we can use that power or put it into whatever you’re doing, physically.  Then, emotions matter, too: if your emotional predisposition at the event or during an activity is positive, then the likelihood of you doing well, is higher. From the spiritual point of view, if you are inspired and motivated, then you’re more productive and set good goals.  And you use your energy in figuring out how to achieve your goals productively and with ease, and that brings contentment.  However, a few years ago when I started scuba diving with my son, I would have never imagined that someday I would feel that way and have these insights.

CC:  How did it start?

YG:  So, it started with my oldest son wanting to learn scuba diving.  He wasn’t even ten years old then and had to wait until he turned ten before we started our PADI scuba certification process.

CC:  That’s right, I remember back then you were concerned about the safety and about your comfort level of going under the water. Were you scared?

YG:  For me it was about doing this activity with my kid.  I had neither personal interest nor comfort in diving. It was not a natural thing for me to do.  I felt fearful about spending time under water.

But we proceeded.  First you have to study the theory and rules and take classroom tests; then you practice in the pool and have to pass certain benchmark tests in the pool. And then after that, you do the open water training. You must learn all the steps, risks, and the safety elements.  You learn how to mitigate all risks associated with the activity.

But even after I got my scuba diving certification, I still had to overcome my anxiety and discomfort. And I was looking for the answers.  What was I afraid of?  Fear of what that was? I meditated on that a lot, and I approached it energetically from various angles. I was even asking atypical questions: was it related to any of my childhood experiences?  Did I have a bad experience in the water as a child?  According to my parents I loved the water, so it was none of that. Was it passed to me from my parents or ancestors? Well, I don’t know. My father and his father and grandfather served in the Navy in Russia and did a lot of amazing things and may have experienced something dramatic in the ocean. 

CC:  You really tried hard to understand your resistance, and there was an interesting family connection between you and the ocean. Your dad was a naval officer. We even did a past life regression, I remember, to see if that fear was related to something we could discover about your past lives. That was thought provoking.  Would you say it helped?  Could you share that past life story?

YG:  Well, it helped but only partially.  Yes, as you recall, it showed me as a young man, a military person in the early 20th century.  I was flying a plane.  I had to look up some history, and the first successful powered airplane took the first flight in 1903.  That gentleman (aka, me) was from an affluent family somewhere in Europe. He was not interested in having his parents’ lifestyle.  So, he became an engineer and an architect; he served in the military and was sent on the forefront of all sorts of dramatic events.  Besides flying, his work was to build towns and create infrastructure for them.  I saw various events in his work and in his flights, and in rescuing people during crazy storms and floods.  I also saw his personal life and his insights, lessons and wisdom in the end of his life.  

The bottom line of seeing his life was this: do what needs to be done. Walk your path and things do happen. Don’t come to them with too much emotion, but do your best, and serve people that surround you, and serve the right causes.  Honestly, that insight took a while to boil down.  Once I got the message, it was pretty easy to apply it to my diving: if your kid wants to go diving with you, then figure it out, learn it the proper way, mitigate your risks and go do it. And that’s what I did. After that rather simple message and conclusion, I stopped worrying about being afraid of going under water. And so we dove every time we had a chance. And the more we did it, the easier and more comfortable and enjoyable it got.

CC:  It’s amazing how often we agonize over understanding everything perfectly or being perfect before we even begin to explore and learn.  But it does make sense to be cautious and deal with the risks, especially when children are involved.  The kids have so many opportunities to learn from us.  We have to try to be a good example.

Overcoming fear feels so glorious, and it helps clarify things and put them in a new perspective, and it helps you settle your nervous system.  Then you can act from your center rather than the ragged edges with the fear and overexcitement.  All of this hesitancy and resistance of the unknown can make you make poor decisions and make mistakes.  Underwater mistakes are bad news. Calm nerves and positive emotions translate into better decisions and absence of mistakes.  It sounds like that regression gave you an insight about your own self, your own experience as well as about your son and how to support his interests.  You had to relax a little bit to do that.  

Your son must really love the water and the ocean. I know last summer he asked you to get certified in freediving. I think he wanted you to experience that with him.

