Do · Feel · Think

Think Carefully before Considering Orthodontics

In one of the world’s most famous assassination cases, John F Kennedy, the US President was shot in his head on 22 November 1963 while he was riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Next to him, was his wife, Jacqueline, who had to witness the horror. Many of you would have heard about this famous piece of history. But not many of you would have known that President Kennedy’s death may have been avoidable, had he not been wearing a back brace, which he needed because of his poor back condition. Multiple shots came at the car, and those who were around ducked instinctively during the first few shots, except President Kennedy, who could not bend his back because of the brace, allowing him to sustain the fatal shot to the back of his head.

This story left such a big impact on me. Because the back brace, what was supposed to give him support and mobility, restricted his natural movement and at a time of his greatest need, failed to support him, and instead left him a sitting duck in the face of danger. I could not shake this story away from my mind. And it reminded me of something I went through myself.

In my journey towards seeking health, I started going for something called Rolfing, which is a type of bodywork, also known as Structural Integration, which helps your body find balance and work better with gravity. Through the palpation of my therapist, he could feel where the tightness in my body lay. Each person has a unique muscular or fascial pattern, owing the the strains and habits developed in the course of life. For example, someone who has a broken rib, may start walking in a lopsided way and overtime, the scar tissue and the muscular habit of walking in that lopsided way may remain, even if the ribs have fully healed, thus the person’s posture forever hints of the trauma that was once sustained. This can also be seen emotionally. Someone who is in perpetual distress from work or life, and always in a hunched and tense position with shoulder lifted up and head stretched forward, will over time, have this pattern reinforced and it becomes part of the person’s way of being and it shows in the person’s body and structure. As each of us experiences life differently, obtain different physical traumas, reinforce different emotional patterns, and allow ourselves to heal to different extents, every body is different and unique. These, a bodyworker, can easily feel, see and know, from just observing and sensing a person. The bodyworker, hence, has a way of knowing you from your body, even though you may not say very much.

So for me, my Rolfer, Hee Tan, noticed that muscles in my jaw and mouth and one side of my head were very tight. And he asked, if I ever wore braces. I was shocked that he even asked. And I told him that I did for a year when I was 12. And he said that many of his clients who wore braces, have similar tensions in the skull. Though this was a passing remark, I could not help but keep thinking about it. Because around the same time, I started becoming interested in craniofacial disorders and learned of issues that arise from poor function of the jaw muscles and tongue. And in my community, many have pointed out that orthodontics or the wearing of braces or clear aligners, while having straightened their teeth, had also at the same time caused their their faces to age prematurely and become elongated, led to a forward head posture and scoliosis (when some bones cannot move freely, other bones will shift to compensate for the loss of movement). The less lucky ones also develop the Temporal Mandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMD), which is also known as the suicide disease, because of how painful it is.

So what is the possible link between braces, the face, and jaw joint issues? It lies in the movement and breathing of the skull. Your skull looks like just one big thick bone, but it in fact consists of 22 bones that are connected by special joints called sutures (Figure 1). The flexibility of the skull is what allowed a baby’s head to go through the mother’s birth canal at birth. Some of these sutures fuse as you age, but not all and fully, because your skull performs a function of circulating the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and the spinal cord. To circulate the fluid, the skull bones perform a pumping motion, allowable by the sutures, which are spaces that are “chock-full of arteries, veins, nerves, nerve receptors, elastic and collagen fibres” and are “designed to move”. This breathing takes place all the time, rhythmically, just like the pulsing of your heart or the breathing movement of your chest, but it is less perceptible because you need to be quite still and meditative to be able to observe it in yourself (Figure 2).

Figure 1. The skull is made up of 22 bones, including the maxilla and mandible which holds our teeth.
Figure 2. This video clip shows the pumping of the cerebrospinal fluid to circulate it around our brain and and spinal cord.

The two palatine bones of the maxilla where all the upper teeth are located on are part of this skull breathing system. So what happens when you wear a brace, whatever type it is, is that it restricts the normal movement of the skull, leading to restrictions, scar tissues and poor patterns developing from the unnatural binding of the bones. Perhaps a poor example would be the traditional foot binding ritual of the Chinese. So the bones want to grow and develop in a certain way, but having a bind or a brace, restricts that natural development, resulting in distorted development. Because it cannot move in the way it wants to move, strain patterns develop, and tensions accumulate.

Quite like the case of the brace on the President’s spine that restricted his natural instinct and created a forced posture, so orthodontics does the same. The goal of orthodontics is to straighten teeth but at the expense of natural function and development. Did you know that after braces are removed, for life, the person has to wear something called the retainers to keep the teeth in the new position, or else, the teeth will once again, move back into their crooked positions? This means that the bones naturally want to move and find a position of equilibrium, and wearing braces only restricts and hinders this, they do not genuinely help your jaws and teeth find the most comfortable and healthy position to be in. As you can imagine, over time, strain patterns can develop from restricting this natural movement.

Is there a better way to correct problems with teeth and bite, other than orthodontics? This is an area I have been spending my time studying and hopefully, in time, I can share more with you. Meanwhile, I want to caution people who are thinking of wearing braces merely for an aesthetic effect, that there may be consequences that you may not even link to the wearing of braces in the first place. So think twice. Putting a brace on what is meant to move freely is generally not a good idea.

But if you really do need braces, choose a dentist who takes the craniosacral system into account into his or her methods. Find a dentist who integrates an understanding of whole-body mechanics and craniosacral therapy into his practice, one who first makes sure you do not have any imbalances in your jaw or who can first address it with a splint, before beginning treatment, such that the teeth and jaws are shaped towards your body’s ideal (Langly-Smith, 2020). “Is your bite quite right?” is a book I highly recommend to understand this area of study better. You need to remember that you are not just treating an isolated part of your body when you are correcting your teeth, but your whole body is connected, and pulling your jaws inwards and shifting the head off balance, will have systemic effects.

