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Reality or merely a trick to shock the audience? David Copperfield almost paid the highest price!

The craziest tricks of the world's best magicians: Breath-holding spells on the brink of death

Valentina Lebová
21.Oct 2021
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8 minutes
David Copperfield

How long can a person survive without air? Are there really methods that allow one to stop breathing, or is it just an attempt to deceive the viewer? Let's take a look at the craziest and simultaneously most attractive stunts of the world's best magicians, which will leave not only the audience literally breathless.

Let's start at the beginning

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Kouzelník s kloboukem
Kouzelník s kloboukemSource: Freepik

In order to understand how holding one's breath actually works, it's necessary to know what apnea is. From a medical point of view, it is a sleep disorder in which the muscles of the back of the neck relax so much that the soft tissues in the throat narrow down enough for the affected person to stop breathing. As a result, you wake up so tired as if you hadn't gotten any sleep.

Prodej rodinného domu, Praha 10 - 303m
Prodej rodinného domu, Praha 10 - 303m, Praha 10

But the word apnea is also used, for example, for a deep breath dive (in freediving) or in the world of magic, where it plays a unique role. World-famous illusionists can pull off various magic tricks, in which they hold their breath, usually with their face submerged in water, for as long as they can manage.

In general, we can say there are two types of apnea. Static apnea, when the submerged person doesn't move, which significantly minimizes oxygen consumption, and dynamic apnea, where movement is involved. In this case, oxygen consumption is much faster.

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Reflexe ve vodě
Reflexe ve voděSource: Freepik

Underwater hocus pocus

Apnea is well known to the world of magic, illusions and spells. It's all about who pulls what ace out of their sleeve, i.e. who manages to stay submerged without breathing longer.

And so they keep trying to best each other, putting the most valuable thing they have at stake - their very life. The master in this field, David Copperfield, could tell you all about it. He has countless performances under his belt, many of which were not free of injuries. And holding his breath belongs to Copperfield's favourite stunts. In 1984, David nearly drowned in a tank filled with water as he struggled to free himself from chains. Unfortunately, things didn't quite go according to plan and the magician remained unconscious for several minutes. When he was finally revived, the doctors found out all his limbs were paralyzed. He spent a week in a wheelchair, after which he had to use a walking cane for some time. Being the fighter he is, the magician pulled through, but it was certainly not a spotless victory. Although state-of-the-art technical equipment is essential to his show, this number was proof that he wouldn't be able to perform his tricks without perfect physical fitness and excellent flexibility.

Prodej exkluzivního domu, Praha-východ
Prodej exkluzivního domu, Praha-východ, Okolí Prahy

And where fitness is concerned, nothing has changed over the years. Only a few days ago, David celebrated his 65th birthday, and lots of people wonder if he might have used his magic skills to make himself eternally young. He still has plenty of the charisma that used to make women from all corners of the world fall at his feet in the years of his greatest glory!

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David Copperfield
David CopperfieldSource: Profimedia

Apnea really can be learned, and like in many other situations, the good old rule "training leads for perfection" applies. The Czech world champion in free diving Gabriela Grézlová knows all about it. She told

"Static apnea can be learned. There are various ways to get there, I trained on dry land according to the so-called CO2 tables, with the "apnea trainer" computer program, where I could preset when to breathe and when to hold my breath in order to get used to a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in my bloodstream. One also has to adjust their diet to the training. For example, one shouldn't eat anything spicy, because the body burns faster then, which means faster consumption of oxygen. Some people do breathing exercises, I focused mainly on stretching my diaphragm and chest wall, in order to increase the vital capacity of my lungs. There's this thing called "mammalian diving reflex", i.e. the body's natural response to immersion in cold water while holding breath - the heartbeat slows, the blood vessels in the limbs contract and the blood circulation adjusts so as to supply the most important organs - heart, lungs, brain. Anyone can train static apnea unless they have medical restrictions on sports (such as lung or cardiac problems or epilepsy)."

A masked magician

But not everyone chooses the trial-and-error route like Copperfield. In 2008, street magician David Blaine tried to break the world record for static apnea with a very well-publicized performance, right on the Oprah Winfrey show.

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David Blaine
David BlaineSource: Profimedia

Blaine managed to stay underwater for 17 minutes and 4 seconds, and several times since, there have been speculations that it might have been just an illusion created by the magician. After all, this whole world is illusory. Many sceptics thus doubted the authenticity of his performance. Blaine himself claimed that the trick was performed using a technique called "pure oxygen apnea," in which the subject breathes 100% oxygen for up to 30 minutes prior to the experiment. Blaine's record was subsequently broken more than a dozen times, and in April 2017, it reached an incredible 24 minutes and 4 seconds.

"There is no hack in it, no cheating,"

Blaine said on Winfrey's show, adding that while he makes a living as a magician, the tricks he performs aren't about magic, but about pushing the boundaries of the human body.

The use of pure oxygen is actually relatively common in static apnea training. Gabriela Grézlová also confirmed that by saying:

"Some people use pure oxygen for extreme performances - that's not possible in competitions, it is illegal doping. Those who breathe pure oxygen (usually from a diving breathing apparatus prior to the performance) increase the oxygen concentration in their blood and tissues, thanks to which they can stay submerged much longer. However, problems can arise if, at the end of such an experiment, one falls into unconsciousness, because it's not a regular blackout - apart from the lack of oxygen, there is a very high amount of carbon dioxide in the body. Personally, I wouldn't do it."

Blaine revealed that the whole trick lies in reaching a state of meditation in which the mind calms down so much that it won't perceive even a dive under water as a disturbing element.

