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Exploring swimming orientation – backstroke

When performed correctly, backstroke can be the most elegant and relaxed-looking of all the strokes. However, if a good head-neck-back relationship is not maintained, it becomes disorganized and awkward. Some swimmers pull their head right back so that their eyes are focused on a point behind them, which can cause the back to arch unduly and water to spill over the face. Others crane their heads forward too far in an attempt to hold their face out of the water. This compresses the chest and puts a strain on the neck muscles.

Backstroke is performed with a regular arm action combined with a steady leg-kick. The head and spine should remain centered, while the hips and shoulders constantly rotate, requiring a free-flowing mobility of the hip and shoulder joints. The legs do not simply kick up and down at right angles to the water surface. During the stroke they will mainly be angled to one side or the other, following the angle of the torso and lower body. The alternating arm-pull required for propulsion creates continuous alterations in the body’s lateral balance.

Controlling body-roll helps to preserve balance and freedom. Maintaining good orientation is the means whereby this can be achieved.

Practice the backstroke initially in three stages, to explore the optimum release of the neck-muscles during its performance.

1. Push off from the poolside on your back, hands resting by your side. Your body should be slightly angled to one side. Release your neck-muscles, letting your ears submerge, and discover how effectively the water can support your head if you allow it to. Experiment with minor changes in the angle of your neck to see how they can affect the way you float, noticing how holding up the head requires more effort than releasing the neck-muscles.

2. Perform the same procedure with one hand gently supporting the back of your neck. With your hand feel the tone of the muscles in your neck as you experiment with different angles.

3. Perform the procedure this time with one arm extended behind you as you glide. Notice how much easier it is to float with the weight of the arm helping to balance the body along its length. Does this position have any effect on the sensation of release in your neck-muscles?

Unlike the breaststroke, backstroke requires taking the arms out of the water and placing them back in. This is a process requiring fine control and unless performed with awareness and skill can have detrimental repercussions for orientation. The temptation is to arch the back. If we hold our arms stiffly or apply undue force, muscles become taut throughout the body. If the neck in particular is not relaxed, the head will tend to follow the movement of the arm round into the water, pulled both backward and from side to side by the powerful trapeziums muscle which connects the neck, shoulders and back. If the backward movement is too extreme, we risk water splashing over our faces. If the sideways movement is exaggerated, we increase resistance to our passage through the water and may disrupt the rhythm of our stroke.

Explore how well you can control the entry of your hand into the water. While neck and arm muscles should remain as relaxed as possible, the hand should be carefully directed into the water, little finger leading. This requires a rotation of the shoulders and a looseness of the neck to allow the head to move smoothly on its axis.

Orientation in the backstroke demonstrates the importance of the sculling action which characterizes most forms of propulsion in the water. Sculling means pushing sideways towards the body with hand and forearm so as to propel oneself forwards on one’s front or backwards on the back. After the arm enters the water, the elbow should drop so that halfway through the underwater phase the forearm can commence to scull. To do this requires a relaxed flexion of the elbow: a rigid arm cannot scull effectively. Furthermore, if the arms flail like windmills or propeller-blades, their very rigidity will cause the strain and imbalance in the stroke that has been described.

Swimming – healing power of water

Water is both literally and symbolically the source of life. It’s the most abundant substance on the surface of the Earth, covering more than 70% of the planet. It constitutes a large proportion of all living things: about two thirds of a human being’s body mass is made up of water. To ensure the efficient functioning of our metabolism and bodily systems, we need to drink it in sufficient quantities every day. Water is a universal solvent, allowing us to assimilate the minerals and vitamins that are vital for strength and health. Insufficient liquid intake even affects the development of bone tissue, ultimately weakening the skeletal framework, reducing its plasticity, and bringing on conditions such as osteoporosis.

