Mind games

Janna and Tomás Guichet, the faces behind the short documentary 3 Women & The Sea reveal how freediving and the associated mind training can help alleviate everyday life stressors.

Words & photographs by Janna & Tomás Guichet
Additional photographs by Gastão Entrudo & Mario Albuquerque

I was in the open ocean with a group of freedivers, kilometres away from the coast. I looked down and could only see endless blue beneath me. I took a deep breath and dove down to immerse myself fully into the ocean. While the surface was wavy and rough, the ocean was calm and beautiful as soon as I slipped under. It was surreal.

All of a sudden, a group of manta rays appeared. I dove down, trying to be as quiet as possible to not to frighten them and soon I was surrounded. I dove between them and observed them for a while. Their elegant wings made them look like they were flying. The exact feeling that I felt in this special moment is hard to describe.

Little did I know that it would become even better when a whale shark cruised by. It had such calm nature when it passed us. I was able to approach it closely to film it but I ended up forgetting about filming entirely when I looked into its soft little eyes. I felt like being in a different world. Time and space became one and I become one with the present moment and the ocean. It was magic.

I grew up in Greece on a little island and learned to dive at a very early age. My childhood was pretty much spent in and around the ocean. But when I moved back to Germany, I suddenly developed a phobia about sharks. It was so bad that I couldn’t even look at them in a newspaper without getting a panic attack. But when I moved to Lisbon five years ago to do my master’s degree in photography, I found my way back into the ocean through freediving and confronted that fear.

I learned how to control my mind and to do things I never thought I would be capable of. Mario, one of my freediving instructors, said: “If we control ourselves, we are free.” This is something I live by today. I feel like the ocean embodies a transition point where something changes. Old things pass, new ones arise. The question is: how can we gain a positive effect through the ocean? Three concepts I thought were most important are: stillness, mind games and focus.

Before we dive into the ocean as freedivers, we must find our still point first. We have to be totally calm and relaxed, all tensions must be released in mind and body. Every little tension and thought costs oxygen and makes your breath hold shorter. This preparation can be used in many areas of life. It can help to power through challenges and help alleviate stress in everyday life. It helps us to reconnect to ourselves and be clearer and calmer when making decisions. We rediscover our own breathing rhythms, such as belly breathing which expels toxins, massages our inner organs, releases tension, and regulates so much more. It’s the way relaxed people breathe. We learn to pay attention to our breathing if we get in a rush, we learn to control it and get back to a normal breathing rhythm and back to a healthy rhythm for ourselves. We can notice that our digestion and inner blood circulation is getting better, and we feel healthier and stronger in a physiological and psychological context.

The ‘mind game’ concept helps us gain control over our minds. Freediving helps to eliminate obstacles we have created and helps us to achieve goals we never would have thought we would be capable of. We learn to push our limits, and take small steps forward to overcome them, but it also has the ability to show us our limits like nothing else on this planet can.

In everyday life we often overpass our limits – without immediate serious consequences. We are used to pushing ourselves more and more and don’t recognise when we should stop. On the other hand, self-awareness is key in freediving. The mind game is a way to find out what we are capable of and what we are not. It’s a great way to find our real limits. The same goes for focussing. What is important, what is just a disturbing side effect which we have created ourselves? What does really matter? What to do first? These are questions not easily answered in everyday life.

If you are down in the deep ocean, everything looks the same. No beginning, no end, no direction. But we have our diving rope connecting us to the surface. This is our way back up. Nothing else matters, nothing else we should put our focus on. This one line is the line to survival. In life, the consequences of not focussing might not be as bad in freediving, but it steals our energy, makes us unhappy and costs our joy. Staying focused might be one of the most difficult tasks in our modern lives. We have so many more external influences in a single day than people had in their entire lives during the medieval times.

Many freedivers use autosuggestion, a self-talk to help themselves stay calm and focused. Some prefer using positive thoughts. Others focus on negative thoughts, try to relax and release them and replace them with positive thoughts and so reframe them into a new context. They modify their psychological condition which is very powerful and can help them stay focused. 

There are so many techniques in apnea to get to that much-needed still point, to control one’s mind and to stay focused. In the end, everyone must discover their own ways to get there. It’s a very personal journey. During Covid, most of my freelance jobs were cancelled so I decided to make a small online video about mental training, considering my master thesis also dealt with these topics.

I asked five women to be part of this project. Three of them responded: Joana Andrade, the only Portuguese woman who surfs the big waves of Nazare; Lena Kemna, a super inspiring woman who started to surf only six years ago and who now thrives in bigger winter swells, and Mafalda Oliveira, the Portuguese record holder in deep diving who reached 65m on one breath. 

The film is about these three amazing ocean women and was produced with the help of my husband Tomás Guichet who is a professional filmmaker. It questions ‘what is freedom’? If we were free to choose without our ego, without systemic limitations, and without man-made limitations of fear, what would we really do? The documentary shows us a different way of dealing with us. To condition ourselves in a direction we like. We tried to visualise the magic of proper breathing by the women sharing how they prepare themselves for their big rides or deep dives and how they deal with anxiety and stress. It ultimately is about our connection to nature, their passion and the meaning of freedom.

Additional photographs by Gastão Entrudo & Mario Albuquerque

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