YG: Yes, and that was the other surprising request because at that point he already knew how to freedive.  He would go spearfishing and that involves free diving.  I, on the other hand, had absolutely no interest in spearfishing, and I still do not. Nevertheless, I was curious about trying to freedive, thinking that it would be a fun thing to do when snorkeling, and overall, it’s a good skill to have for water activities.  I was thinking that having gone through scuba diving training would make it easy.

CC:  Let me clarify one thing just for myself. So, freediving is when you don’t wear a tank with air, right?  It’s more like snorkeling, am I understanding that?  Will you please, describe these activities and how they differ from one another?

YG:  Yes. In scuba diving you have all the gear, you have an inflatable vest, a tank with breathing air, and you have regulators that you insert in your mouth to breathe. So, in addition to masks and fins, you have the equipment that you use to breathe underwater.  

When you go snorkeling you swim on the water surface but keep your face underwater so you can do the sightseeing.  You have a snorkel to breathe while you keep your face under water, and you have a mask and fins. If you see something interesting down deeper, then you have to inhale, hold your breath, dive down, and then come back up and blow your snorkel, so that you can start breathing again through it. So that’s snorkeling with an element of free diving.   When you snorkel, you’re swimming mostly horizontally, with occasional free dives.

If you want to freedive deeper down, you need to put on weights on your belt to help you swim further down while holding your breath.  You can free dive like that to look at marine life, fish, corals, shipwrecks.  That’s how pearl hunters dive looking for mollusks and pears – very romantic.

When you train to free dive, there is a line with a weight at the bottom, and you go down along that line.  You can be attached to it with a lanyard.  If you are unattached, you still have to be orientated to the line, so that you are aware of the directions, know where the top and the bottom are, and don’t get confused or lost.  Once in the water and getting ready to dive, you do what’s called a “breathe up”, which is an art within itself and qigong comes in very handy there.  Breathing up is totally like meditation.  When you train, you want to achieve relaxation, optimal inhalation and higher carbon dioxide tolerance, because it is carbon dioxide that signals to your brain that you need to breathe.

So, you breathe up at the surface, then you take that one good inhale, and do your duck dive.  Think of a headstand in the water. Then you swim down towards the end of the line.  While you swim down, you will experience the increasing pressure, and you have to equalize your ears by squeezing your nose and gently creating pressure inside your ears. Sometimes you may want to equalize your mask, too.  Free divers usually wear very long fins that allow you to kick water less frequently and save the energy from that one breath that you are holding.  At the bottom, depending on your skills and comfort level you may look around, and then you turn around and come back up.  On the way back, you don’t need to equalize.  In training, you have to pace yourself and work within your comfort zone.

CC:  Thank you for explaining.  Maybe someday I will give it a try.  Let’s go back to when you began your freediving in the ocean with your son and your teachers.  You felt that it should not be hard.

YG:  I actually thought it would be easy for me. I’m used to going under water doing scuba, and I know and teach meditation and breathing techniques.

CC:  Now the connection between scuba, meditation and free diving is becoming clearer.  This is fascinating. How does meditation skill help in freediving?

YG:  In order to dive and swim down and back up on one breath, you have to be both very relaxed and very focused. Otherwise, that one breath will not last much.  Your muscles and brain use a lot of energy and would use up the oxygen from that one breath faster, if you’re not relaxed physically, emotionally, and mentally.

CC:  Yes. So, obviously if you’re stressed out, worried, or panicked, you’re putting yourself in danger, you’re not going to do it as well.  You have to go past your worries and fears, even if you are very athletic or an excellent swimmer.

YG: Yes. Precisely. It feels like any negative emotion of thought could mess me up. I favor the freediving philosophy and approach based on relaxation. Enjoyment is part of the experience. Focus is absolutely required. You don’t want to make a mistake that’s why you have to be very focused, and there is no focus without relaxation, one must relax before one can truly focus. Joy makes everything so much better. The is a known freediving organization called the Molchanov’s Movement. They hold joy as one of the cornerstones of their philosophy. The movement is led by Alexey Mochanov. He is one of the best divers in the world. He’s Russian and his mom basically pioneered free diving in Russia. She was an excellent diver and so is her son, Alexey.

