How Low Can You Go?

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The sperm whale can descend more than 2,000 meters. The average human can reach depths of 10 meters. Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras, world freediving champion and enthusiastic yogi, falls somewhere in the middle. Ferreras, breaker of 50 world records for freediving, routinely plunges to depths of more than 100 meters and slows his heart to 10 beats a minute. Sitting still, he can hold his breath for an astonishing eight minutes.

Clearly, something more elusive than daily runs and pumping iron allows Ferreras to shrug aside human limitations and expand beyond the normal parameters of existence. He says it's yoga that gives him the edge. "It combines my physical abilities with my spiritual needs, focuses my mind on the task at hand, helps me get rid of day-to-day problems and thoughts," Ferreras says. "After a short session, I feel as if I am back to my own simple and uncomplicated reality."

Part of Pipin's success lies in the natural course of his training. This is not the story of a fame-driven athlete who seized upon diving as a way to carve his name into history. Ferreras, born in Matanzas, Cuba, began spear fishing in the Bay of Matanzas at the age of 13 to raise money for his family. "The deeper I went," he says, "the bigger the fish got." Practical matters dictated his training, as in the case of record-breaking Olympic gold medalist Abebe Bekila, who "trained" in his native Ethiopian village by running 20 to 30 miles delivering messages.

Ferreras's earliest, unpracticed dives took him to depths of more than 150 feet, for as long as four minutes. It wasn't long before the Soviet military establishment heard of his remarkable performances and sent a team of scientists to study him and coaches to coax him into champion material. In the mid-1980s, Ferreras was spirited off to Italy, the freediving mecca of Europe, where he continued to set records and break barriers.

Ferreras was introduced to yoga in Milan in the early '90s. When he demonstrated his breath-holding ability for a local yogi, the yogi decided to give it a try himself and clocked in at just over 14 minutes on the first attempt—an impressive feat that convinced Ferreras to incorporate Pranayama into his daily practice. He began studying hatha yoga, pranayama, and meditation practices to hone his breathing and concentration, developing a training routine that he still follows. Daily yoga and meditation practice keep him focused and placid, lending him a Zen-like calm that belies his sturdy exterior.

Sometimes Ferreras meditates while standing on one hand, sometimes while in the womblike stillness of the ocean's depths. In the unnerving few minutes preceding each dive, Ferreras begins his version of pranayama to steady his mind and ready his body for the plunge. He relaxes his diaphragm, expands his chest, tilts his head back to fill his throat. The aim is to stuff every square centimeter of his body with oxygen. He will use pranayama practice to reach his ultimate goal: a 500-foot free dive on a single breath of air, a feat scientists say is physiologically impossible, and that Ferreras says is simply a matter of breaths away.

Is it just about pressing up against the edges of human experience? Or is there something more to these heroic plunges? For Ferreras, sinking to the depths of the sea inspires higher thought and greater freedom from the daily shackles of the mind. "For as long as the gods will have me live on this planet, I will always seek the strength and power the abyss brings me," Ferreras says. "Freediving helps me reach deep into my soul and find out who I am and what my reason for being is. For me there is no place like the deep blue waters to make my body and spirit become one." Perhaps it's just that the deeper you go, the deeper you go.