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 weekend, 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 breaststroke, 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 center 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, is 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 is to complete a fixed number of laps in a given time. They act as if the water were an assault course that 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 well. 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 enjoy 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 plowing 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 are 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 with 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 that 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 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 ourselves.
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 that 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.