Swimming – thinking in activity

The initial lesson in learning the Alexander Technique (AT) is to become aware of our habitual reactions and to apply the decision to stop. Once we have learned to prevent an unthinking reaction we can choose to apply a response based on reasoned judgment. Responding in this way requires us to attend to ourselves in the present moment. Stopping unthinking habits puts us in the position of being able to exercise choice rather than be subservient to unchecked automatic reactions. The radical difference between our normal patterns of behavior and the process of thinking in activity can be illustrated by the following model. In this model we see how one pathway leads to a pattern of habitual reactions which result in a ‘vicious spiral’ of misuse, tension and pain. Conversely, by learning to break the habit, we enter into a ‘virtuous spiral’ of awareness and the freedom to act in a healthy way.

It’s not easy to remain constantly alert to ourselves in this way. We are creatures of habit, and not used to the idea that we can renew our self-awareness from second to second. Inevitably, we find ourselves slipping back into habitual reactions and unthinking habits. However, through practice of the AT it becomes easier to notice the signals of misuse and to respond in an appropriate way.

Alexander frequently said that only by stopping the wrong can better use emerge, and in the AT great importance is attached to this principle. As the pupil progresses, understanding of what ‘stopping’ entails matures and deepens. It doesn’t mean doing nothing at all so that you collapse in a heap. It relates specifically to stopping the familiar, unwanted and unnecessary habits of our physical and mental responses. Only in this way can we recognize how habitual these patterns are, and be empowered to overcome them so that we can live our lives with a new and more creative awareness.

Swimming – reflections on the water

Spiritual and religious associations with water are universal, and water has special associations for many faiths throughout the world. Water symbolizes the cleansing of the spirit as well as the body, and this symbolism has frequently been incorporated into religious ritual. Bathing in the holy water of the ancient river Ganges is a religious duty for Hindus. Similarly, there is a religious aspect to bathing in Judaism, which was inherited by the Christian ritual of baptism. Since the 19th century, Catholics in their millions have also made pilgrimages to the sanctified waters of Lourdes in France, and thousands of visitors marvel at the holy springs and the tranquil pools around the Japanese temples to Buddha in the ancient capital of Kyoto.

In the philosophies of Zen and the Tao, the image of moving water is used as a symbol of the flowing, constantly changing nature of life. Water is gentle and yielding, yet possesses tremendous strength. ‘Nothing in this world is softer than water, but nothing is better at overcoming the hard.’ Water and its properties are profoundly connected with notions of balance and harmony. The words of the Tao reflect Oriental ideas of Yin and Yang, the complementary poles of cosmic force which interact to create the equilibrium of existence. For human beings, awareness of how to bring these elements into balance in our own lives is the key to health and happiness.

Awareness of our self, of the way we stand, move, and breathe, has led us to explore how we relate to our bodies and to the water, and how we choose to lead our lives. We have suggested that the art of swimming can be a source of self-discovery, personal growth and empowerment. A new approach to the water -one which teaches us to be aware of ourselves, to relate it to our organic wholeness and balance, to be at home in the water, to understand and make use of its generous properties, to discover its intimate connections with the rhythms of our life – awakens in us the possibility of a wealth of hitherto inexperienced sensation, and the discovery of unprecedented, indefinable joy.

Swimming – how to use your head in the water

Freeing the neck and back allows the ribcage and diaphragm to work comfortably, permitting us to breathe in an unrestricted way. This promotes greater natural buoyancy and allows us to control the rhythm of our inhalation and exhalation. A properly balanced body reduces the amount of effort required to prevent our legs and hips from dragging us down.

You can explore how buoyancy encourages a sense of good orientation by standing in calm water, submerged up to your chin. The pressure of the water supports the spine and allows you to stand without straining; your head free to pivot on the topmost vertebra.

The principle of good orientation shows once again that swimming requires us to be confident about putting our face in the water. Without this confidence, we’re likely to interfere with our natural head-neck-back relationship. Ask yourself, is it really possible to maintain good orientation if we swim with our head held clear of the water? Perhaps it is, but only for short periods. Those who swim with their heads out of the water for long periods are subjecting their spines to damaging pressure and hampering the process of lengthening and widening. And people who regularly swim in this way usually complain of a stiff neck and aching back.

However, it’s not enough just to put your face in the water. In itself this does not constitute good orientation. Even when the face is submerged below the water surface, the head can remain jammed back against the shoulder girdle.

But good orientation cannot occur without the neck muscles remaining free. This means that in the prone strokes (i.e. when we swim on our front) the head must be allowed to tilt forward under its own weight, leading to the lengthening and widening of the back and torso. Of course, it may be necessary (e.g. in a crowded pool) to raise the head up and look ahead from time to time, but this can and should be done in such a way that the elements of good orientation are preserved. And as the set of steps shown overleaf for Finding Your Feet illustrates, raising your head up is not the first step required for the body to stop moving forward in the water.

