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Learning hands-free equalization

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New Member
Aug 19, 2002
I hope you don’t mind me quoting you here, but I would like to comment on this and my experiences with learning to hands-free equalize. It would also be nice to get back to what makes db the best freediving board in the world. That is the wonderful exchange of ideas and an experience that helps people become better divers. ;)

“Concerning Martin's incredible hands-free equalization, it is amazing, but unfortunately it seems to be a genetic advantage. To my knowledge he is unable to 'teach' just 'any' person to do it, and it has already been established that being able to equalize hands free is strongly dependent on the genetics of your eustachian tubes.”

I can’t say that Martin taught me to hands-free equalize or even that I have it mastered yet, but I can say that his discussion with me of what he does and how it feels to him at the PDF clinic I believe has helped me get closer.

I’m not saying I’m right, but I believe people (maybe not all) can learn to equalize hands-free by learning to contract the tensor palatini and levator palatini muscles voluntary. I have been working on it on and off for about a year. I also believe that believing I can do it is one of the most important steps for mastering it.

The problem with doing on land is that without a difference in air pressure between the middle ear, ambient pressure, and thoracic pressure I can’t feel much. The only way I know I have successfully opened my estauchian tubes is by a low roaring sound.

Trying in the water has been equally difficult because of a fear if it doesn’t work and I am diving fast, I’m going to stress the ear drum before I can tell and get my hand on my nose to do the frenzel. Sunday I went spearfishing and on one dive I took my nose hand off and put it on the butt of the speargun at about 5 meters, because I was lining up for a fish. The fish proceeded to stay just out of range by descending more and more. I was afraid that if I moved the hand from the gun back to the nose it would be just enough to startle the fish. If I did nothing it might stop and be in range any second. The ears where starting to hurt so I decided to try equalizing hands-free before I moved my hand.

It worked! And I was able to do it two more times before I finally had a shot on the fish. I missed the fish, but the satisfaction of successfully equalized hands-free more than made up for the missed fish.

In three years I have gone from not being able to equalize at all vertically to the start of vertical hands free equalization. As you can tell, I am pretty jazzed and can’t wait to try more.
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Rember, Don- Just because you may be teaching yourself the technique for hands free does not mean that you were not genetically adapted to the process already. In other words, perhaps you would not be able to have any success unless you were already physically capable of doing it. I tend to agree with Eric that it is mostly genetic. Can you tell that I am a little jealous?
Oh yea of little faith. Just kidding! :D You might be right about the genetics, but then again you might be wrong and lack of belief could contribute to not being able to do it. Then again, the fact that I equalize 3 times over 5 meters doesn’t mean I will ever be proficient enough to do it all the time, every time. But I do believe I will get there.

As far as I know there isn’t much scientific research on handfree equalization. It’s not much of a concern in the scientific community. The physics behind it suggest to me that it is not the shape and size of the eustachian tubes, but the ability to voluntary contract the two muscles responsible for opening the lower portion of the tubes. These muscles are activated in most people without conscious effort several times a day.

The tensor palatini and levator palatini muscles really fall in the category of voluntary muscles that our minds activate without us consciously knowing it most of the time. Similar to the diaphragm in breathing. This means we do have the ability to contract these muscle consciously.

I believe the reason why some people can equalize handfree from the first time they try is some where in their development they stumbled on to consciously controlling these muscles and retained the feeling. Kirk Krack told me that Mandy-Rae Crunickshank has a nervous habit of firing these muscles and opening her estauchian tubes, like when she watches television. He said he thought she had always been able to do, probably learned it as a child.

The key is to learning is realizing that whenever the estauchian tubes are opened these muscles flex and then somehow trying to learn the feeling. Basic physical therapy to help someone relearn loss muscle control is to move the muscle for them. The theory is that even if the mind did not start the muscle contraction, the muscle still has nerves sending information to the brain on muscle position, etc.. This can help the person learn to move the muscle on their own.

A true Frenzel or Valsalva is opening the eustachian tube by air pressure only. But when it opens the muscles did flex even though they may have not have been activated by the brain.