"I let my head sleep and my heart be more conscious,"

he said. However, he later clarified what his static apnea stunts actually look like in practice. And so it turned out that many of these tricks weren't really tricks at all, just a well-arranged illusion, and Blaine made good use of hidden oxygen supplies that the audience had no idea about.

A blessing in disguise

However, not everyone was as lucky as to pull off a similar trick. Though they were fortunate enough to get away with their lives...

When the illusionist Spencer Horsman attempted a similar stunt in 2015, things didn't go exactly according to plan. Locked in a cube full of water, the magician lost consciousness, just like Copperfield before him, and started drowning. Thanks to the quick reaction of his colleague, the famous magician Criss Angel, he survived.

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Spencer Horsman
Spencer HorsmanSource: Profimedia

The trick may not have worked out, but it was a blessing in disguise.

The Horsman case proves that there is a certain risk involved. If you haven't practised apnea to perfection, you can end up hurt.

"If a person is underwater alone, holding their breath, it is definitely dangerous. Due to lack of oxygen, a blackout may occur, when the brain "shuts down unnecessary processes" in an effort to save residual oxygen and the affected person falls unconscious (however, they still have some oxygen in their bloodstream). If you pull them out of the water in time, blow in their face and shout "breathe", they bounce back very quickly and typically have no recollection of fainting, but if they're alone, it often ends in death. Holding one's breath underwater must take place in the presence of a coach who identifies the problem (he or she recognizes, for example, that the athlete doesn't respond to instructions or exhales into the water) and intervenes in time. When training static apnea, you lie on the surface face down, dressed in neoprene, and someone measures your time. Holding breath for a long time is not physiological, but if you follow all necessary instruction, it's not a hazardous activity,"

says Gabriela Grézlová.

But even Horsman's saviour, New York-based illusionist Criss Angel, got into trouble during one of his stunts. He came up with the idea to get chained up and submerged in a large tank the size of a telephone box, which was filled with water, for twenty-four hours. In the end, he had to be pulled out of the water shortly before reaching the record and stabilized with the help of a breathing regulator. The magician was exhausted, disoriented, and slightly shaken. He thanked his family and audience, whereupon he passed out and had to be taken to St Clare's hospital in the city centre.

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Criss Angel
Criss AngelSource: Profimedia

Angel said he was inspired by the classic routine of the legendary escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini.

Houdini was a Hungarian-American magician, known as the Master of Escape. One of his famous stunts was attempting to escape from a water tank, in which he was hung upside-down by his ankles. Living on the edge eventually became fatal for him when he collapsed on stage in 1926 after performing an escape from the Water Torture Cell. He was taken to hospital, where he subsequently died. The official cause of death was inflammation of the peritoneum from a ruptured appendix.

Angel said he hadn't been eating solid meals for three days before the stunt. The potential danger included pressure drops in the lungs during prolonged breathing underwater and falling asleep in the tank, he said.

Where is the truth?

Everything we think we see in the world of illusions is actually a combination of images that fall on our retinas and the conclusions that our brain draws from these images based on past experience. As a result, changing the context of the image has a huge impact not only on our perception, but also on what it actually looks like, explains neurologist Beau Lotto. He points out, among other things, that the diversity of minds is so huge that some people can "hear" colors. This is one of the reasons why magic tricks can sometimes seem utterly perfect, but it should be noted that most of them do not endanger the magician's life.

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IluzeSource: Freepik

The magician Keith Barry, who calls himself a "human brain hacker", knows all about it, and loves to show people how powerful illusions can be. Using a combination of trailers, hypnosis, and all kinds of other things, he deceives people into believing that he can easily drive blindfolded, that they're touching each other and feeling it, despite being e quite far apart, or performing his own version of the cup-and-ball illusion with unusually high bets.

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Dívka a lá kouzelnice
Dívka a lá kouzelniceSource: Freepik

The world of illusions will always remain merely an illusion, but one thing needs to be said:

Training leads to perfection!

Apnea can definitely be practised, usually by utilizing yoga exercises, in which you not only learn to use the full capacity of your lungs and breath, but you also work on relaxing your mind. The following three steps are the most important ones:

Deep breathing: "Deep breathing" involves taking a deep breath through the mouth, holding your breath for one second, and then exhaling mostly through your mouth, with your tongue pressed against your lower teeth for 10 seconds. You want to achieve the so-called hissing exhalation, which sounds as if you were saying "tssssssss". It is necessary to consciously inhale and exhale through the mouth and make the "tsssssss…" sound. All breathing exercises require breathing through one's mouth.

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Meditující lidé
Meditující lidéSource: Freepik

Cleansing: "Cleansing" involves a strong exhale, as if you were trying to blow a sailboat across a swimming pool, followed by a big, but very fast inhale. The cheeks expand during the exhale, allowing the last remainders of air to get out of the body. It is also necessary to remain static, to avoid any movement or rocking motion - it is a waste of both strength and oxygen. Conscious relaxation is a must.

Half cleansing: Breathing between the above two steps. Stronger than deep breathing, but less forceful than complete cleansing. It is used for recovery after each time measurement.

One's mental state also plays an important part, because it's necessary to reach peak concentration in the moment of apnea:

"The psyche plays a big role. If you're nervous, your heart beats faster. There is always a certain amount of stress involved in competitions... Despite that, some people achieve their best times exclusively in competitions, others feel the need to achieve a certain result several times in a row during training, so as to gain peace of mind, and yet others have good times during training, but have a problem with achieving them in competitions - that's where the psyche manifests itself,"

adds Grézlová.

Let's conclude this topic by saying that no matter what training you decide on, you'll always need someone to show you the best way not only to reach your desired goal, but also to make it as natural as possible for your body, or - in case of apnea - your lungs. Rushing it is a really bad idea in this particular case. Everything in its own time...

Sources:,,,,, own inquiry

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