The restorative powers of water have been recognized and acclaimed for millennia. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, emphasized the importance of drinking for health and had a high regard for water’s curative powers. The Greeks prescribed bathing in natural springs as a cure for disease and as a way of increasing vigor and vitality. They filled their town centers with springs and fountains, to give pleasure both to the eye and the ear. Their great medical sanctuaries dedicated to the god Asclepius were established around healing baths and fountains. The Romans went even further, seeking out natural springs wherever they ventured and erecting over them beautifully designed buildings, so that the Roman Bath (like its historical successor the Turkish Bath) is associated with opulence and tranquility to this day.

Nowadays, water therapies of all kinds are widely used and increasingly popular throughout the world. Spas and hydrous are centers for health breaks and convalescence, used in the rehabilitation of a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. Activity in water helps the recovery of wasted and injured muscles; patients who are too weak to move an injured limb without aid may be able to perform a full range of movement in a hydrotherapy pool. Warm baths can help to restore mobility, treat digestive problems, relieve insomnia and promote general muscular relaxation. Cold water is used to lower the body temperature, relieve muscular pains, boost poor circulation, treat skin conditions and reduce inflammations. Alongside therapies, there has increasing emphasis on recreational exercise conducted in water, such as the techniques of Ai Chi and Watsu. Whether associated with calmness and tranquility, or strength and vitality, water has powerful effects on the human mind and spirit. It’s well known that the sight and sound of the ocean, of a flowing river, or a cascading waterfall, elicit positive feelings. This is in part due to the actual physical properties of flowing water. At the sea-shore or by the side of a waterfall, there is an abundance of negative ions, which has been shown to have a beneficial effect on mind and body. The molecules of the air we breathe carry electrical charges which affect the functioning of cells throughout our body. An excess of positive ions, such as is found in most cities, has a fatiguing and debilitating effect.

Even the sound of water – a running river or the lapping of waves – produces a measurable effect on our organism. Research has shown that when we listen to the sound of flowing or rushing water, wave patterns in our brain alter in a similar way to when we relax or meditate. Longer exposure to such sounds is used as a way of treating anxiety, tension and depression.

Why analyze and treat in isolation all these benefits that water has to offer when water is so abundant? Learn to be alive to the sound, sight and feel of water in all its natural, invigorating and life-enhancing wholeness. Become aware in the water of the inner rhythms of your body. Listen in the silence to your heartbeat as you float motionless. Celebrate the rhythm of your limbs as you swim. Learn to trust water, play with it, and appreciate its tremendous strength. Seek out the currents below the surface, rock gently in swelling waves, feel the water’s silky caress on your skin, and submerge yourself in its embrace. In these ways you can discover for yourself the healing power of water.

Swimming – the force of habit

Everything we do involves a complex interaction of conscious and unconscious actions. In practice the Alexander Technique (AT) tends to work with relatively undemanding, commonplace activities, like standing, sitting, and walking. The effort of performing more complicated activities is likely to furnish distractions from the initial task at hand, that of learning to be aware of ourselves. Krishna-murti once remarked ‘There is more to life than getting in and out of a chair!’ Equally, one could say that there is more to playing the piano than just pressing the keys; but to be able to do so with the appropriate amount of weight and balance is the foundation of all further learning of the instrument. In the same way, even sitting and standing with a new mindfulness can bring enormous benefit. It is the basis of a self-awareness that can be extended to all activities.

The decision to rise from a chair is often accompanied by a contraction of neck muscles which pulls the head back. This is followed by an unnecessary downward pressure on the legs. These responses are so habitual that we don’t notice ourselves making them. But are they necessary or desirable? The small backward movement of the head, part of the ‘startle pattern’ mentioned above, creates a strain on the neck and a contraction of the spine. Put simply, we are doing too much. Note the lightness and grace of a cat jumping up onto a wall, or a monkey springing from a branch: because it is oriented upwards, it exerts the minimum necessary downward force. Its head and body function as an integrated unit. Similarly, what is needed for you to rise from your chair is for your body to be well oriented in an upward direction. All the relevant muscles are then engaged at the right moment, working together in harmony to take your body upwards.