Well that’s my theory. Maybe I will have to become proficient at it and then teach someone else, before my theory is accepted. But the hard part about that is finding someone willing to put for an effort for over a year to learn it.
I have witnessed people devote months of practice (daily) to hands free equalizing, starting back as far as '98. None, to my knowledge, got to the point that Martin & Mandy are at.

You must also wonder about the people whose tubes are so tight that they need tremendous frenzel force to even do a normal equalization.

I have a friend who has open eustachian tubes. He never needs to equalize. Only if he gets sick, then his tubes close slightly.

He, in my opinion, is the extreme case. I don't think any amount of practicing will result in permanently open tubes. So, his advantage is genetic.

Eric Fattah
BC, Canada
>The only way I know I have successfully opened my estauchian tubes is by a >low roaring sound.

Aloha Don
You may be far ahead of this, but there is a useful trick that I was taught a long time ago. Close your mouth, breathe out, pinch your nose, gently try to breathe in and swallow. If it works, you should feel your eardrums pull in as you remove air through the eustachian tubes ( simulating a shallow dive). Now you can test any method to clear your ears.
I don't need to do this as I can hear the tubes open with two clicks, left one always goes first, but in my family, when you are congested and the barometric pressure plunges over night, you wake up with part of your face numb. This method lets you relieve sinus pressure too.
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I can equalize hands free - always have been able to. I must be one of the lucky ones!! Only down to 30m so far tho - be intersting to see how much further I can get before it becomes a problem...
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Only down to 30m so far
And Jim was jealous of me!

Thanks for the tip. After doing that a few times, I think I may be further along than I thought. Now if you could just give me bigger lungs. Opps, I forgot! I not suppose to talk about that to you. ;)
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The Eustachian tubes have two sections – the lower cartilaginous section (elastic) and upper bony section. In a state of repose the lower Eustachian tube is held closed by the surface tension of its mucosal lining. Thus someone who has naturally high mucous levels will have more difficulty equalising. The muscles involved in opening the tubular orifice are both intrinsic (palatine) and extrinsic (muscles of the jaw etc). Practice can improve intrinsic muscle control in overcoming the surface tension and elastic property of the walls. Mucosal cells in the tubular epithelium also secrete a substance that decreases surface tension. Autoinsufflation exercises will keep the tubes aired, making them easier to open.
I developed hands free equalisation as a kid. I think if it is practiced during development then adaptation is easier. It works very well with a mouthfill as you can keep the tongue relaxed (yogis consider the tongue a switch for relaxing the entire body).
It is difficult to ‘reverse engineer’ how I learnt the process, but I have a hunch that if you practice the Frenzel technique and use progressively smaller and smaller movements of the tongue then you will kind of winkle yourself into increasing the use of intrinsic muscles.

Physiological factors which may give a genetic bias to equalisation ability:

1 - Width of cartilaginous section of Eustachian tubes
2 - Elasticity of cartilaginous section of Eustachian tubes
3 - Natural mucous levels
4 - Innate muscular control of muscles opening the tubular orifice.

1, 2 & 4 may be influenced by training and 3 can be influenced by behaviour (less dairy products etc).
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Martin mentioned at a recent PFD clinic that somebody had approached him and told him that he was able to teach himself using a mirror with his mouth open and watching his uvula move up. :cool:

Smellsfishy / Meir
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When I first saw that same post by Eric I was thinking of you Don. :)

Most of the people I know that are able to do it claim they've been able to do it ever since they remember. which suggest it might be genetical, but defenitly not a proof.

Erez Beatus has once told me that some people learn hands-free equalization just from diving a lot. quite a lot.

The thing is, genetical or not, we do not know our genes, so it leaves us in the dark. So I can't find a reason of not trying it, since I could be capable as well.

Gaining hands free equalization is definitly on my wishlist. And I'm willing to try and gain it.

I find Don's rationalization of the situation (gaining muscle control) as the right aproach.

I also think that I have the potential, it has happen that when driving down or up hill I occasianly swallowed and discovered that I've just equalized. Same with airplanes...