The only dentists I know who take a systemic approach to correcting teeth alignment issues now is Dr. Granville Langly-Smith, who has already unfortunately passed on, and Dr Jinhaeng Lee, who combine the palpatory skills of a cranio-osteopath and craniosacral therapist with the craftmanship of making splints and braces to return your bite and body into a more ideal position and function, hence enhancing your health and potentially correcting other issues that originated with issues related to the temporal-mandibular joints and bite.

Bibliography

Langly-Smith, G. (2020). Is your bite quite right? Inspiring stories of people regaining their smile and their health. UK: Langly-Smith Lecturing and Learning Ltd.

Pait, T. G., & Dowdy, J. T. (2017). John F. Kennedy’s back: chronic pain, failed surgeries, and the story of its effects on his life and death, Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine SPI, 27(3), 247-255. Retrieved Oct 16, 2021, from https://thejns.org/spine/view/journals/j-neurosurg-spine/27/3/article-p247.xml

Do · Eat

Tending to the garden of the scalp microbiome: What “no shampoo” taught me

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash
I took a good whiff of my hairbrush and there was a distinctive smell, so familiar, yet I could not quite put my finger on it.

This is after a week of not using shampoo. Being isolated in a hotel on a quarantine order, I thought it would be a good chance to give the “no-poo” or “no-shampoo” experiment a try.

“Cheese!” or more specially “blue cheese”.

I figured out. The smell was unique and slightly pungent but not entirely distasteful, somewhat the effect durian has on some people. Some people like it, but some people don’t. But it’s definitely not a smell one associates freshly shampooed hair with.

Besides the smell on my brush, I also noticed that a week without shampooing caused my hair to have more volume, and allowed it stayed in place when I style it with my hands, unlike the frizzy hair I usually have. To my surprise, my hair now felt and looked better.

It made me very curious, what exactly was happening to my hair, that it smelt like the by products of bacteria that ferment cheese.

I googled and found out that the scalp, like the gut, mouth and skin, has its own unique microbiome or colonies of microbes that grow in harmony with one another and with the host substrate. Different from other body sites, the scalp microbiome is characterized by low bacterial diversity and dominated by Cutibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Malassezia spp. (Saxena et al., 2021).

The scalp is a unique environment, different from the exposed skin. Because of the many strands of hairs on it, it is a humid environment and protected from UV light, and conducive for the growth of unique strains of microbes. It was like your scalp is a garden where you tend strains of bacteria and some fungus, that have developed a symbiotic (or a mutually beneficial) relationship with you.

I googled and found out that some strains of bacteria, make use of the sebum or oil in the scalp, that we naturally produce to moisturize our hair, to make vitamins that are good for hair growth – like biotin, a vitamin that is good for hair growth and scalp health, something our body does not naturally produce but can be bought as supplements from your local drug store.

It intrigued me. You mean the reason why a good diet helps us to have good and strong hair was partly due to good nutrition causing us to produce high quality sebum to feed these bacteria strains, who in turn produce beneficial by products that maintain healthy scalp and hair?

And then, reading more, it appears that dandruff, a condition where flaky skin falls off the scalp, happens when there is more fungal than bacterial growth. So when you don’t take such good care of the garden of your scalp and allow “weeds” or invasive fungus to overwhelm the good bacteria on your scalp, you get hair conditions like dandruff (Saxena et al., 2018) or alopecia (balding) (Barquero-Orias et al., 2021)?

This must be why using the right shampoo, not over washing the hair, and not putting the hair into harsh situations like using chemical and mechanical treatments on them, is good for the hair. We want to maintain an environment that is conducive for good bacteria growth. And that means we want to keep some of these sebum on our hair, and let the scalp and hair be an environment that is conducive to bacterial growth.

And this must possibly be why putting some things like coconut oil on our hair (Saxena et al., 2021), or following other hair care secrets of our grandmothers, is good for the hair, because we are giving additional nutrients to our microbiome, and keeping the microbes happy, means they keep our scalp healthy as well.

This knowledge transformed how I saw my hair. I used to see it as a hassle, which kind of explained my joy when I once shaved it off two years ago. It was then to me one more thing to worry about. But now, I see my scalp and hair in a new light. It is now a mobile or portable garden where I tend to microbes. And when I eat well and treat my hair right, the microbes are kept in good balance and reward me with hair of good texture and which is easy to manage.

I am no longer tending to my hair alone for my own vanity’s sake, but I have microbe partners whose survival and growth are dependent on the decisions I make about my hair and in turn, my health and beauty dependent on them.

References

Barquero-Orias D, Muñoz Moreno-Arrones O, Vañó-Galván S. Alopecia y microbioma: ¿futura diana terapéutica? Actas Dermosifiliogr. 2021;112:495–502. (https://actasdermo.org/en-alopecia-microbiome-a-future-therapeutic-articulo-S1578219021001487)

Saxena R, Mittal P, Clavaud C, Dhakan DB, Hegde P, Veeranagaiah MM, Saha S, Souverain L, Roy N, Breton L, Misra N and Sharma VK (2018) Comparison of Healthy and Dandruff Scalp Microbiome Reveals the Role of Commensals in Scalp Health. Front. Cell. Infect. Microbiol. 8:346. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2018.00346 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcimb.2018.00346/full)

Saxena, R., Mittal, P., Clavaud, C. et al. Longitudinal study of the scalp microbiome suggests coconut oil to enrich healthy scalp commensals. Sci Rep 11, 7220 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-86454-1 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-86454-1)

Feel

Beauty is Bone and Muscle Deep

This post describes my foray into the world of facial aesthetics and how I discovered ways to modify the muscle and bone structure of the face.
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

I first became interested in facial massage when I was took a two-week Thai Massage course for beginners in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2019. I realised that a full body massage was too strenuous for me and I wanted to focus on an area of the body that can make the most significant impact on a person. Through my friend, Arnau, I was introduced to Nooy from the Sirichan Clinic who was an extremely skillful therapeutic masseuse and who taught therapeutic face massage that can reverse the signs of aging and help with condition of facial paralysis like Bell’s Palsy.