In this way, even getting out of a chair requires a lot less effort than we normally use.

When we get up or sit down in our habitual, unthinking manner, the unnecessary muscular tension that we have engaged in our body and limbs persists. Our muscles stay taut, our spine remains contracted. Our body becomes effectively locked in a state of unnecessary strain, which in turn affects our thinking. In subsequent actions – walking, driving, climbing stairs, we labor under the disadvantage of already lacking the basis for dynamic poise and flexibility. The constant repetition of such actions in the course of a day compounds the strain we unwittingly place on our musculo-skeletal structure, sapping us of freshness and vitality. The cumulative effects of misuse thus affect both bodily and mental functioning. No wonder most people feel drained at the end of a working day.

By proposing that we direct attention to the starting-point of the tension at the top of the spine (known as the atlanto-occipital or ‘nodding’ joint), the AT proposes a practical way in which we can become, and remain, alert to ourselves. In the AT session, divorced from distractions, our mind is sufficiently quiet to be aware of what we are doing when we start to rise from a chair. In our habitual mode this is likely to involve a host of extraneous, unhelpful movements and tensions – pulling back our head, hollowing our back, tensing our shoulders and so on. So the first thing we’re encouraged to do is to stop doing what we usually do. By consciously forestalling our habitual reaction, we can allow the relationship of our head and back to remain balanced and flexible. We remain in a condition of release, in which we are poised to choose how to engage ourselves most efficiently to achieve the desired result. The outcome is the continuous positive cycle, reinforcing both physical and psychological ease.

What emerges from this account is that the AT is first and foremost about breaking the force of habit. It is not intended as a method for replacing bad habits with good ones. Inasmuch as habits are unthinking, the AT shuns them altogether. In the words of the philosopher William James, who had a high regard for Alexander’s work, ‘The only habit to cultivate is the habit of giving up habits’. True awareness is thinking in the moment and not relying on habit. Only in this way can we approach any situation with a fresh and open mind. Greater awareness of our use brings with it the challenge of exploration and genuine discovery.

Exploring Swimming Orientation – Front Crawl

The front craw (or freestyle) is potentially the most efficient and fastest of the swimming strokes. It is swum in a continuous, flowing action, with the head leading the body through the water like the prow of a ship. When you swim face-down (prone) you can allow your body to extend naturally and can use your arms with maximum flexibility for propulsion. This stroke offers a good opportunity to explore the experience of release and forward orientation in the water.

Efficient front crawl requires sensitivity to the changing point of balance along the entire length of the body. The alternate rotation of the arms allows the body and limbs to remain extended as they slice through the water. A useful image is that of a long boat moving forward without a break with a continuous rhythm of propulsion, rather than the push-and-release that gives the breast stroke its characteristic ebb and flow. Longer and proportionately thinner vessels are more streamlined than shorter, broader ones, and this principle applies equally to the way the body lies on the water. In the crawl, the arms, back, and legs are extended. The point of balance of this elongated figure is higher up the body towards the head, creating the potential for greater momentum.

Snatching back the arms in a hasty manner reduces the potential benefit of streamlining offered by the elongated body. To overcome this tendency, it helps to continue to direct the extended arm forward until the recovering arm enters the water. The arm should never become rigid. A slightly bent elbow in the underwater part of the stroke allows for greater purchase on the water, and therefore a more efficient use of effort in propulsion. As the arm breaks the water surface for the so-called ‘recovery’ phase of the stroke, the elbow should be released so that it bends naturally. You should not make a special effort to bend or pitch the elbow, which involves unnecessary muscle strain and is a cause of tendonitis in competitive swimmers. Free rotation of the shoulder with a released elbow activates the powerful back muscle (the latissimus dorsi) rather than putting strain on the arm and shoulders. A free elbow also allows for a smoother and more controlled entry of the hand into the water, which in turn enables a steadier underwater pull.