I think that normal people who never heard of equalizing still equalized the pressure somehow, the cabin pressure in all planes usally goes down (heard it get as law as 0.8 atm, but not sure about it), and when people climb mountains etc....

By the way, I heard that those muscles that close the e-tubes are ringular (word?) muscles - same type of muscles as with the nostrils and the rectom and various other nice places...
And that they are usually harder to control, but that there's supposed to be some method that teaches you to control this type of mucles... unfortunetly I'm not longer in connection with the girl who had told me that. :eek:

Another thing which I'm not sure if helpful or valid, is that ringular muscles tend to loosen/weaken when contracted/expended by external means (such as equalizig normaly with air pressure), I think this is the reason why when you do pranayama you are supposed to shut your nostril by pressing above it just below where the cartlidge of the bridge ends, and not on the nostril's opening itself and thus weakening the muscle.

I've already asked a communication clinician I know about the e-tubes, she had some knowledge about the opposite situtation, when the e-tubes are permenantly open, she said it causes problems to some people. anyway, she said she'll ask a specialist next time she'll meet one... which might take a while...

For Bill's trick, it works for me... will help alot I guess. 10x!

Don, do you have any recomendations as to how I should start?
My guess was that I'll just need a lot of time on a rope practicing, I was even thinking of doing scuba on a rope just for that. but I don't have such quality rope time available yet...

Can you describe your excersizes?

PS: wow Don, you're famous, Martin is spreading rumours on you. :D
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just a little training tip to check out while sitting in front of the pc like your doing right now: put in some earplugs (like the soft yellow foamy ones) turn on loud music (like from your favorite internet-radio) and exercise your palatini muscles. if your eustachian tubes are opened you will be able to hear the music pretty clear. check this one out - it will even help your frenzel technique!

yours pat
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Genetics undoubtedly plays a role in clearing, mucus, tube size, maybe a general tendency to good nerve developent in that area and who knows what else. That said, some people can access the nerve pathway to the clearing muscles. With practice, opening the tubes can become no more difficult than moving the fingers. I clear like that, also to almost 30 meters where I start running out of air to clear when the tubes open. I am successfullly teaching my 10 year old (who probably shares my genetics, but did not automaticly know how to clear). I know several other divers who have taught themselves to clear hands free, albiet not at easily as I.

The trick is how to find the nerve pathway. I wish I knew how to teach that. For my son, we played with clearing, moving the jaw, blowng the nose, yawning, looking for the cracking sound, using the roaring sound and everything else I could think of. He is starting to get it, not consistant yet but I can tell he will be. He is working at it. My older son never mastered the trick. He's happy holding his nose.

Observation, the people I have heard of that can clear hands free consistantly can't do the frenzel (especially me). Is this just chance or is there a connection? Know anybody who can do both?

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Mandy and Martin can do both hands free and frenzel.

I can control my 'hands-free' muscles quite well. While doing rapid descents while skiing, I equalize hands-free often; the same when driving up and down hills.

In the water, in order for me to equalize hands free, I have to go to no more than 3-4 feet, feet down, and then spend about 30 seconds struggling to flex the hands-free muscles as much as humanly possible. Usually only my right ear will clear, even though I'm certain I'm flexing the muscles on each side equally. This, again, tells me that the genetics of my right ear are better than my left.

Valsalva doesn't work for me. My tubes are too tight. Swallowing never works either, except on land, and even then it's spotty.

Eric Fattah
BC, Canada
Martin is spreading rumours on you
I wish! I’m sure that was someone else, because Martin told me about him too. My basic learning technique is the same that Will suggested in his hunch (Will, fantastic analyst on the estauchina tubes). It took me a little to understand that there the same, but rather than saying less tongue I think about using less air pressure, but when you think about it, it is the same, because the size of the movement of the tongue determines the air pressure created.

This has worked well for me except as I have progress from the point of low air pressure to no air pressure, because I don’t hear much of click to know they have opened. I also practice opening them with a light frenzel and then release the pressure and try to hold them open.

