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My Other Life – Tracey Howes

Tracey Howes freediving in the ocean

One night in 2016, Tracey Howes wanted to go to bed but instead ended up in A&E. Her heart was beating like it’d been pumped with caffeinated adrenaline, and her throat was closing up. She thought she was dying.

Bloods were taken and tests were done. Nothing. But it kept happening. She couldn’t sleep. Some nights came a repeat of the out of control heart and constricted airway, and another drive through the dark to the A&E.

“It was having a debilitating effect,” Tracey says. “I was someone who was typically very healthy. I’d never had any serious mental or physical conditions but I was at the end of my tether. I felt like I was walking around with this cloud over me. I wondered if it was depression. I now know it wasn’t depression, but for a year and a half I really struggled.”

It was at this point—18 months in to the fog—that a family member returned from a Vipassana meditation retreat and spoke of the peace and calm it had provided him with. Developed in India, Vipassana is one of the most ancient forms of meditation techniques. It is largely based on nasal breathing—simply listening to your breath as in enters and exits the nose. The meaning of the word Vipassana is to “see things as they really are.”

Cynical, but willing to try anything to alleviate her panic attacks and get some sleep, Tracey signed up for a 10-day silent retreat. This was 2017.

“It took me on a journey and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever put myself through,” she says. The retreat involved eight hours of meditation a day, divided into chunks. Except for a few minutes of daily dialogue with the instructor, you’re not allowed to speak to anyone else. “The silence was deafening,” Tracey says. “Especially in the beginning—your mind goes crazy.”

Tracey Howes
Tracey Howes

A 10-day Vipassana retreat is not for wimps. Eat, sleep, meditate—that’s it. Oh, and don’t speak. People left after two or three days. By day seven, Tracey herself was near breaking point. “I kept thinking, ‘This is just not working; why is it not working?’ I was typically looking for an end result…”

Tracey’s instructor encouraged her to keep going by taking things a day at a time. Tracey decided to let go, to stop trying so hard. The last three days proved to be “unbelievably calm.”

On the last morning, Tracey and the remaining retreaters were sitting on a bench, waiting for breakfast when some small birds came and fluttered around them, “flying right up to us because they had no fear. That felt like nature saying ‘You’re going to be okay.’ After that I was waking up excited to meditate. I felt incredible joy and peace, which I hadn’t had for a long time. It was the starting point of my journey with breath work.”

* * *

Upon her return from the Vipassana retreat, Tracey made some big decisions. She closed one of her businesses and moved from London—where she’d lived for 19 years after moving there from South Africa—and settled in Bournemouth to be closer to both her family and the ocean. (“I think it’s part of my DNA,” she says of needing to be in water. “I think I might have been a dolphin in a former life.”)

However, prior to leaving London Tracey attended the London Dive Show (she’s been a PADI certified scuba diver since 2012) and tried out a freedive simulation involving a virtual reality headset showing a diver swimming through a reef. The aim was to see if you could hold your breath for as long as the diver. Tracey couldn’t quite manage it—practically nobody can first time out—but on this experience alone she became intrigued by the idea of diving on a single breath.

“I quite like a bit of extreme sport; I used to do flying trapeze!” Tracey says. “But no places in London at the time did freedive training or certification.”

It was at this point that serendipity intervened, for just prior to moving to Bournemouth, Tracey googled freediving schools on the south coast… and found one. Within a month of her move she joined the club and completed her certification programme.

In 2019, she did her first competition, the UK Pool Championships, and came fourth in her chosen discipline.

Tracey Howes in a wetsuit in a pool.
Tracey during training.

As well Blue Mind Social, the social media company she founded in 2020, Tracey has combined the breath work from freediving with the breath work from Vipassana meditation, which she practices daily. She is now a functional breath work instructor with Oxygen Advantage, a breathing technique that has scientifically-proven physical and mental benefits for everyone from sportsmen to busy entrepreneurs, and of course freedivers. Tracey’s ability to combine her freediving and Vipassana techniques with Oxygen Advantage have made her a unique and sought-after instructor.

Tracey remains a driven and energetic individual and entrepreneur, but Vipassana and freediving provide her not only balance and calm, but also a sense of perspective. Especially when you’re 15 metres under the ocean surface and still have only that single breath inside you.

“When we were able to do depth training again (following Covid, and ten months of ‘dry training’—out-of-the-water freedive breathwork), the first time I went down I stayed there for longer than I’ve ever been before and I was so relaxed. I was swimming through a sunken plane and it was a stunning day and the visibility was amazing. I wasn’t thinking about my breathing; I was just hanging out at the bottom.

“I remember lying down on the plane and looking up at the surface and I had this incredible sense of calm in my body. There was no thought of ‘You need to get back to the surface’, I was just… blissed out. It all comes together when you have a moment like that.”

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