When I started the freediving PADI training in Bahamas, I thought that my experience with relaxation and breathing techniques would guarantee that I would do well holding my breath underwater. But it turned out that I didn’t want to hold my breath in discomfort, especially underwater. My brain blocked it. I was very disappointed in myself, of course, and during the initial pool training I could not get the required static 90 seconds underwater easily and static means that you don’t even swim, you float face down on the surface of the water. I was not able to pass this requirement until I was able to distract my brain from urging me out of the water to processing alternative stimuli like listening to the sounds and processing other thoughts.

CC: I know you passed the requirement. So, what helped you get past that block?

YG: I was relaxed but my mind wasn’t on board with staying underwater and holding my breath. It was some sort of fear. Even the best and experienced free divers talk about their fears and anxiety and how they find ways to overcome it. I had to find my solution. Are you familiar with the mammal immersion reflex?

CC: No, that’s not a term I am familiar with. Will you explain that, please?

YG: Yes. This applies to all mammals and humans are mammals. We have nerve endings on our face and chest that sense it when we’re submerged under water. Once you get submerged under water those nervous endings send an alert to your brain: “Hello, you’re not supposed to be under water. You don’t know how to breathe under water. You don’t have any gills.” That puts a person into fight or flight state or a bit of a panic urging to get your head out of the water and breathe. When you’re freediving you deliberately need to overcome that urge. Your body is designed that if you made a cautious calculated decision that you’re going to continue to stay submerged, then your body goes into a quieter mode, it switches into the conserving mode. It begins to conserve oxygen, relax the muscles, and your brain guides your body towards survival under water. Knowing that we are wired that way is calming and reassuring. When you remain underwater your body actually goes into very deep relaxation on a biological level.

CC: Thank you for explaining. I see now that you can use qigong breathing methods to calm yourself and stay relaxed and focused.

CC: After the pool, how did the open ocean training go?  What’s the difference between being in a pool and being the living ocean? Did qigong also help you through the ocean training?

YG: Yes, in addition to the freediving instruction, I applied relaxation, focusing and intention setting skills from qigong. Getting your subconscious mind onboard with new skills and new habits training is very helpful.

It was funny how I started saying to myself in meditation: “I can stay under water. I can breathe underwater.” Then I realized I should not be telling myself to open my mouth or nose under water. I had to redesign my mantra to “You can comfortably and at ease hold your breath underwater.” And as you train you can specify the length of time in seconds and keep increasing those intervals. Working with your thoughts and emotions in meditation and accessing your subconscious is invaluable.

Here is another example. When you do your breathing up, you have to be very relaxed, you have to achieve that total relaxation, you have to look forward to the dive anticipating it as if it is like flying in your dreams. This is like flying except under the water and in the opposite direction. You hear how divers get hooked on that pleasure, and it seems like a joke in the beginning, but then you start feeling it and it becomes attractive.

So, when you breathe up through the snorkel, you obviously breathe through your mouth. Typically, when you breathe through your mouth, you go into fight or flight, especially if you feel a bit anxious in the water.

When you do Qigong, yoga, martial arts, and so on, you breathe through your nose and can easily achieve relaxation and focus because nasal breathing induces para-sympathetic state, as opposed to sympathetic (or fight or flight). When you are in the middle of the ocean with waves and wind, and you have a snorkel, you’re doing your breathing up through the snorkel breathing through your mouth. In calm waters, you could float on your back to breathe up without the snorkel or sit on the edge of the boat. But mostly you’re trained to breathe up via snorkel face down because it kicks in the mammal immersion reflex. Mouth breathing can easily kick you into fight or flight or sympathetic state. But if you have skills to deliberately switch your nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic state, then you can figure out how to be in parasympathetic mode while breathing through your mouth.

If a person is a mouth breather, the breath is shallow, and that keeps a person constantly in fight or flight, like low level fight or flight. I am not a mouth breather and doing breathe ups through the snorkel was not relaxing for me initially. But I was able to use my qigong skills and overcome that discomfort and to induce parasympathetic state.

You visualize the steps of the dive. You see the scenario without mistakes. You have to not worry about the waves or distracting marine life around you like. You are relaxed, focused and enjoying what you do. I love diving in the ocean is my favorite. I like to swim under water in the pool for practice when I am away from the sea. Static is still not my favorite because, again, my mind is happier when it has something to do like coordinating my swimming. I am still making my baby steps in freediving, but I really love how I can interchange practicing skills between water and qigong and meditation.