I’m going to try Pats suggestion of earplugs and music, because it sounds like the loudness of the music would be easier to determine rather than listing for my breath. In fact I might take that a little further by sticking a waterproof walkman ear plug I have in my mouth. I should really be able to hear the music when my eustachian tubes open then. Bill’s method also works for me, but the going from the negative pressure to equalize seems almost too easy. Either this method is easier than water or it’s fear that is holding me back in the water.

I also think it helpful to visualize the tubes, the muscles, and the contracting of the muscles and opening of the tubes as much as possible. Study and an anatomy book if you have access.

Seems like I heard something about the muscles being ringular too, but I know that the tensor palatine wraps about 180% around the lower portion of estauchin tube and one end of the muscle attaches to it. It covers the whole normally closed portion of the tube, which I would guess is ¾ of an inch. I have searched for a good graphic of this on the Internet but have never found one so far. The best I saw was an anatomy 3D drawing at an ear specialist office. The estauchian tube has a slight twist to it. When opened the tensor palatine shortens and the tube is untwisted causing it to open. At least that’s my understanding of it.

Being able to equalize hand free would definitely be useful, but in an all out record attempt with no equipment requirements, it still seems to me that a nose clip and fluid goggles would be an advantage. Notice Mandy is doing just that in the Caymans now. No matter how good you are at it, it still takes having air in mouth area to equalize. Martin still has to pull it up from his lungs when he is short on volume due to compression. Every bit he puts in his mask reduces his total volume. When we talked at the PFD clinic my impression was that it was a challenge and not a walk in the park for him to equalize the last 10 meters of his 93m world record.

This is just my opinion, but part of what makes Martin unique and interesting is he’s a bit of renegade and almost always does something a little different that he knows is a slight handicap. Like his use of bi-fins to set the 93m world record, because he wanted to prove it could be done with bi-fins. Now it’s using a standard mask when he doesn’t have to. He is like a left handed batter batting right hand or a left paw fighter fighting right handed, or the kid who say I can do that with one hand behind my back. He is always keeping us and himself in a little in the dark to just how good he really is.
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I can control the muscles on land also. As soon a s I get into the water, no amount of flexing, swallowing, etc. will work. That is why I feel its genetic as well as very frustrating. My buddy Jersey Jim can no-hands down to 145 feet and probably further, we just do not know because we hit bottom. He tries to teach me all the time and I have no trouble eq. on land, just not in the water.
i hope my earplug tip helps you donmoore and some other people. i didn't mention my disability to equalize handsfree yet. my genetics don't seem to be very favorable concerning eustachian tubes. for me its pretty much the same as eric described it. but i use this earplug -training to improve my frenzel technique indirectly, because i still have a hard time combining tongue-pressure with flexed palatini muscles in order to get some air through my eustachian tubes. valsalva does hardly work for me, especially headdown. i have the advantage that i can feel preciseley the increase in pressure and the disadvantage that the depth-barrier is harder to overcome... :head

harder but not impossible...
yours pat
I think the majority of people who can equalize hands free on land would also be able to do it on scuba. I can voluntarily pop my ears open and hold them open as long as I want to on land. Very nice while flying, however as soon as I'm head down, I can't do it. I think having ambient pressure is also a big factor for those who can do it on land and not in the water. Starting at very shallow depths lung pressure will of course be less than ambient. We can increase this pressure to equal or exceed ambient if we want using the Frenzel, some can do it using Valsalva. I can only use Valsalva to about 8-9 meters.

I can equalize hands free in the water if I'm decending feet first or even horizontal in the water. If I'm swimming down a shallow incline I can usually equalize hands free all the way. Also when I exhale and begin to sink horizotal in the water, I can also move air into my ears easily. The only way I've been able to equalize hands free while head down is by tightening my mask strap to the point that can push air up without blowing bubbles out of my mask. Since I can equalize at fairly low pressure, this works, but it leaves a mask ring on my face for awhile, not to mention being a bit uncomfortable!

I believe (or at least hope!) that with practice I'll be able to learn to equalize hands free as well. If I can't however, using the Frenzel-Fattah method works so well for me that it dosn't really matter.

Great thread Don!

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