When Irish freediver Claire Walsh developed Covid, then long Covid, it literally took her breath away. Now she’s using the strategies learned through her sport to help others to live better on land. Kathy Donaghy takes a deep breath and dives right in...
Just take a breath. We tell ourselves this so often — at times of stress; at times when we’re about to lose the cool. As a year-round sea swimmer, I’m conscious of how much being in control of my breath helps when it comes to entering cold water. By focusing on it, you can train your body to stay calm when it goes into fight-or-flight mode caused by the body’s response to temperature change. I know that, by standing on the beach and breathing deeply for a few minutes before I go into the cold ocean waters, I can prepare my body for what is to come. It can steady me and fortify me. But what about when I’m on dry land? There, where I spend the majority of my time, I don’t give it a second’s thought.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve noticed my breathing has become shallower. The yoga classes I used to attend, where I might have focused a bit on breathing, have all gone the way of best-laid Covid plans. The phrase ‘having your ears touch your shoulders’ is pretty much how I feel all the time. A digest of doom and gloom, an inability to make plans, and societal fears have preyed on all of us, mincing our nerves and leaving us frazzled and often feeling like we’re out of breath.
When I first heard of Claire Walsh, it was in the context of her feats of endurance as a freediver. Six years ago, after a chance encounter in Belize first introduced her to freediving, she ended up competing in one of the most dangerous sports on the planet. She became the first woman to compete at the World Freediving Championships in France, and her longest breath hold is for five minutes and 59 seconds.
But earlier this year, thirty-nine-year-old Claire, who is originally from Co Kildare but now lives near Bray, Co Wicklow, developed Covid-19, and then long Covid. It literally took her breath away, and for a woman whose endurance is legendary, the pandemic knocked the wind out of her for a long time.
Her recovery, which is ongoing, meant slowing down a lot, something she found hugely difficult because she’s not one to rest on her laurels. Despite being comfortable in an underwater breath-hold space that most of us have trouble wrapping our minds around, Covid-19 pushed her way beyond the realms of what she was comfortable with.
Even though I was double vaccinated, I also found myself struggling with the debilitating after-effects of Covid-19, and while I was spared from the breathlessness Claire experienced, muscle fatigue and difficulty sleeping continued long after the symptoms had passed.
When I heard Claire was offering breath workshops, I contacted her to see if I could join in. I thought it might bring me back to basics post-Covid and help me focus on getting back into the sea after an absence of a few weeks just as the water temperature was starting to plummet. In all honesty, I hoped Claire’s experience as a freediver could help me deepen my own relationship with the sea, helping me continue my own exploration of the otherworldliness of the ocean.
What I didn’t expect was for the workshops to open up a door to how the breath can help across so many other areas of life, from unlocking tension, to helping me relax, to being more open in my thinking. All of this is no surprise to Claire. The art of breathing has become her life’s work, not only through her freediving. It’s something she first became aware of through singing and performance in theatre, and she’s keen to pass on her wisdom.
Through her mission to better understand how breath work influences the mind, voice, body and spirit, she has uncovered specialist ways to not only enhance her own performance but her way of living, informing the methods for teaching others how to do the same.
Her relationship with the sea and singing are two of the most important threads running through her life. She describes her breath as the middle line connecting the two. Breathing deeply to sing a song, or filling her lungs to dive into the ocean are two sides of the same coin.
Designed during Covid, her four-week Just Take A Deep Breath workshops are for anybody who wants to give themselves some time to breathe. This might sound a bit far-fetched when you consider that breathing is something we all do automatically, about 22,000 times a day, but it actually isn’t when you consider just how disconnected many of us have become from our breaths and bodies, over the past two years especially.
Over Zoom, Claire begins by asking me to sit without judgment with my hands across my belly and just breathe. After a few minutes of just taking the time to breathe, filling my lungs, and feeling the air expand into the crevices of them, I feel more relaxed than I have all day, so much so that, with eyes closed, I forget Claire is on the screen in front of me.
She asks me to explore the place between the inhale and the exhale, to see what exists in this space. In this pause, she says, we can decide how we want to proceed. To do this, we have to focus on the breath. If we’re tense, she explains, we’re burning oxygen. I already know this feeling from being in water. The more tense you are getting into cold water, the more you’ll have to fight for your breath. But it’s also true on dry land — I just didn’t realise it before.
For Claire, checking in with the body, seeing where it’s holding tension, and doing a scan of all the places where tension is held, is paramount before a freediving breath hold. It’s also proved vital to her in a year when all she took for granted was taken from her.
Long Covid was something she’d read about but something which, looking back, she says she was in denial about for months. “I joined a long Covid Facebook group and felt so overwhelmed by the experiences of people who had symptoms and flare-ups nine, 12 and 18 months after first contracting Covid. I simply couldn’t go there. ‘Pacing’ was a word that kept popping up, and it really didn’t fit into how I like to do things. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal, more hare than tortoise. So I pushed through. It turns out there’s no other side to push through to when it comes to long Covid,” she says.
“Around the six-month mark, I hit a wall. I had a bad flare-up and was struggling to do simple tasks like shower, prepare food or concentrate on anything. My joints hurt, I was wholly fed up and, most of all, I was scared. How long was this going to last? Mentally, it was taking a toll: guilt at having to constantly cancel plans, having to explain or justify these weird symptoms. Feeling lonely and isolated and, most of all, it impacted on my sense of identity and how I felt about myself,” she says.
