What do a paper bag, a straw, spearfishing and the Australian Wallabies have in common? More than you might think.

I arrive early on a cloudy Saturday morning at the Woree pool to learn the art of breath holding with about 20 other participants at the Cairns Freediving School.

My instructor is Ant Judge, who has held seven breath holding records and was also the 2017 pool champion.

Judge's personal best in training is seven minutes, 56 seconds and he hopes to have a crack at setting a new Australian record later this year.

So how does someone stay underwater for so long? I was here to find out.

During the workshop we learnt how to slow our breathing down using a straw, tried blowing up a balloon in one breath and learnt why breathing into a paper bag stops hyperventilating.

Judge first started free diving by hanging onto his father's back while he spearfished around the rock pools off Bondi Beach when he was four years old.

"He would dive down and when it became uncomfortable, I would let go and float to the surface and wait for him," he said.

Judge entered his first free diving competition in 2001 — the Australian trials for the Pacific Cup in Hawaii.

"I got a place on the Australian team and it was a life-changing moment," he said.

"I was in another country, diving in beautiful clear water and watching some of the world's best divers breaking world records."

A man with short hair and a neat beard sits in the lotus position on the bottom of a pool.
Ant Judge says breath control can help people in difficult situations.(

Supplied: Ant Judge


Seconds like miles

While doing Judge's workshop over the weekend I learnt about hypoxia, the Bohr effect and vasoconstriction.

There are three different disciplines that form competitive free diving — distance swimming (swimming across a pool on one breath), deep diving (depth competition with one breath) and static apnea (holding your breath for a long time while standing in a shallow pool).

I am here to try and learn how to hold my breath underwater for several minutes in a shallow pool.

Judge's best distance in swimming is more than 200 metres in one breath and his deepest dive with one breath is 90 metres (and back), which took about three-and-a-half minutes.

In static apnea Judge has held three Australian records.

"My best competitive time was 7.15, but my best personal best, which I've achieved in training is 7.56," he said.

Judge is working to try and beat the Australian record of 8.02.

"I've got to find another six seconds, which doesn't seem like much, but at the end of a very long breath hold it seems like a mile away," he said.

"While it's only one more contraction from your diaphragm, it's actually your mind that wears you down.

The world record for one breath in shallow water is 11 minutes and 36 seconds, which was set by Frenchman Stephane Mifsud in 2009.

"When I started the world record was eight minutes and now to be so far advanced it blows my mind," Judge said.

"Where do they find those other few minutes?"

A reporter wearing blue goggles trying to hold his breath underwater.
Me trying to hold my breath underwater for more than two minutes.(

ABC Far North: Phil Brandel


Plunging in

My first challenge is to hold my breath for 50 seconds with an initial 30 second recovery time, until I'm holding my breath for 50 seconds with a one breath break and then holding for another 50 seconds.

I'm floating on the water eyes closed, trying to listen to my heart rate or the sound of lapping water, anything but the screaming in my head that says, "Just breathe!"

I'm surprised that it becomes easier and easier the more I hold my breath rather than the other way around.

My mind and body seem to relax the more I'm in the water.

Back in the classroom we do some breathing and relaxing exercises before getting back into the pool for the final big push.

I'm in good hands — Judge has done training sessions with large corporations and sporting groups.

"I've held workshops for sporting clubs and fight gyms teaching people how to breathe better and control their fear and anxiety with their breathing," he said.

"The best one by far for me was a three-day workshop I did with the Wallabies — they were all top-level athletes and they were willing to push pretty hard.

A group of about 20 people blowing bubbles on the bottom of a pool.
The breath holding class at the Woree pool, with Ant Judge front and centre.(

Supplied: Cairns Freediving School


That afternoon 20 of us jump in the pool aiming to either beat our personal best or just see how long we can hold our breath.

I find the first 40 to 50 seconds easy and then my diagram starts contracting, but it's not painful, just uncomfortable.

As we hit the 60 second mark, I know my time is limited.

I stand up and all I see are bodies floating in the water — other people in the class are going for two, three and four minutes without any trouble.

My personal best is embarrassingly short and I walk away deflated.

Judge catches up with me and says not to be despondent as it was my first go.

"Don't forget you are fighting against millions of years of evolution to not breathe underwater," he said.

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