Lessons about Equalization

“Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.” Bruce Lee

I used to think there is this elusive system or method or way of equalization that far exceeds the rest. From the interest there has been on “Hands Free Equalization for the Beginner and the Curious“, perhaps some people may think like I did.

“If only I figure out the trick to equalization, all my issues would be solved.”

However, what I have learned over the past two years has taught me otherwise. I learned that progress with equalization can be slow, sometimes painfully slow and frustrating.

Few were the a-ha moments when figuring out something suddenly took me to newer depths. Rather, most of the time, I was lost in a maze, trying to figure out the issues I had and how to resolve them.

I have been thinking about writing a part two to my hands free equalization article because I have interviewed a few freedivers, who hands free to deep, here in Roatán, participating in the Caribbean Cup and the World Championships. However, I want to share what I have learn about equalization in general first.

Even though we are all at different depths, I believe that the principles of learning how to equalize are similar. It involves learning and mastering new methods, self-exploration of how these methods work for you at depth, working on other aspects of your dives while figuring out your equalization, and being patient and giving yourself time to adapt.

1. Learning of methods

Learning different equalization techniques and methods

This is the part that we all begin with. Our instructors teach us how to Frenzel. They teach us exercises to develop awareness of the various organs of equalization including the tongue, soft palate and glottis. They watch and correct our posture when we dive. They watch us perform the technique dry, in the swimming pool, and then in the open water. Some of us get it the first time, but for many of us, we may be able to equalize head up but not head down, and learning to equalize may take us weeks or even months. We go home, we google about it and find videos and documents online and try to learn from other teachers. We ruminate about how to perform the method and we discuss it with our instructors and friends.

These methods (different equalization and air shift techniques) we learn are tools in our toolbox. We carry with us a toolbox into the ocean and the more tools we have, the better prepared and the more options we have in the water. We have to figure out what works for us and it may look different from the standard method that our instructors want us to use. We usually do what feels most comfortable for us and we have to take time to find our own personal equalization rhythm and style that makes us more relaxed so we can enjoy the water most. Some people switch from one technique to another depending on the depth column they are at. It is a creative process and not merely a mechanical one. So learn as much as you can, but then, explore what works best for you.

2. Exploration (trial-and-error) in the water

Experimenting with different equalization techniques

Exploring what works for you is a very personal and individualised journey. It is an exploration where you are the terrain. Here, we learn body awareness and to develop a sensitivity to our bodies when we freedive. When we fail to equalize, we need to use the sensory inputs we receive from our bodies and other cues to know what our issues are. Is it an issue with a closed soft palate or an open glottis or a tense chest? For me, early into my freediving days, I noticed at a certain depth, the mask sticks onto my face and makes me very uncomfortable. I found out it was because I did not close my glottis and have since learned to do it. I learned that each time I transfer air into my mask, I have to shut the glottis immediately.

Recently, I did a dive to try to observe the issues I have at a new depth, and I noticed that when I have contractions, my glottis opens and I lose the air in my mouth. So I decided to reverse pack air back, and then I realised when I reverse pack, my masks moves up and down – I was actually using the air in my mask to equalize my ear! With these observations, I go home and ponder over them and try to figure out my next moves for the next training session to overcome these issues and whether there’s any dry practice I need to do. For example, what is likely to help me are carbon dioxide tables to delay my contractions and also the fucking glottis exercise to keep my glottis shut even when I have contractions.

3. Working on other aspects at the same time

Working on other parts of the body while waiting for equalization of the ears to catch up

Besides your equalization technique, are there other areas you need to work on? There’s no better time to work on all these while waiting for our equalization ability to catch up! Additionally, the better you become generally as a freediver, the better your chances at learning and mastering equalization. The more efficient our entry into the water, our pulling or kicking techniques, and the more streamline our freefall; the less carbon dioxide build up we have to deal with and the more relaxation and focus we have for practising our equalization techniques and mental energy to problem solve when we are at depth. Maybe it will buy us the relaxation and awareness to find another tool in our toolbox to give it a try?

So please don’t get bored or stop freediving when equalization is an issue, keep diving and working on other aspects  as you figure out your equalization issues. Keep doing chest flexibility exercises, build your strength in the gym or flexibility in a yoga studio, do technique work in the pool; depending on your personal preference and keep going to that depth that you are presently able to go to, even if you can’t go any deeper. Because while it may not be immediately obvious, something amazing is happening to your body.

4. Adaptation to depth

Hands Free (BTV/VTO) Equalization

People always talk about this “adaptation to depth” and the importance of not going too deep, too soon. Something happened in the past month that helped me realised that there really is this “adaptation to depth” that takes place. I suddenly increased my depth from 30m to 40m. I kept thinking about it and what could have allowed this sudden jump. And besides breaking through a mental fear of the deep and becoming more relaxed at depth, I felt it was mainly that my lungs had increase in its flexibility. Previously, I was not able to draw anymore air up into my mouth at 30m. But now, I can do it at 40m. My lungs have become more flexible. Give your mind and body as much time as they need to figure things out. Your mind and body will surprise you.

5. Never giving up (and keep having fun along the way!)

Don't give up

Hence comes my last point, perhaps what you need to get deeper is not to give up learning of new methods, trying them out in the water, working on other aspects at the same time, and giving your body time to become adapted to depth. Learning and mastery of a skill is a trusting of yourself – that you (mind, body and soul) will figure things out over time. And we need to be patient with ourselves and this process.

Those who figured out how to equalize when they were stuck at a certain depth for a long time, simply didn’t quit. They kept asking questions, kept seeking advice, kept trying to figure things out dry and in the water and then one day, they went deeper than they have ever gone before. 🙂

For those of you who have equalization issues and who have struggled for the longest of times with your specific issue and are still figuring things out, I hope this quotation by education reformer John Dewey would encourage you,

“The depth to which a sense of the difficulty, of the problem, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking which follows. Sometimes slowness and depth of response are connected [in] getting to the roots of the matter.”

Yes, don’t be discouraged if you are slow to learn and have so many issues to work through. Work at them, one at a time. There often are no short-cuts or ways around our difficult issues, but keep trying and don’t give up, as they are the very things you need to solve your problem.

And because freediving is one of the most pleasurable activities in the world, whichever depth you find yourself in the water column, don’t forget to enjoy it! 🙂

– – –

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?

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