Nooy herself looks 20 years younger than her true age, with only some white hair revealing her true age. She told me that if I massage my own face regularly from young, it can be the case for me too.

So I learned how to do face massage. 🙂 And the process was challenging but enlightening. And I learned more than techniques to resolve tension in the facial muscles and the body system connected to the face, but the other peripheral concepts of a beautician’s practice, like how to wash and clean the face, and also life principles on how to make a living on this.

Alas, after coming back to Singapore, I did not have the courage to turn this into a business, but I continued to massage my own face and to explore other aspects of facial beauty.

I was convinced from my experience that a lot of the early signs of ageing that we are increasingly seeing more of in younger people can be reversed if they were more self-aware of their facial posture and facial tension and learned how to care for their facial structure and muscles.

Many women tend to focus on the outermost layer of their faces, the skin. And their skincare routine focuses predominantly on washing it and applying things to it. But they tend to neglect the deeper structures, like the muscles and the bones, that actually influences the outer layer of skin. Many also try to cover up for structural flaws through make up that can cover things like eye bags and skillful contouring can create the illusion of structure on the face. However, once the make up is removed, the real quality of the face is also revealed.

While I appreciate the art and beauty of make up and other cosmetic changes, my concerned was that people were not caring for the needs of this underlying structure and musculature, that when unaddressed, will continue to decline . No amount of make up can slow down this decline. However, awareness of muscular and skeletal issues and knowing how to care for these layers of the body can!

If you observe carefully women who look young even in their 50s and 60s, what they have in common is a strong facial structure with a well-supported maxilla . As you lose bone mass as you age, these women lose theirs more slowly and their facial muscles and skin continues to be tautly in place because of their strong bone structure. They like to give the reason that the secret to their youth is in their diet and keeping a healthy lifestyle, but the truth is that they have other factors going well for them such as a wide dental arch that could support all 32 teeth to grow evenly into, which can make a big difference to the rate of facial decline.

Among many things, I was taught how to erase away lines on the face through massaging the muscles in tension that caused those lines and how to reduce puffiness of face through lymphatic drainage techniques. More recently, I learned about how your teeth and jaw greatly affect your face structure and where you place your tongue at rest can mean whether your skull is supported or not.

Let me tell you a secret – beauty is not skin deep, it is bone and muscle deep. If you can learn to access this level of your facial structure – you can slow down the occurrence of facial ageing and return to a pre-maturely aged face a youthful countenance.

Do · Freedive · freediving

The Value of a Coach

Not many people realise that the issues they struggle with can actually get better through finding the right coaches.

Coaching costs money, so some people may hesitate to give it a try.

But one would not need continuous coaching.

The time you need a coach most is when you have a goal but you’re stuck – at a certain depth or with a certain issue – that’s the time when a coach can help you over your hurdle.

A student once asked me whether coaching is easy for me because I only go to shallow depths when I coach beginners, after all I am a 50m diver. I told him not at all. Coaching takes as much out of me as my own dives for myself, in fact way more.

When I dive for myself, I close my eyes and only care about myself, blocking out everything around me. But when I am coaching, I am fully engaging all of my senses to observe someone, to think for that person, to strategize ways to help the person overcome his or her issues and at the same time I am creating an atmosphere that the person needs to feel comfortable to make changes to his or her dive. I am plotting which is the most important feedback I must give to make the maximum improvement to the person’s next dive. I cannot be superfluous with my feedback as a student can only absorb and apply so much. Sometimes, I intentionally hide certain information so that my student won’t know what I am trying to do so that my student can achieve what I am intending him or her to do.

On top of these, I am watching out for dangers – strong currents, exhausted students, any hard objects at the bottom that my students may potentially knock their heads into. Or a discouraged student who may no longer be in the curious or playful mood that is often so needed for learning something new.

To me, doing all these, are carbon dioxide producing. They are more effortful than me closing my eyes and doing my own thing, only caring for myself and my safety.

When I tried to explain this to the student, he understood and gave me a beautiful analogy. He told me it was like a tour guide taking a group of tourists out compared to the tour guide being a tourist himself. Exactly! As a coach or instructor, one is looking out for many things, relying upon his or her years of experience, years of studying and thinking, to create an experience that is rewarding and enjoyable for another person. There is a certain responsibility upon that coach. This is different from when you are a student and you trust that the coach will take care of most things for you, including your safety and progress.

This is perhaps what you pay your coach for. To carry that responsibility for you for that dive session, someone to partner with you to help you do the thinking, diagnose your problems, provide solutions to them, and give you guidance to learn new things.


I had many coaches and instructors over the course of my freediving journey. I learned different things from each one. Each one helped me with different issues. Over time, I also learned to self-coach myself. I learned to use each dive to collect information to analyze between dives so that I can use the subsequent dive to diagnose issues or solve problems. I am grateful for my coaches who dedicated their dive sessions towards my progress, safety and enjoyment.


As a new coach, I am learning and the multi-tasking involved is still effortful and not yet second nature as it appears to be for seasoned coaches. But my wish is that with more practice and experience, I will develop greater calm, confidence and capability to guide others towards their personal goals.


To all students who had chosen me as their coach at Apnea 42, thank you for giving me that chance and honour to have been your guide. 🙂

And thank you Mark for trusting and entrusting me with your students.

Photo by Yael Eisner, taken at Freedive Utila of Mattie and me.
Do · Freedive · freediving

Is freediving dangerous? Three reasons why freediving is more than a safe sports

A recent report of death from snorkeling in Singapore caused many people to be hyper-alert and concerned about people they see freediving out in the open waters off Lazarus island. I wrote this post to emphasize how safe a sport freediving is, as freedivers are trained to avoid accidents and incidents threatening to their lives. I would even encourage people who like the ocean to sign up for an introductory freediving course to pick up some basic water skills and develop their water confidence.

