Swimming, breath and Yoga – Parallels between moving meditations
Swimming has always been a form of moving meditation to me, an escape into the cooling depths of my subconscious and a way to unblock creative flows. Ever since I can remember, everything from wild swimming in the sea to the rhythmic pacing up and down of swimming pool lanes monotonously counting the times I touch each end of the pool, has played an important role in my mental and physical well-being.
When I was younger and suffering with a bad bout of depression I used swimming as a natural way to lift my mood and literally take the weight of the world off my shoulders by gliding like a bird in flight through soothing waters. When I was at art school swimming was a way to free up creative blockages when I couldn’t see the way forward with my projects, finding that by around my 30th length the combination of focused counting and breath control cleared my current blockage, making space for new ideas to enter in. Whilst travelling swimming in the ocean has opened my mind beyond comprehension to the beauty of the places I have visited and the amazing vibrations of Mother Nature.
So as it was yesterday I hit the pool for a bit of non weight bearing exercises to give my body a break after some recent vigorous training. Up and down I went finding my rhythm and allowing my muscles to open up and enjoy the support of the water enveloping me as the length swimming progressed. And there it was again! Around the 20 length mark the clouds in my head began to clear and Some interesting thoughts began to pop up regarding the parallels between swimming, yoga, breath and meditation.
As a yoga instructor I often talk to my students about the importance of breath to their practice and of making mental and physical space so as positive new things can enter into their bodies and minds. But it wasn’t until yesterday that it occurred to me that these were the very two things which had been happening instinctively for all these years through swimming, long before I started my yoga journey or really even knew about these concepts.
Consider, when we slow down our breath to a controlled tempo; such as when you’re bobbing your head in and out of the water in breaststroke, you help bring your body into a more equalised state, balancing your yin and yang energies and focusing your mind away from the incessant mind chatter of everyday life. When lengthening your exhalation over your inhalation, such as when doing front crawl; counting 1.2.3 – breathe right – 1.2.3 breathe left, then you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest side of our autonomic nervous system and the state that we strive to enter into via yoga and meditation. One might even draw parallels with ujjayi breathe (interestingly also known as Oceanic breath) whilst using an even flow of breath and submersing your head below the water for the same time as rising above the waterline to take in air. Your swimming style may even have a slight retention of breath in it when you first fill your lungs or when your lungs are empty and awaiting your next intake of air. This technique in yoga is known as kumbhaka and has been used since the Yogis of old to heighten focus in meditation.
The interesting thing to be taken from this is that as humans we instinctively know what our bodies and minds need if we allow ourselves to tune into it. For all these years I’d been using swimming in a way that I now also use yoga and meditation, way before I understood the science behind it. I just knew that it made me feel good, relaxed me and helped me clear my head. Our primal instincts can guide us to what we need at any given time if we don’t override them with what we think we should be doing or what are expected to be doing. From long walks down the beach, runs in the park, cycle rides in the country or time spent on your meditation cushion and practicing pranayama, we all have the accessible tools we need to find a bit of solace and peace in our everyday lives in the form of moving or static mediation. The tools to begin to free up whatever is creating mental and physical blockages for us, in order to be able to better go with the flow.