Reflecting on this experience, an insight came to me from a very unexpected esoteric point of view. Affirmation or mantra is a form of prayer. When humans pray, it helps to look upward where we think gods are or go up the mountain to get closer to the skies, to the gods and to reach the light. But what happens, if we go in the opposite direction – down – under the sea level, into the caves, or even going under the water in the pool? We move away from the gods and away from the light. We do get closer to the dark forces, and we generally consider that less desirable ad less comfortable. But dark forces can help us, too. What they can do is take something away from a person. This is an opportunity to let go of something, something like your fear. We can experience transformation both above and below. It’s just like working with energy.

CC: I like this. It is so true, there are lessons for us in both places.

YY: Absolutely. This insight was really meaningful to me, and it created a shift in my philosophical and spiritual perception of freediving. It was not the fear of water per se that I was experiencing. It is the fact that any fear has a high chance of kicking in when I am underwater. Any stressor has the potential to get amplified into a fear when I’m underwater. This was an important energetic shift for me. Just knowing this now makes most stressors become irrelevant.

CC: In this mindset, how do you deal with stressors?

YG: Some stressors are associated with the objective real risks. Freediving is a risky activity, and you must learn to mitigate them with education and training.

Other stressors are emotional. Wise ones say that you cannot run away from your fears, but you can go through them. It’s like going through any negative emotion. It is better to not block it or internalize it but allow yourself the weakness and vulnerability to go through the experience of feeling it. It may feel worse before it feels better. And then it’s over. Once you know what it’s like, it’s no longer a trigger. It may still be some sort of discomfort or alertness or consideration. But it will no longer launch you into suboptimal state.

CC: Yes, we can look at this through the lens of the Five Element theory: Lungs are parents to Kidneys, so shallow rapid breathing kicks in fear, which is the negative emotion that is associated with Kidneys in Traditional Chinese Medicine. When Lungs are happy and nourished with proper breathing, then qi harmoniously flows into Kidneys and all is well. On the contrary, when breathing is compromised, the energy of Kidneys gets compromised, and any stressor may be exaggerated. In its turn, the fear can completely color what you need to do, and your breath will not last long.

YG: You need that one breath to last. You need the oxygen to support your brain and internal organs, whereas in fight or flight the blood and the energy flow to the limbs so you can execute your response. In freediving, on the contrary, your swimming should be as relaxed as possible for oxygen conservation. If you are in the state of panic, you cannot even do a shallow dive very well.

CC: I think your insight about fear is important and can be applied to various situations in life. It is a skill to use experiences as a chance to learn how to be brave as opposed to frightened and put our best foot forward as opposed to turning away from the challenge.

YG: Yes, for sure. You basically start focusing on training and on what you need to get done, rather than worrying. Qigong skills are skills for life.

I recall how my freediving training coincided with one of our Taoists meetings where our teacher, Sarah Cherry, was telling us about the legends of Taoist masters, very advanced sages being annoyed by too many questions from their students and would run away from their students, hold their breath, and jump into the lake. They would sit under the water, so that they could relax.  Underwater they don’t get pestered by their mentees. Yes, being under water can be very relaxing.

CC: Yes, good teachers know how to propel their students.

YG: I am very grateful for our wonderful teachers and am sending gratitude to both my qigong and freediving teachers. It is important not only what you learn but also how you learn. Not all activities are for everybody but having a teacher who emphasizes joy in your pursuit and environment that induces your exploration is invaluable and takes it a new level over and over again. Thank you, TEACHERS!

CC: Where in Bahamas did you go to learn freediving?

YG: Kamalame Cay, Andros. It’s gorgeous there both above and under the water. The reef is beautiful. There are multiple diving sites there. Kamalame Cay Adventure offers various types of water activities. Special thanks to our freediving teacher, Joe Plant, and our freediving body, Anna Zuki. Their philosophy on freediving and ocean as a whole is joyful and caring and is in perfect harmony with the pristine beautiful nature of Kamalame. I hope you can come, and we’ll dive together.

CC: Now that would be fun!