Coming back to her breath was the one constant — like a thread leading her back to her body to be present, despite the disappointments and setbacks which meant she had to cancel all her plans to compete in 2021.
“I was recently told that I can’t simply make adaptations to my pre-Covid life; I need to learn a whole new one. That’s a pretty big idea to get your head around. One day that feels frustrating, terrifying, overwhelming, worrisome, and the next, I might see it as an opportunity, a chance to build from the ground up. I feel hopeful and giddy by the little things I am able to do. I know there’s huge learning to be taken from this experience. I can’t see the full picture yet — I’m still in it. So I try to just take one day at a time...and have a bit of faith,” she says.
For the purposes of our workshops, she explains that a breath hold is essentially spending time in your own body without any distractions. This is easier said than done for most of us. But mostly it involves giving ourselves the time and space to just be and to breathe. In that way, she explains, practising the breath hold is not something for freedivers only; it’s for everyone, as it’s a good way to just check in.
For Claire, when it comes to holding her breath, she says she might be getting a lot of self-talk and racing thoughts. That tells her she needs to slow down and create little windows of time to just slow down.
Even for a champion freediver, the negative self-talk rears its head, telling her to put off her practice until tomorrow or later. Her approach to this negativity is to take on board what The Muppets creator Jim Henson called a ‘playful curiosity’. “How I apply that to freediving is that there’s no end goal. It’s to say you might be having a bad day or you might be having long Covid, but what if I keep going? It’s not goal-oriented at all — it’s very much accepting where you are mentally and physically and saying ‘let’s see what I can do’,” she says.
Claire believes that the achievement is doing a task and fully embracing where you are. “What I’m describing is a mindful practice. You are developing strategies that will help you overcome barriers,” she says.
For us mere mortals, who may never dream or wish to try freediving, the strategies can also be put in practice in our everyday lives. In other aspects of her life, adopting the playful curiosity that she adopted to her breath work has taken her on myriad adventures, including bringing a puppet show to the Dublin Fringe Festival.
When we meet in person to do a breath hold in water, I’m nervous. I’ve been given some homework from our workshops, including humming and taking time during the day to just breathe. Humming, she explains, is an activity which relaxes us at a deep level, lowers the heart rate, tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system. The science is, the more that we can tap into this system, whose main component is the vagus nerve, the more we can tap into our body’s ability to rest and digest, relax and recover.
On an unseasonably warm day, we meet at the pier in Bray to try a breath hold — my own very controlled version of a freedive. When I arrive, small groups of swimmers have gathered on the beach, welcoming the sunrise. One group surprises a friend with an impromptu version of Happy Birthday and loud applause. Because we’ve already practised some techniques, Claire talks me through the techniques I should use to actively breathe after my breath hold, which are a series of active breaths in and passive breaths out.
After practising this a number of times, Claire then talks me through how it might feel to do a breath hold in the water and what the sensation might feel like. I’m going to be standing in waist-deep water before flipping onto my belly and holding my breath with my head in the water. She gives me some tools to focus on, looking to the incredible morning light and the sounds of the water as prompts. She reminds me it’s really all about being truly present.
With the sounds of the waves gently rolling on to the beach, Claire guides me through the first phase of my dive. I’ll be wearing a nose clip, and while my head will be covered with a hood, my face will be in the water. As we do some gentle relaxation exercises, I breathe before attempting a breath hold on the beach. I have no expectations but, according to Claire’s stopwatch, I’ve managed to hold it for a count of one minute and 15 seconds.
It’s a different story when we move into the water. Although safety is first on the breath hold — Claire checks in all the time to make sure I’m okay — I feel slightly out of my depth. I realise, for the first time, that despite all my swimming, I’ve been using only a tiny portion of my lungs to breathe for a long time.
On my first attempt, when Claire gives me the prompt to take my long breath, as soon as my face is immersed in the water, I feel uncomfortable and abandon the breath. The second attempt goes much the same way. Reminding me to hold a nice space to explore the breath, on the third attempt, I focus on a shaft of sunlight in the water. It feels like a space where I can allow myself to be present. I’m not putting myself under pressure but, when I come up for air, Claire tells me that I’ve been holding my breath in cold water for a minute.
The water temperature means that we’re not going to labour the breath hold. For me, it feels like the right time to retreat, dry off and get a hot coffee. I might not be winning any freediving competitions any time soon but I feel like something has shifted; that I overcame my own discomfort, which felt very real on the first couple of attempts, and I achieved a small feat for myself.
Claire has slowly been building up her own breath hold again. She’s up to four minutes now and hopes that 2022 will see her get back to competition. This year has been full of hard lessons but she’s excited about what the months ahead will bring in terms of challenges and prospects. More than anything, she feels comfortable in her own skin. Developing the breath hold for a wider audience is also something she hopes will be part of her new year too.
I want to bottle the experience from that day on the beach in Bray. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the sunlight refracting through the water. I forgot about everything else; the stresses and strains of everyday life just floated away on the waves. I was conscious of the ebb and flow of the water. I didn’t put any pressure on myself, and that breath hold allowed me a space for just me. It felt like only a few seconds. I was amazed a full minute had passed.
Now, when I find myself gripping the steering wheel too hard or clenching my jaw, I try to go back to the breath and really focus on it. I make the time to breathe — really breathe — every day. I find myself humming, which Claire tells me requires you to control your inhalations and exhalations. And when I really want to get into a moment of pure relaxation, I picture a shaft of sunlight entering the water and making everything around it, including me, glow.
For more information, see clairewalshlife.com