Swimming – coordinated breathing in front crawl

Many swimmers find breathing in the crawl harder than in breaststroke, first because the nose is closer to the water surface at the point of inhalation, and secondly because it is less clear how to co-ordinate breathing with movement. The mark of competent front crawl is the ability to co-ordinate breathing seamlessly with the movement of the arms and body. If you try to inhale too early -before your arm, head and hips have rotated – you are likely to take in a mouthful of water. If you raise your head out of the water too late, there will be insufficient time to inhale freely. Either way, you will interrupt the steady rhythm of the stroke. Unlike the breaststroke, crawl requires a continuous flowing action by the limbs, which is one reason why many swimmers overestimate the amount of air they need to take in. As in the breaststroke, there is no place for the deliberate holding of breath. Again, the exact rhythm or rhythms will be unique to you. Explore the options and experiment with rhythmical variations, allowing yourself to discover what works or feels best at the time.

The front crawl is the only stroke in which the body rotates to the side for breath to be taken .There’s no rule about which side to breathe, but for the sake of symmetry and balanced muscular development it is worth learning to breathe on each side alternately (bilateral breathing). Right-handers find it more comfortable to extend the right arm and look back to the left, and vice versa for left-handers. This is why right-handed people are likely to prefer breathing to the left side (and vice versa). If you already have a favored side for breathing, you may choose to refine your stroke before attempting bilateral breathing. But when learning the crawl, resist the temptation to breathe only on the side that feels more natural.

Swimmers who find it easier to breathe to one side usually incorporate a natural hip-roll to that side. When instructed to breathe on the unfamiliar side, they usually attempt to do so by turning the head alone. The result is that they tend to pull the head and shoulders further out of the water to allow more space to breathe.

Swimming – coordinated breathing in backstroke

The most common complaint in relation to breathing in backstroke is that water spills over the face and gets up the nose, causing discomfort and disruption to the stroke. How does this happen when the face is resting on the surface out of the water? It usually occurs at the point when the arm goes back into the water. At this point the head tilts backwards, following the trajectory of the arm, and water rushes over the face and into the nostrils. The main reason is that the upper body is not sufficiently free and relaxed for the arms and shoulders to act independently of the head and neck muscles. Even so, there’s no need to inhale water – it’s quite possible to retain a vacuum in the nostrils or to blow out through them. Spluttering is invariably caused by alarm, which causes the swimmer to sniff in water involuntarily.

When backstrokers become fatigued and breathless, it’s often because they are tightening their neck and abdominal muscles as an unconscious reaction to the anxiety that their faces might become submerged. It’s as if they are using their muscles to try to hold themselves up above the surface. The overall tightness of the muscular system prevents the free movement of the ribs and diaphragm, causing the breath to become jerky and uneven. The tensed or fixed body position makes both breathing and floating harder.

By attending to orientation on our back and thereby encouraging the release of such tensions, a virtuous cycle can emerge. We can gain greater trust in our body’s buoyancy in the water. This results in greater freedom to move our arms and shoulders independently of the muscles of our head and neck. In turn we acquire increased confidence about being able to breathe when swimming on our back. In this way, we can discover the ability simply to float on our back without anxiety, as well as how to propel ourselves backwards with ease and pleasure.

It follows from this that a relaxed pattern of breathing in the backstroke emerges as a consequence of attention to use. But equally, attention to breathing may itself bring about more relaxed orientation and enable the mastery of this challenging stroke.

Swimming – primary control in the water

A central concept of the Alexander Technique (AT) is the primary control – the relationship between the head, neck and back in governing the overall use and functioning of the body. The relation of the head to the rest of the body is crucial to establishing poise and freedom of movement, because of its effect on the contraction and extension of the spinal column, the muscles of the neck and upper body – and through these on the rib-cage, breathing apparatus, and our whole musculoskeletal structure. This relationship is truly dynamic: virtually every movement we make involves a change in it. At the heart of the AT is the concept that we can replace unconscious alterations to this balance, which work to our detriment, with conscious adjustments that work in favor of helping us to function efficiently. The habitual response of pulling the head backwards and down is prevented by conscious decision. In its place, at every opportunity, we can discover a more natural and healthy response which allows for lengthening and widening throughout the body.

In the water, even a small re-alignment of the head and neck can have a dramatic effect on the balance and orientation of the body. Because of the body’s horizontal position, the head acts as an important counterweight and agent of balance. In particular, when the head is pulled back in the prone (face-down) strokes, it alters the balance of the whole body so that the hips begin to sink. When swimming on our backs, the same result is achieved by bringing the head forward and up.

Swimmers who concentrate on propulsion through the water commonly focus on their arms and legs, paying insufficient attention to the use of the whole body. As a result, the majority of swimmers have little awareness of how their head is moving relative to the rest of their body when they swim. Many swimming manuals lay stress on ‘body position’ as an important aspect of swimming technique. However, this can imply an over-rigid positioning of one’s head relative to the rest of the body, which militates against good use in the water. It’s not body position, but a forward-and-upward direction and a dynamic balance of one’s whole physical structure that are all-important.

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