Breathing presents the main challenge to retaining good orientation in this stroke. Craning the head and shoulders back to inhale has a particularly adverse effect. Unhurried rotation of the head and hips is all that is required to lift the mouth sufficiently above the water to breathe in. A controlled combination of hip and head roll is the essence of a fluent, elegant front crawl. You may imagine that all you need to do to be in a position to inhale is simply to turn your head 90 degrees to the side. But can you do this, even out of the water, without feeling the pull on your neck-muscles? In practice, a hip-roll which initiates rotation of the torso gives vital assistance to the process. If the hips contribute half the body-roll, the neck muscles only need to rotate the head half as far. This creates more time and ease for breath to be taken without disturbing the balance of head, neck and back.

Explore the enjoyable possibilities offered by increased mobility of the hips in the following way. After swimming on your front for a few strokes, roll your whole body over onto your back. Notice how much easier this is if you treat the body as a unit. Imagine starting the movement from the hips, instead of twisting your head and neck and letting your torso follow. Incorporate the sensation of rolling your whole body unhurriedly into the continuous action of the stroke. You can remind yourself to start the outward roll from the hip, and the return roll leading with the head, by repeating rhythmically as you perform the action ‘Hips: – roll out. Head: – back in.’

The use of the arms in the crawl, as in the backstroke, also affects orientation. Excessive effort with the arms can force the head backward. Since propulsion is generated by the arm-pull beneath the water, crashing the arms down into the water is both a waste of energy and militates against the control needed to prepare an effective pull. If the hand enters at a wide angle to the body it disturbs the balance. Equally, a narrow entry – when the hand enters the water at a point within the width of the shoulders – causes the body to wobble unevenly. When swimmers with this tendency first try to bring their hands into the water at a wider point of entry than they’re used to, they frequently feel that their arms are entering the water significantly more widely than they actually are.

The problem of placing the hand correctly on its re-entry into the water offers a prime instance of what the Alexander Technique calls unreliable sensory appreciation. The faulty arm action may have become so ingrained that it feels right. When we come to modify it, to start with it feels wrong. Learning the art of swimming is a continuous process of development and refinement of motor skills. We should not, therefore, limit ourselves by relying solely on our feelings.

Fitness in swimming

Swimming helps to give increased mobility as well as building tissue to support joints and reduce muscular degeneration. But to derive real health and fitness benefits from swimming you need to find the right balance between effort and release. Swimming without strain does not mean swimming without effort, it means applying effort in the right way. A general rule applies to all the strokes: before every propulsive movement there is a non-propulsive movement. In other words, you need to let go before applying effort. Many swimmers use too much energy in the non-propulsive phases of the stroke and too little in the propulsive phases. This not only sabotages the quality of the propulsive movements, but often leads to a build-up of strain and can result in serious injury.


Performed well, breaststroke will tone the muscles and improve flexibility, especially in the hips. Conversely, with poor technique breaststroke is the stroke most likely to cause strain. Some swimmers crane their necks back to keep the face out of the water, while others place their faces in the water but aggressively snatch their heads back with each movement of the arms. Effective and healthy breaststroke requires putting the face in the water and bring it out in a free and relaxed way. The following series of steps break down the actions of legs and arms, taken from the non-propulsive starting position of the glide, with arms extended ahead and legs together.

1. The legs bend at the hips so that the knees are brought up towards the chest, with the legs pointing backwards shoulder-width apart. This movement coordinates with the sweeping back of the arms.

2. The ankles, knees and hip-joints rotate so that feet are turned outward at the width of the hips. Avoid starting this action from the knees i.e. turning the knees out and keeping the feet together.

3. The thrust is generated through the hips into the thighs and knees. The legs should be directed evenly outwards and then immediately squeezed together. The kick should be symmetrical: an uneven kick in which one leg turns outward more than the other (a ‘screw kick’) can twist the hip and injure the spine. Pushing the heels back with excessive force can hurt the lower back.