Freedivers are identifiable by their big red or yellow buoys in the ocean. If you recognize us out in the waters, don’t be afraid to say “hello”! 🙂

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Photo of a freediving buoy and freedivers in the ocean by Yael Eisner.

Here are three reasons why freediving is more than a safe sports:

  1. All basic level freediving courses teach safety skills
    To earn your first level freediving certification, you must first be able to safety and rescue your buddy. The number one rule in freediving is that “you never dive alone.” In every dive, you will have a buddy who meets you as you ascend during your dive. Your instructor will teach you what you need to do to ensure your buddy’s safety and what to do in a case of emergency when your buddy is low on oxygen or has blacked out. A freediver who cannot demonstrably show that he or she can securely safety and rescue his or her buddy will not pass the course. This means that any beginner freediver already has more knowledge about how to help a person in need in the water than a person who has not taken a freediving course.

  2. You will learn knowledge about human physiology and how to understand and listen to your body
    What happens during a breath-hold? What happens to your body when you have a build-up of carbon dioxide or a drop in oxygen levels? You will learn the various stages one undergoes during a breath-hold and what happens physiologically in one’s body. You will learn to read these signals in your own body and learn how to respond to them. You will learn what signs indicate a desire for breath and that there are different stages of “air hunger” that you will go through and at which point you should end your dive. You will also learn how to observe your buddy for signs of distress and how to help him or her.

  3. You will learn water skills and how to protect yourself in open waters
    As part of the course, we also impart knowledge about water safety in open waters. Such knowledge includes developing a mindset of healthy fear and respect of the ocean, making oneself visible to boats in the sea, choosing a freediving spot that is safe, away from boat traffic, strong currents, and venomous sea creatures. When we dive on a buoy, the buoy is attached to a long rope that is hung down from it by a heavy weight and we are attached to this rope using a lanyard. This guide line ensures that the freediver does not get lost but always know his or her position in relation to the buoy, which is the starting and end point of each dive.

See the lanyard attached to the freediver. It is a safety feature that allows the diver not to get lost during the descent and ascent. Photo by Kohei Ueno.

We freedivers understand that there are risks to freediving. We more than overcompensate in our education and preparation before and during our dives to avoid these risks. In fact, any freediver who has gone through an introductory freediving course has more water safety skills and knowledge about the risks and danger of breath-hold and the ocean than those who have not taken any freediving course.

Freedivers are not daredevils. Like others who enjoy water sports like scuba diving, open water swimming, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, wake surfing, etc., we understand the risks involved in our activities. And we take precautions to ensure our safety. We have a solid education structure and a safety system to ensure that everyone who wants to experience the joy of holding their breaths underwater can do it safely without endangering their lives.

Perhaps you can join us one day for a freediving course if you would also like to experience this joy of holding your breath and learn some of these necessary water and safety skills!

Freedive · freediving

5 things you may not know about taking part in freediving depth competitions

1. It is a good way to improve your depth and test your limits.

It is a safe place to experiment and a great learning opportunity. Some people come up to one month before to train. You don’t have to do a PB during a competition. But if you’re enjoying the training so much and on a roll, why not? Some of the freedivers who take part have not yet reached their personal limits yet. And consistently and confidently increase their depth with each training! And with each day of competition!

I increased my depth from 30-50 meters after a month of regular training in Roatan in 2019. I attribute this to the safety team, many of them Master students of Tex of Freedive Utila. Day after day we trained at the competition platform supported by the safety team who were so reassuring, encouraging, strong, and kind people. Particularly for someone like me who is sensitive to the environment and can get anxious easily, this kind of positive and supportive environment often brings out the best in me.

In my first freediving competiion, I did not know yet how to surface from my dives. I looked like I was dancing with Julia Mouce Dominguez from Apnea Bali, who told me ‘I could keep my shit together for one minute’.
Photo by Kohei Ueno, 2018 Singapore Depth Championships

2. You hang out with the world’s best as friends and you can ask them for tips!

This photo shows how fun it can be. One thing special about the global freediving community is that it really doesn’t matter who you are – beginner, spectator, photographer, national or world record holder, judge or safety crew – we celebrate one another’s achievements with PB ice-creams and beers, grieve one another’s losses, and have fun together. For those who like to party, the after-party after the competition is a big event!

Group massage.
Photo by Alessia Zecchini, 2019 CMAS World Championships

3. The only pressure you have is the pressure you give yourself.

Winning or losing, hitting your target or missing it, making mistakes or feeling awesome – however your dives were like are not life and death situations. World record holder, Alexey Molchanov, who despite the mantle he carries is always chilled and relax before competitions remembers his mother, Natalia Molchanova, saying this, “Life is important, death is important, birth of the kids is important, but a competition is just a game for adults.” In the Molchanovs Wave 4 Student Manual, he said, ‘if you enjoy it as a game, something to just have fun, being part of the community, and using it as a progression marker, then that will be a good, positive reinforcement of your training.”

Photo of Alexey Molchanov with me! By me in the 2019 CMAS World Championships.
Do your best and if you get a yellow or red card, it is not a big deal!
Photo by Kohei Ueno, 2019 Singapore Depth Championships

4. You will get really good photos and videos from them.

Kohei Ueno, my favourite photographer, took this photo of me, which its black and white version, was a finalist in the Red Bull Illume 2019 for the Lifestyle Category. He explains the photograph:

This shot is an image of a freediver coming up from a competition dive… A rather intense moment where the athlete is awakened from the dark, quiet, lonely depth of space, to the bright, loud, and hectic environment of the surface above. To me, what makes this image even more special is that I’ve watched this athlete grow over the years, overcoming her own fears one step at a time, from when she could barely dive to a few meters down, to now where she’s diving to depth of over 50 meters on one breath of air.

