What Your Freediving Instructor Wishes You Knew

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Have you ever wondered what your freediving instructor really thinks? Well, there’s only one way to find out. We’ve caught up with Michelle Ooi to talk about what life is like as a freediving instructor in Singapore.

Michelle is a Molchanovs, AIDA, and Apnea International instructor, holds multiple national records, and is a founding member of the Apnea Association of Singapore. She also spent time on Lady Elliot island in Australia as a manta ray researcher.

Michelle cruising with a school of Trevally

Hey Michelle! Thanks for taking time to chat with us. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what sparked your love of freediving?

Hi! I grew up in Singapore and have always enjoyed sports, especially watersports. I started freediving about eight years ago and loved it right from the start, because of how peaceful it is underwater, the freedom of movement it affords, and how relaxed and refreshed I feel after a session. After freediving for a number of years, I decided to become an instructor so that I could share the benefits of freediving with others–especially with people living in a fast-paced city like Singapore.  

I teach at Zen Freediving, where our philosophy is that freediving is not just a sport, but a lifestyle. You don’t necessarily have to be in the water all the time, but the same breathing techniques can be used to help you relax and to relieve stress. To date, we have taught hundreds of students and have built a supportive community of freedivers who both train and chill together.

We occasionally meet freedivers in the wild who claim to have taught themselves. Do freedivers really need to take a course, or is it something that anyone can learn on their own?

It’s better to take a course because you have all the information you need presented to you in a structured format, which accelerates your learning.

As a beginner, it can be hard to differentiate between correct and incorrect information, especially from the internet. The instant feedback that you get during a course from your instructor is also very helpful for improving. Not to mention that there are dangers associated with freediving such as blackout, which you learn how to avoid and deal with properly during a course.

How can freedivers prepare for their first course?

Learn how to swim! Swimming is a very good base for freediving and we find that students who can swim well and are very comfortable in the water learn the fastest. We have taught people who can’t swim very well and while it’s not a barrier to learning freediving techniques, it does take a lot more practice.

Is it normal to be nervous before a freediving course? If so, what tips do you have to help students calm their nerves?

Many people get nervous because they think they can’t hold their breath for very long. But that’s what they are there to learn! My tips would be to just relax and have an open mind, once you learn the correct techniques you will be a lot calmer, that’s what it’s for.

What are some common misconceptions that people have about freediving?

That freediving is a dangerous, extreme sport. This usually comes from people who have only seen the competitive side of it where people dive to 100+meters depth, or have heard stories on how someone held their breath for too long and blacked out. What they don’t see are the months of preparation needed for a deep dive, or the safety measures that were breached. When all safety measures are in place, freediving is actually a very safe sport.

If every freediver did this every day, they’d be a much better diver:

Swim! Well maybe not every day, but learning proper swimming technique translates over to your freediving and helps you to move much more efficiently underwater, which in turn conserves your energy and lets you hold your breath longer longer.

If I had a dollar for every time a freediving student tries to swim the whole length of the pool (50m) without focusing first on their technique and relaxation, I’d have enough money to fund an entire manta ray marine park.

My best freediving students have these key traits:

The best freediving students enjoy being in the water and are very comfortable in it. They are also willing to listen to advice and make the change.

My worst freediving students have these key traits:

The worst freediving students are too focused on the endpoint (time/distance/depth) without thinking about the best way to get there (working on technique, relaxation and other skills).

What’s the best thing about being a freediving instructor?

Meeting lots of new people from all walks of life, and being able to share the joys of freediving with them. I love seeing the expression on people’s faces after they come up from a dive that they never thought was possible before their course.

Freediving also helps you to get to know yourself a lot better because you spend a lot of time alone in your head when you’re on breath hold. Helping people to start that journey of self discovery is very rewarding.

And of course we have to ask:
Favorite freediving discipline
: Constant weight (diving down the line and back up with a monofin).
Favorite freediving destination: Lady Elliot Island in Australia, where the mantas (and lots of other marine creatures) are!
Down the line or along a reef?:  Reef! There’s so much more to see.

Thank you, Michelle! Please let us know where we can follow you and how we can take a course with you.

You can follow me on Instagram at @sea._chelle or at @zen.freediving. Find us on Facebook, or check out our website at ZenFreediving.org.