The art of swimming – orientation in the water

Thinking in activity requires attention and practice, but its application has radical effects on the way we move and function. It is the key to breaking old habits and establishing a new way of acting. It also offers the means of developing the freedom and balance essential to the art of swimming. Balance here refers not simply to the physical aspect of our relationship to the water. It includes the idea of balanced integration of all the diverse elements of the activity. A balanced approach will prevent us, for instance, placing undue emphasis on any specific goal we have in mind to the detriment of our overall ability to engage in the art of swimming.

One way in which good orientation helps very directly is by bringing about a reduced resistance of the water against the body – in other words, making the body more streamlined. Traditional swimming instruction, especially in competitive coaching, lays great emphasis on the streamlining of the body. It is rightly considered to be one of the most important factors in stroke efficiency. Why this should be so is clear enough: you can make tremendous efforts with your arms and legs to combat the water’s resistance, but if you’re poorly streamlined you will find it hard to move through the water. The positioning of your body will act as a brake to forward propulsion.

However, swimmers can take the pursuit of a streamlined body to undesirable extremes. For example competitive breaststrokers are often advised to round their shoulders so that their body offers the least possible surface area as it pushes forward through the water. While this may give an advantage of speed at competitive level, it does so at the cost of healthy use both in and out of the water. The cumulative effect of regularly narrowing and stretching the torso is for the shoulders to droop and the chest to collapse. Such effects persist well beyond the swimming session itself. Once we start to discover a more sensitive awareness of the use of our selves, it’s clear that the attainment of extreme speed cannot be the only or indeed the main goal of swimming. The desire for excessive speed is itself a symptom of the unbalanced approach to goals of no intrinsic value that characterizes so much of modern life. The pursuit of speed per se is a prime example of how end-gaining can have undesirable side-effects on use.

It is a misconception to suppose that without sufficient forward momentum the body is bound to sink. While speed can assist buoyancy, it should not do so at the cost of good orientation. Efficient swimming is a matter of using the optimum amount of energy to propel ourselves through the water. This requires two elements: reducing the water’s resistance (or ‘drag’) against our body, and applying propulsive force in the most economic manner. Swimming with good orientation, rather than forcing our body into a more streamlined shape – is the key to achieving a constructive balance of these elements. The elimination of unnecessary muscular tension in the body encourages us to float more easily. When the body floats higher and flatter in the water, it offers less surface area for resistance. By promoting freedom in the joints and muscles, good orientation allows our limbs to engage with the water with greater control. It increases our sensitivity to where and when force should be applied most appropriately for purposes of propulsion. Orientation is not restricted to when one is upright.

Forward-and-upward orientation along the spine can be achieved when the body is still or moving along any axis – vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. Furthermore, upward extension by itself is only one element of orientation. An equally important aspect is the process of broadening, which naturally accompanies the lengthening unless we prevent it in any way. For this reason, the attempt to stretch our bodies forcefully when swimming is misguided. Unduly narrowing the body interferes with the freedom and ease promoted by release and opening-out. When we swim, we can use the buoyancy of water to discover a whole range of different angles and positions in which our bodies can operate with ease. Water enables us to increase the spectrum of opportunities to experience good orientation within an environment that encourages us to move continuously. Holding our bodies stiffly limits our openness to such an experience. The art of swimming requires a constant, flexible adaptation of our bodies to conditions of buoyancy and liquidity.

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