Photo by Kohei Ueno, 2018 Singapore Depth Championships

For this video that Mark Cheung, the owner of Apnea 42, created, I told him that it was fine to include “my failures”. I performed rather poorly in this particular competition, obtaining a white, yellow (penalty incurred), and red (disqualified) card. Because I wanted people to know that sometimes competitions are great, but other times they go awry, and that’s okay. 🙂

Video by Mark Cheung, 2019 Singapore Depth Championships

5. Anyone can take part!

Perhaps the sports is still young and that we do not have sufficient prominence and funding. But right now, anyone can still participate. You can compete side by side with your favourite freediving champion like William Trubridge. And use that chance to enjoy a beach holiday. You just need to pay the competition fee. And there are many competitions to choose from from around the world.

Screenshot from the 2019 CMAS World Championship and Carribean Cup website where my picture appeared next to the William Trubridge. 🙂

This could be you!

Awaiting my turn at the competition platform.
Photo by Laura Babahekian, 2019 Caribbean Cup

This blog post was adapted from a sharing done at the Annual General Meeting of the Apnea Association of Singapore on the 28th of July 2020. Thank you Paola Seow for the invitation to share my experience!

To read more about my competition experience, check out this article I wrote and this Facebook post.

Freedive · freediving

What Three Months of Freediving in Útila Taught Me

At the beginning of the year, I spent three months on the island of Útila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. I landed on the island on the 1st of January 2020 to be a Masters student at Freedive Utila, and thereafter an Instructor trainee. Let me share what I have learned from devoting three months to the freediving practice!

Artwork by Kimberley Jackson. The different dive sites we have access to from Freedive Utila.

1 The Danger of Pressure and Expectations

I started freediving in 2017. Freediving appeals to me because it is a way to relax and get in touch with myself. Holding your breath brings your awareness to bodily sensations and your inner world. It teaches you to create your own safe space right where you are and leaves you with inexplicable feelings. I usually try to protect this sacred quiet space within me. Still, sometimes it is threatened by concerns about how others view me and my competitiveness and desire to outdo myself. 

This year was the first time I found droplets of blood in my spit after a dive. Freedivers who push their depth ­­limits are susceptible to barotrauma (injuries to tissues caused by changes in pressure). These injuries are usually avoidable when one is under no pressure to perform. But for one who is fixated on achievement, it is easy to ignore bodily signals and sensations and push past what one is ready for. 

There wasn’t a lot of blood, but having a fear of blood made even that small amount unbearable to see and imagine within me. After the particular dive, I heard a gurgling sound and had trouble taking a deep breath (taking a deep breath caused me to cough), both signs of respiratory tissue damage. People usually brush off these few drops of blood, believing that injuries are part of any sport and that all I need to do is rest. But I was concerned about what had caused this to happen because I wanted to avoid it happening again. 

On reflection of my own unique situation, I believe the reasons for my trachea/lung squeeze was owing to a conflagration of factors that were related to me being hard on myself despite being slow to adapt to the new training conditions and environment.

I was ambitious when I left home. I had goals in mind for an upcoming competition. And a training plan that, if followed rigidly, “should” lead to the results I was targeting for or so I thought. But this plan did not take into consideration that I had difficulties adapting to the new country, school, system, social environment, diet, training, and water conditions.

Moreover, I came to the island at a low point in my life, and I was depressed and lonely. This training plan did not consider that everything around me and within me, even those seemingly unrelated to freediving, took a toll on my mental state and body and affected my mental clarity, judgment, and performance.

Tex, the owner of Freedive Utila and my instructor, dives by two principles. He tells his students: 1) Listen to your body. 2) Don’t do anything that is hard. If taken seriously, these principles imply that the sport of freediving is accessible to anybody. It encourages one to stay at where one is at until one is ready to progress further. Natalia Molchanov, the world’s greatest freediver, advises in her manuals that we are not to be obsessed with numbers but be realistic about our limits. She wrote, “Never compare yourself to other freedivers. Everybody has their own way. Feel your body, listen to it. This will help you not only to dive safely but also to know and accept yourself and truly enjoy a new underwater experience.”

Over time, I learned to accept that my training plan was not going to work out. Rather than push myself to attempt an unattainable goal, I decided to use freediving once again as a therapy to bring back health and wellness to my mind, emotions, and body. I re-examined my expectations and adjusted my standards. I decided that freediving was going to work for me rather than I work for it.

Photo by Miska Kontiainen. Really liked the fact that we get to pick up some boating knowledge and skills.

2 The Fun of Curiosity and Wonder

Here at Utila, the direction of the wind and currents determines the site we go to and the available depth we have when we dive. The beauty of our dependence on weather conditions taught me the importance of flexibility in training goals and having fun. I learned that depth need not be the only measure of one’s progress. There was a lot one could work on at shallower depths other than extending one’s personal best (PB).

I watched as my friends Caspar and Yilmaz and then Miska discovered that they could hands-free equalise. Many people think it’s impossible to learn hands-free equalization because they are unwilling to take a step back and become like beginners again, especially when they can now easily Frenzel or do the Mouthfill to deeper depths. It seems almost foolish to return to the beginning, struggling to make it past a few meters of depth, with a completely new technique. But my friends with their childlike spirit of faith, exploration, and tenacity discovered that they could also perform an equalization technique that has a reputation of being “impossible to learn.” 

Is it any wonder that many discoveries are made when we have fun with nothing to prove and with all the time to lose?

We also tried diving as fast as we could, variable weight, diving to the bottom of the ocean and lying in the sand, no fins to the bottom and then kick off from the sand back up to the surface, and one-by-one following closely behind Tex through the many decks of the Halliburton Shipwreck. Yes, it was during a variable weight dive that I discovered I could Frenzel. Being dragged through a water column at such a high speed made me instinctively picked the method of equalization that was the fastest, and it seems putting my hands to my nose and rapidly firing my tongue was my body’s method of choice for this style of diving.

Each day presented different opportunities. I was experiencing the fun of freediving again.

And this I did at Freedive Utila with many amazing people. I tried so many things I didn’t try previously in my pursuit of depth. For me, pursuing depth meant fine-tuning techniques that were known to work, instead of experimenting with new and unproven techniques. I wanted to achieve the greatest progress in the shortest amount of time. However, letting that go opened my mind to what progress means.

