Stab Magazine | Controlled Blackouts for Fun!
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Controlled Blackouts for Fun!

From Stab Issue 61: Alex Gray and what it feels like to purposely hold your breath for so long that your heavenly spirit leaves your body. Words by Derek Rielly, photos courtesy Performance Freediving. Can you imagine holding your breath for so long that those dreadful stomach contractions disappear and it feels as if you’re being held […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

From Stab Issue 61: Alex Gray and what it feels like to purposely hold your breath for so long that your heavenly spirit leaves your body. Words by Derek Rielly, photos courtesy Performance Freediving.

Can you imagine holding your breath for so long that those dreadful stomach contractions disappear and it feels as if you’re being held in God’s arms, he stroking your spine and whispering beautiful things in your ear?

Alex Gray, 26, from Palos Verdes in California and an invitee to the big-event The Quiksilver: In Memory of Eddie Aikau, knows. Mr Gray and his pals Dave Wassel and Shane Dorian just completed a four-day freediving course (Performance Freediving!) on the Hawaiian Big Island, a course that takes you beyond consciousness, to the very brink of death, before dragging you back. Stab was, and still is, intrigued by the mechanics of breath-holding. This interview was recorded just as Alex was setting himself up at the Lopez Pipe house for his yearly three-month stint on the North Shore and two days after he’d finished his course, graduating with a breath-hold time of three minutes and 50 seconds.

Stab: How about you tell me what it’s like to hold your breath so long you disappear into unconsciousness…
Alex: What happens is you start getting this euphoria. You feel like the best you’ve ever felt in your life and then you start feeling this tingling sensation. I feel it in my fingers. Other people feel it in different places. And, then, in the pool where we were training, every 15 seconds your buddy, in my case Wassel, would tap me on the shoulder and say, “Signal”, and you gotta put one finger up. And then, your signals start getting weak. You start losing your muscle control and then, finally, you start losing air out of your mouth. And, when you start losing air out of your mouth, that means that you’re losing control of holding your breath and instantly, at that point, you’re pulled up. And, you go into this thing they call a samba, and your body, literally, starts to bounce. You’re sitting there and you’re bouncing! I had it happen and I didn’t even know I was doing it. And, the way to get out of it is the person who’s talking to you is saying, “You’re okay, breathe, you’re okay, breathe.” And, it’s that going through your brain and you processing it that brings you back to where you are. And, then, all of a sudden, you come back. I started laughing. And then you have to go through these breath-hold exercise to bring your heart rate back down and to get oxygen back into you. The whole thing’s about getting oxygen back in you.

But what about those terrible contractions, that head exploding feeling prior? How do you deal with it? How do you get to the promised land of a drug-free ecstasy? The whole thing is… mind.

Do you go to what they call a good place, some childhood memory? The funny thing is, yeah, you just go to a happy place. It’s easy to hold your breath until you think you’re going to freak out and then just breathe. The instructors hold their breath for, on average, seven minutes. They’re world record holders. They’re bad ass. And, their whole thing is your breath hold doesn’t start until your first contraction because that’s the first point when your mind is going to tell you to get out of there and then once you start freaking out, your heart rate goes, and once your heart rate goes, you start using more oxygen than you need to. So, you’re instantly losing. So, you feel that first contraction and what I was doing, I was going through mental checklist of me getting on the plane, coming over to Kona (Hawaii), meeting Wassel, just getting into the minute details of the little things. If might be how you made your sandwich for breakfast. Whatever works for you, just keeping your mind off of that freak-out mode, of I’m-in-a-badplace-get-me-out-of-here. That will keep your heart rate down, use less oxygen, and it’ll allow you to stay underwater longer.

It’s real knocking-on-the-door of death stuff. But, safety is the big thing, yeah? Safety is the biggest thing! Wassel was my partner and him and I, when we’re doing these things, are literally sitting next to each other, one inch away. You’re not guaranteed to blackout, but it’s okay to, because there’s someone there and when he started having the LMCs (loss of motor controls) a lot, I would grab him and pull him up out of the water. When you haven’t taken in any water, and you blackout on the surface, they do this thing called blow-tap-talk where you blow across from the eyebrows to your lips, give a blow there, and you tap them on the cheek three times and that brings you back to consciousness. The sensation of having that cooling over your eyes brings you right back. But, with that in mind, I would trust Wassel with my life.

Fear, panic, all that gear. It’ll nail you, am I right? That’s one of the things they teach us! The first thing you want to do when you panic and you’re out of breath is you want to take a breath. And, the worst thing that you can do is take in water ‘cause once you get water in your lungs, that’s when you’re screwed. If you can keep the water out of your lungs, that’s the safest thing to do. You have to get over the scared factor of why you take that breath. It’s learning to calm your mind, to go through those stomach contractions. And, those contractions are our fight-or-flight thing. It’s our body telling us to take a breath. What the instructors were telling us was, look, it’s okay to have those contractions. But, it’s all in the head. You can mentally work through that.

How about your ability under the sea now? Up until the class, I think I could hold my breath for a minute and a half, at the most. And, after two days, I held my breath for three minutes and 50 seconds.

Nuts! In two days! It was incredible. The first day I held my breath for three minutes. The second day, in the morning, three 30, and the second in the afternoon I held it for three minute and 50 seconds.

Where does that place your mind in big waves now? Well, holding your breath is just a mental barrier. Get over it and you can hold your breath for four minutes. I walked out of the pool that day and my confidence level was so much higher, just from doing that. And then we went into the ocean. Everyone went to 130 feet (40 metres). I’ve never been 40 feet (12 metres). Wassel went to a 145! (Close to 50 metres! Alex dissolves into shrieks of laughs! The absurdity!).

Want to become super human? Take it to Hawaii (or mainland America) and give these gents a hit.

Stab Issue 61 is now on sale digitally, over here.

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