While we live, we breathe. The regular rhythm of respiration continues without cease every minute of our lives. To recall the Zen saying quoted life hinges on breathing. Awareness of our breathing is useful because it is always an aspect of the present moment, and awareness of ourselves in the present is the basis of the Alexander Technique (AT). It makes sense for anyone seeking to learn the art of swimming to give detailed attention to the mechanism and rhythms of breathing, and to apply this understanding intelligently to developing effective patterns of breathing when water-borne. Conversely, paying attention to the requirements of respiration in the water can enlighten us to a new awareness of its function and effect in our daily lives.
We have emphasized that, for the AT, good breathing is essentially a function of good use. So long as we are well oriented, with both our mind and musculoskeletal system in a state of harmonious balance, we are in the optimum condition to breathe comfortably and fluently. It’s clear that poor breathing habits in daily life can present an obstacle to developing good breathing patterns in the water. But it has also been shown that there are some significant differences about breathing when we swim, which we need to appreciate and incorporate into the way we swim at all levels. In the art of swimming, breathing is itself an art which requires understanding and practice.
Fear and anxiety interact in both obvious and subtle ways with the process of breathing, whether in or out of the water. When we’re afraid, we tend to breathe differently, and when our breathing is disturbed, so is our mental equilibrium. The fundamental fear for the anxious swimmer – that of swallowing and inhaling water – can be greatly reduced by familiarity in practice with the mechanism of the oral seal. This is rarely described in the detail that we have gone into here, mainly because most experienced swimmers and swimming teachers take its operation for granted.
An easy and balanced pattern of breathing is the key to our awareness of the here and now. For those who enjoy swimming, the regular inflow and outflow of breath has both a calming and a revitalizing power, complementing the beneficial effects of the dive instinct. The combination of the unique properties of water with the principles of graceful movement, woven together into a web of sensuous elegance shaped by the ever-present rhythm of the breath, can be a meditative and magical experience. It takes us beyond the pursuit of fitness and everyday concerns into a realm of harmonious sensation and artistic grace.