Front Crawl

A common fault is to use too much muscular effort when the arms move through the air (the recovery) and not enough when they pull through the water. Excessive effort on the non-propulsive phase of the arm action is not only a waste of effort; it makes it harder to control the underwater arm action.

Traditional swimming coaching encourages a high, pitched elbow position for the recovery. Exaggerating this action can put the shoulders under strain. It is more comfortable for the arm to rotate gradually as it pulls through the water so that the hand exits thumb first, then to bend the elbow as the arm comes forward over the water surface.

Under the water, the elbow bends as the arm pulls back towards the body. This action creates the S-shaped pull spoken of in technical swimming manuals. On no account should one deliberately try to create an S-shaped pull. The attempt to do so has a distorting effect on one’s orientation and disrupts the direction of the stroke. The main function of the legs is to keep the body balanced on both a horizontal and lateral axis. Kicking too fast or too vigorously can create an unbalanced stroke.

Helpful Hints

1. Practice shifting your balance to either side, starting with the hips.

2. Learn how to swim balanced to either side, kicking continuously.

3. On land, practice the arm movements, noting how the arm swivels naturally in the shoulder joint.


Poor technique in backstroke can lead to shoulder strain and even tendonitis, which usually result from tensing the arm during the underwater phase of the stroke. The arm should never be held rigidly, but should be flexible and slightly bent at the elbow at all times.


In the butterfly, propulsion is created by both legs and arms. Inexperienced swimmers who attempt the stroke often pull back their arms violently and throw them back into the water. This is unnecessarily strenuous, causes undue turbulence, and can result in pain in the back and shoulders. The key to an efficient, streamlined butterfly stroke is to learn the dolphin-like undulation of the torso and the correct timing of arms and legs.

As in the crawl, more effort should be put into the pull, which starts once the arms have returned to the water, than the recovery. The legs work together from the hips, held firmly but not stiffly together, and free at the knees and ankles. The legs kick twice for every arm cycle. To maximize the benefits of good streamlining the head should remain below the surface for two arm cycles, with a breath being taken every two strokes.

Fair Weather Swimmers

For people with busy lives who do not pursue for a regime of regular exercise, a holiday can provide the time to feel guilty about a year of inactivity. Access to the sea or to a good swimming pool and fitness activities can spur holiday-makers to a sudden burst of physical activity. Swimming is seen as offering the chance to cool down, sport new swimwear, tone muscles and improve general fitness. Unlike weight training or high impact aerobics, swimming is regarded as a safe vocational activity, with little risk of injury attendant on it. But a week of thrashing up and down in the water cannot make up for a year of inactivity, and often does more harm than good.

Swimming – the wakening of awareness

Some swimmers can be seen in swimming-pools any day of the week. Where are those carefree, elegant swimmers who manifestly love the water and are such a pleasure to watch? They seem to be out of the frame. Is this then, what swimming is all about, boredom, strain and discomfort? Non-swimmers can settle back in their chairs with a sigh of relief – they are obviously not missing anything. Yet… are you that non-swimmer? Do you, perhaps, recognize something of yourself in any of these caricatures? There’s a good chance, of course, that the very swimmers on whom these characters are modeled would not recognize themselves, because they are all lacking in the same respect: a true and full awareness of what they are doing.

We limit our awareness in different ways. The awareness of the here and now, when we’re doing something and enjoying every minute of it. His mind is on other things – the week-end, the ball-game – anything but what he’s actually doing. Then there’s the awareness that depends on knowledge: knowing how to use one’s body in breast stroke, or knowing why swimming with one’s head held stiffly out of the water is not a good idea. The young woman on the right of the cartoon obviously reckons that swimming is good exercise as long as she keeps her hair dry. And there’s the awareness of keeping a perspective on whatever we do, since the way we behave exemplifies our wider approach to life. Do we know when our lives lack balance, and do we know how to redress the balance? The figure in the centre is all too familiar. Jaw clenched, heedless of other swimmers, he strains his taut muscles against the water in an ungainly butterfly stroke, his sole aim to cut a half-second off his length. What more has he to learn? Everything, in our view, about the art of swimming.