I learned in my time at Freedive Utila to view each problem I had with curiosity rather than criticism. Since I arrived, an issue that has been bugging me was a squeaky left ear, likely a result of middle ear inflammation. One day, Caspar was practicing his Mouthfill, and he did it from the surface with full lungs. This gave me an idea, why don’t I try it too? To my surprise, with this change in equalization technique, the squeaky ear issue went away. Apparently, before switching to this method, I was equalizing a little too slowly with my intermittent hands-free equalization, causing pressure to build up on my eardrums. While this was not so much an issue with short diving sessions where I only perform a few dives, it was too much for my body for the longer dive sessions that we have here at Freedive Utila that can last up to three hours. With this new technique, my eardrums were continuously inflated and never experience the water’s pressure. Realising a constant pressure Mouthfill may actually work for me also made me open to trying noseclip diving, something I was previously resistant to.

Another problem I had that used to make me think I was not cut out for freediving was my early contractions. Probably because I am perpetually high strung, I have a naturally high baseline level of CO2 when using a breathe up that works for most people. While having contractions during diving is common and not an issue and signals the MDR is working, I wanted to know if I could delay them by awhile to increase the period of relaxation during my dive. During one of the static sessions, I decided to try a different type of breathe up that reduces the CO2 content in my body. And lo and behold, for the first time ever, I experienced a “normal” breath-hold which had distinct segments of relaxation and contraction and hypoxia. The arrival of the contractions, rather than being premature, matched the lowering level of O2 in my body more closely. And with this breath-hold, I managed to do a PB!

Hitting a PB for static after trying a new breathe up!

Ironically, progress comes easily when one is having fun.

From these experiences, I learned to listen to my body and find unique solutions to my unique problems. It is true what Natalia Molchanova said that regardless of how long one has been doing the sports, with a curious mind and open heart, it is possible to “truly enjoy a new underwater experience” with every dive.

3 The Joy of Exhale Diving

Unique to the Apnea Total System, besides the lack of depth requirements for their courses and focus on students’ experiences rather than performances, is their teaching of exhale diving in the Advanced course (equivalent to Level 2 for the other certifications). Exhale diving means diving with anything less than full lungs. The most common is the functional residual capacity (FRC) dive, which is diving with the amount of air after a passive exhale.

Being new to the Apnea Total system, I did not have much experience with exhale diving. Even the thought of it scares me. Exhale diving may not appeal to a diver who has been working on depth because exhale diving exposes the diver to higher pressures earlier, hence regressing one in meters. It does not sound attractive to train exhale dives when depth is available. But! There are many benefits to exhale diving, including being less buoyant and being able to conserve more oxygen during the most energy-consuming phase of the dive – the entry and beginning meters of a dive. 

One particular day where we were at the Shipwreck with a depth limit of 33m, I devoted that session solely to exhale diving. Usually, when the body is still warming up, the first few dives are the most uncomfortable. And on other occasions when I’ve tried exhale diving, this is usually the point where I stop, hence reinforcing my belief that exhale diving was challenging and uncomfortable. However, because I only did exhale diving in this session, I slowly realised that the dives became more and more comfortable, and I went deeper and deeper. And not only that, each dive left me with a feeling of euphoria that my full breath dives rarely gave to me.

Our body is actually more adapted to exhale diving than full breath diving. One of the triggers for the Mammalian Dive Reflex is a reduction of lung volume. When you dive on exhale, you are allowing your body to more quickly launch the mammalian dive reflex. Your body senses not just the apnea, coldness on your face, but on top of this that you have less air in your lungs, and hence it will be more conservative with oxygen usage, kicking in the MDR earlier than it would have otherwise dive on full breath. 

I experienced this strengthened conservation of oxygen viscerally and physically with my exhale dives to the same depth being much less effortful than the full breath dive. This opened my mind to trust my body more. Knowing that my body knew exactly how to adjust the knobs of its system to take into consideration the air and oxygen level in my body was mind-blowing. I did not have to worry and stress over every small change I was making to my training program or the quality or length of my breathe up and be perfectionistic over the levels of O2 or CO2 in my body. The truth is the body senses all these changes to the minuteness of detail and will respond accordingly to help me make my dive.

Photo by Yael Eisner.

Was the three months I devoted to freediving worth my time and money? It was more than worth it. Thank you Freedive Utila for the wonderful friendships and experiences. And thank you to all my islander friends who accepted me as their own and made me feel so at home.

The island has opened its doors once again beginning October 2020 after a long drawn out battle to try to keep Covid-19 out.

Do keep this little island and dive school in mind in your freediving plans!

Feel · Think

Dealing with Expectations and Being Too Hard on Myself

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Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

S: I’m not handling things as well as I wish to.

S: I’ve been hard on myself. Demanding and with many expectations. 😦

I: I wonder how are your expectations for yourself too?

I: Is it useful to write down all these expectations and see whether they’re realistic? Sometimes when they play around in our heads it’s more overwhelming and fuzzy.

Expectations are a collection of beliefs we impose on ourselves based on messaging we received growing up that delineated what was good or bad, right or wrong, or true or false. These messaging that we received initially in their original form had a context, but they become expectations when we take them out of their original meanings and continue to impose them on ourselves in changing circumstances.

For example, I expect excellence from myself. I remembered attending a church camp when I was 17 years old, called “The Excellent Church” that extolled the virtues of giving 110% in all that you do. Besides that, I was often praised when I produced a stellar piece of work. So in those original contexts, the idea of excellence may have “fitted” the situation. Yes, the theme of the camp was excellence, so they rightly emphasized its importance, and yes, sometimes, I produced terrific pieces of work and get praised for them.

But it becomes an expectation when thereafter, in whatever I do, I continue to want myself to give 110% and produce works of perfection, regardless. Because the messaging was taken out of context, it possibly did not fit new situations and, because of that, became “unrealistic” or no longer matching to their new reality. For example, when I have a lot of work to do and/or have no interest in that work and/or am not in the best of conditions, and yet I still expect myself to give 110% in all that I do.

Let me give another example of the societal expectation of a successful life. There is a messaging we receive as we grow up that by certain ages we should have hit certain milestones, such as finding our financial independence from our parents by the time we graduate from college or having a stable income and progression in our career by the time we are 30, or having a family by the time we are 40, or retiring happily by the time we are 60 or 70. We had collected these messaging in their specificities – we know of individuals who attained these ‘targets.’ However, they become expectations when we do not consider our own unique situations and still impose these targets on ourselves.

How do we identify our expectations? We will know them by how we feel when we fall short of them. We will also know them when we compare ourselves to others who supposedly have met these standards. For example, when I was learning a new activity like freediving, my course mates easily achieved a depth of 12 m on their first day of trying. Whereas I struggled to get to that depth, and I feel bad about myself. In this instance, I was comparing myself to someone else’s unique and contextualised performance and applying it out of context to my own situation. And because I do not meet up to their standard, I feel let down by myself.

If expectations are indeed generalized and out-of-context impositions we have on ourselves based on what we were told by others or what we observed of others, they should be questioned and deconstructed. This will help us see whether they are unrealistic or unreasonable for our unique situations. This is particularly important if these expectations cause us to feel bad about ourselves, such as feeling we are never enough for constantly not meeting the mark.

Let’s return to my former examples. If I am afraid of water, not a sporty person, and a slower learner, it is unrealistic (and unfair) for me to expect myself to perform as well as someone who is more aquatically-inclined. The more fitting and realistic ‘expectation’ is that I would take a longer time than most people to learn how to freedive. In my case, it makes little sense at all to compare myself to my stronger course mates, and it makes no sense at all to beat myself up over not achieving the same targets as they did on that first day.

And let’s use the other example as well. If someone has many interests and potential careers and wants to try many different things, or if someone has a disability or health condition; it is unreasonable to expect this person to hit the same milestones as someone who is healthy, single-minded in his interest and career and works hard solely towards one endpoint. It makes little sense to compare oneself with another who has a completely different life situation from you and feel bad over it because that expectation does not consider your unique specifics.

How then do you identify your expectations and check their reasonableness and consider if you need to adjust them to make them realistic to your specific situation?

You write them down. 🙂

It may begin with a constant disappointment you feel within yourself when you are trying to do something. You will notice the joy isn’t there, and you are not at your most creative. Instead, you are worried or concerned about whether you are meeting someone’s or an imagined standard of performance. There will be a pattern. If you observe your emotions, you will see them repeatedly triggered by certain things you do and do not do. Rather than being fully present in the moment, you are thinking about where you stand compared to where you wish to be at.

Some people intentionally impose these expectations on themselves out of fear they would trail behind. They feel that high standards motivate themselves towards better versions of themselves. They don’t see a need to make them more realistic, they want to be driven by them. However, making yourself constantly feel inadequate is not a healthy emotional or mental state to be in. And continually pushing yourself “to be someone you are not” or “to be somewhere you are not yet ready for” is not the healthiest way to become a better person.

You grow best when you meet yourself where you are at, considering your unique characteristics and conditions and then giving prods that are just enough and just right for yourself. Instead of using an arbitrary standard that others set for you or that your mental state created from the collection of your memories of what you think others have achieved, it it better to use yourself instead of expectations as the starting point. We give precedence to where we are at bodily, mentally, and emotionally.

Examining our expectations and adjusting them to fit ourselves, frees us to live according to our own terms. Instead of being controlled by unseen forces that dictate who we should be and how we should do things.

The way to examine your expectations is to write them down. I did this exercise when I was on Utila Island, a backpacker’s paradise, when I was feeling unhappy and trying to figure out why.

Let me share a simple analysis of one of my expectations. I had the expectation that I should remember the names of people I have met. I usually take some effort to do this because I know it can make someone feel special.

But let me check right now, how realistic this expectation is when:

  1. I am not good at recognizing faces/appearances.
  2. I meet so many people every day (This was pre-Covid-19 days.).
  3. Some encounters are fleeting and not as intense or strong as others, many are just smiling at someone who passes by.
  4. It is not realistic to remember every face/encounter, when I have a limited attention span and memory.
  5. I can’t possibly give 100% to everyone I meet (I am not always at my best and sometimes I’m tired to socialise.)
  6. It is not rude to honestly ask someone to remind me, “How did we meet?” Because I may not remember the person’s face or name, but I usually remember the nature of the encounter – like where we met and what we were doing then.
  7. People may more easily remember me because I stood out as an Asian among a more Caucasian/Caribbean crowd.

My adjusted expectation: I meet many people every day. Some connections are stronger than others. It is okay to connect differently and with differing depths with different people. I cannot and will not be everyone’s best friend.

Let me give another example of an expectation I dissected. I was learning how to be a freediving instructor. I had this expectation that I should already be able to function as a freediving instructor in teaching and performance while training to be one.

How reasonable was this when:

  1. I have ‘never’ done it before and am new to it.
  2. I already know that certain things I am expected to do as an instructor are at the moment still difficult for me, such as opening my eyes and diving in tandem with another person.
  3. My CO2 tolerance is not my strength, and contractions and feelings of discomfort are easily felt.
  4. I have ‘stage fright’ or ‘performance anxiety’ and tend to care a lot about how others think of me.
  5. I am an instructor-in-training and learning the ropes.
  6. The many things the Apnea Total school does are new to me, such as exhale diving. (So I am also learning a new set of knowledge and skills.)
  7. It takes time to grow into a new role and the body to strengthen for the job.
  8. I was also trying to train for depth myself (conflict of goals and outcomes.).

So I adjusted my expectations: I am an instructor-in-training. I am here to learn what it takes to be an instructor and to pick up the required knowledge and skills. I will not be immediately good. We each have our strengths and weaknesses as instructors.