It’s often said that swimming is the ideal type of exercise, the best way of exercising the whole body in a medium where the risk of injury is minimal. It supposedly combines the pleasure of a sport with the benefits of fitness. But the fact remains that many people don’t associate swimming with pleasure, and even those who swim out of choice often seem to lack any sense of fun. They struggle through the water, their heads pulled back and their faces set in a grimace, their overriding purpose being to complete a fixed number of laps in a given time. They act as if the water were an assault course which must be battled through from a sense of duty, rather than for pleasure or profit. Unaware of other swimmers around them, they seem oblivious even to the nature of their own experience. Those who swim regularly in this way are convinced that at least it’s doing them good. But how much good can it do if their attention is focused on something other than swimming – speed, fitness, or whatever? If our mind isn’t engaged in what we’re doing, the benefits of exercise are limited or non-existent. And what a waste of time if we can’t even enjoys it.

Why is it that so many swimmers merely go through the motions rather than savor the quality of their experience? Why don’t we discover how to enjoy swimming more than we do? One reason is that enjoying the water is usually taken for granted in swimming-teaching. Swimming instruction traditionally focuses on ways of moving the arms and legs, on techniques for swimming faster and longer, or on ploughing up and down a pool for extended periods of time. How we think and feel about swimming (and even what we think about when we swim) is generally ignored. But these aspects can be crucial, especially if our feelings arc negative, as they often are. Fear, for instance, or boredom, which are feelings that many people associate with swimming, are rarely dealt with in a knowledgeable and constructive way. Yet such attitudes are widespread, and knowing how to deal with them will clearly have an important bearing on our relationship to the water.

For this reason, the teaching of swimming should always pay due attention to how we think and feel about water. If it doesn’t, it overlooks the intimate connection between thought and action. The dissociation of the physical and the mental is commonplace in our scientific age. But while it can be hard to avoid talking about these domains as if they were quite separate, in doing so we create a mistaken and unhelpful impression. This gets in the way of our resolving the difficulties we may have in learning how to perform activities which require physical skill, and misleads teachers into neglecting an invaluable resource: the mind’s ability to direct the body.

Many swimmers, for instance, don’t recognize that specific problems in swimming relate to unresolved anxieties. But it takes only a moment’s consideration to realize that swimmers at all levels can be affected by them. Such feelings are bound not only to detract from our ability to swim, but also to hinder any real potential to derive pleasure from the water. Traditional swimming lessons encourage us to divorce our mental processes from the physical activity in hand – rather than, say, to acknowledge our fears and to learn to overcome their inevitable side-effects. In blocking out thoughts and feelings about what we are trying to learn, we deliberately approach the learning experience with less than total sensitivity. We thus obstruct a vital aspect of our organic mind-body awareness, in short, of our self.

Because brain and body processes are in fact inseparable, the way we think and feel in and about ourselves is the foundation for our development as swimmers. A truly effective approach to swimming should therefore begin by appreciating the unity of the self – which is the basis of the Alexander Technique. Built on the principle of developing self-awareness in action, the Alexander Technique is a system of psychophysical re-education, a means of increasing our control over the way we act and think. Applied to swimming, it starts by prompting us to an awareness of how our thoughts affect our actions in the water, an awareness which furnishes the swimmer with valuable tools for learning. It encourages us to discover our individual relationship to water, to find pleasure and to make real progress in swimming, and not to think simply in terms of speed. It indicates a direction both for improving our stroke and discovering new avenues to explore how water can be enjoyed. More broadly, it provides a path for personal growth and empowerment. Swimming thus becomes more than a pleasurable and beneficial pastime. As the art of swimming, it can enhance our lives by providing a way of engaging in mindful and creative activity, and help to bring about a renewed sense of physical and emotional well-being.