What happened after I put my expectations down on paper and examined how realistic they were was that I became more relaxed and clear-headed as to what I needed to do to meet my goals. I realised I did not need to feel bad or intentionally try so hard to remember names of people. I should also give myself more time to learn the ropes of being an instructor. For someone else, it may take 2 weeks to 1 month, but for me, I am ready to give myself 3 months or even more.

After these realizations, I could address the situations objectively without anxiety. I no longer felt that I have fallen short, but instead, I asked how I could change the conditions to help myself – the way I am right now- feel better? Sometimes it involved me changing the way I think about something. At other times, it required me to re-adjusting my goals and expectations.

Examining my expectations made me more compassionate towards myself and a better problem solver. It stopped me from berating myself too easily and too quickly, for little reason, other than I did not meet up to my (unrealistic) expectations of myself. It gave me the clarity of mind and steadiness of heart to decide whether I should adjust my expectations, my goals and/or my approaches towards my goals. It also lessens the emotional tension as it no longer felt like my fault that I was not meeting up to these expectations.

I learned to examine the hidden expectations I have on myself and make them explicit so that I can personalise them to suit my unique personality, situation, and needs.

Instead of being a victim of vague internal standards that had been formed unintentionally, I can choose for myself which set of expectations I want to live by.

– – –

This post is inspired and made possible by I, who asked me to write down my expectations to check if they were realistic. 🙂 Thank you I for always being my cheerleader with matters related to my mental and emotional health.

Freedive · freediving

Reverse Packing + BTV using Mask

Archiving this Facebook note from the 13th of August, 2019

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Some people, like myself, are surprised by my rapid depth progress in the past two months. This was strongly motivated by my desire to find out how to bring my self-taught hands free equalization past the depth of 30m, which was my limit end of last year.

To overcome my limit, I started experimenting with a “hands free mouthfill”, what I prefer to call a “maskfill”, because unlike the traditional mouthfill, you do not pinch your nose but allow the mask to fill up with air along with your cheeks and throat.

The maskfill follows the same principle as the mouthfill in how you store the maximum amount of air in your cheeks and throat (but now also the mask), while you still can do it easily at a shallower depth (typically before 30 m). And thereafter, you shut the glottis and not open it again until you reach your final depth. All these while, you keep your soft palate neutral. However, different from the mouthfill, you do not apply pressure to your cheeks or use your tongue to push air into your ears. Instead, we continue using the same hands free technique of manually opening the Eustachian tubes that we first used to take us down to 30m.

Hence, in my ideal scenario, I will take my maskfill at 18m and that one fill should take me all the way down to wherever I am headed. However, being someone who gets contractions early into my dive (usually around 30-40s), I realised that I am unable to keep my glottis shut and I always lose my maskfill way before I reach my desired depth.

This problem has led to me experiment with reverse packing to continue heading downwards even after the maskfill is lost. And to my surprise, reverse packing works for me. It is what I have been using to go down to 40m and then 45m and now 50m. So what I have been doing after losing my maskfill is to take one reverse pack and then followed by one hands free equalization, and repeat this, until I reach my desired depth.

I have been increasing my depth slowly because of what I have been told about the possibility of getting squeezes at depth when we are tense and reverse pack. So I want to give my body time to adapt to a new depth before I start pulling up more air from my lungs.

Can I go deeper with this technique? I am curious to find out myself!

Yes. So what I have discovered is that hands free equalization with reverse packing as the air shift technique works for me up to 50m!

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To read more about hands free (BTV/VTO) equalization, check out the following links:

Hands Free Equalization for the Beginner and the Curious: Is it Possible to Learn at all?

Lessons about Equalization: General Principles that Can help you Master any Equalization Technique

Learning to Hands Free Equalize: How I Did It and How You Can Do It too

Freedive · freediving

An Insight into BTV Equalisation

Archiving this Facebook note from the 1st of September, 2018

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Two weeks ago, I hurt and overstretched my left eardrum. As a result of this, an insight about BTV equalisation came to me. I have been attempting to return to the depths, but I noticed because of my injury, pressure is exerted unequally on my left and right eardrums. At the same depth, I felt a lot more pressure on my left than right eardrum.

It made me suspect that BTV equalisation is dependent upon a build-up of pressure for it to work. I noticed that I can only BTV where there is a certain level of pressure built up on the eardrum. So unlike Frenzel equalisation where you can do it anytime you want along the depth column, with BTV, you have to wait awhile, allowing pressure to build up, before you can equalise.

If my hypothesis is right, this is causing problems for me right now because of the state of my left eardrum, which is more pressure sensitive than the right one. Before sufficient pressure can build up in my right eardrum for btv to be applied, my left eardrum is already telling me, “That’s uncomfortable! I’m overstretched already!”

So for today’s dives, I figured out that I have to Frenzel (though it’s not my preferred method) or do mouthfills in order not to put any undue stress on my poor left eardrum. I should not allow the pressure to build up in my eardrum at all, but constantly exert a pressure against the eardrum to maintain its comfort and neutral state. Should my hypothesis be right, this abilty to control the frequency and strength of equalisation is one of the reasons why the frenzel may still be superior over the btv.

And that very good advice to equalise as often as you can only applies to the frenzel and not the BTV. Let me know what you think, especially if your BTV works differently from mine!

Update from 9 May, 2020: Today, we know BTV equalisation relies upon negative pressure, instead of positive pressure (as required by Frenzel and Mouthfill techniques). This means that we cannot be slow to BTV equalize or allow too much water pressure to be exerted on our eardrums before we equalize, or we risk middle ear inflammation from the build-up of liquid in our tissues.

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To read more about hands free (BTV/VTO) equalization, check out the following links:

Hands Free Equalization for the Beginner and the Curious: Is it Possible to Learn at all?

Lessons about Equalization: General Principles that Can help you Master any Equalization Technique

Learning to Hands Free Equalize: How I Did It and How You Can Do It too