Swimming – tips of breath in the water

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.

Swimming – the Alexander Technique Defined

What is the Alexander Technique (AT)? Although it is becoming more widely known and practiced, its essence is often misunderstood. It’s not a form of relaxation treatment, massage, or a set of exercises designed to correct bad posture -although it is often used to reduce stress and improve poise. The Technique is primarily a method for teaching us to develop conscious control over a particular set of reactions, which are seen as the source of unproductive habits. The fundamental tendency is to pull the head back and down, either in response to an unpleasant stimulus, or simply because the movement has become an unconscious habit. The effect of this movement is to set in train a series of involuntary and unhelpful patterns of behavior. Automatic physical reactions, with potentially negative effects on both mind and body, are not normally under our conscious control. They are habits into which we fall without thinking, unwittingly developed as a result of pressures imposed on us from infancy. They develop into a tendency to react to situations in ways over which we exercise limited conscious choice.

The Alexander Technique teaches us to re-assert effective command over the way we think and act. It starts by making us aware of how a balanced relationship between the head and back can have an important influence on the body as a whole. It gives us a means of intervening to inhibit the actions that disturb this balance, and so provides a foundation for us to prevent the unhelpful patterns which arise in consequence. It has been described as ‘unlearning the habits of a lifetime’, habits which perpetuate an unhealthy fragmentation of the self. We invariably go wrong when we divorce our mental processes from our physical being. The AT is a practical method for putting us back in touch with our bodies, and thereby bringing about a psycho -physical re-integration, which is particularly helpful in overcoming habits that impede the development of new skills. These principles are applicable to diverse activities in daily life: the AT is used in areas ranging from acting, riding, and golf to learning to play musical instruments and giving birth. The beneficial effects of the AT are widely recognized, and it is recommended by doctors and physical therapists as a method of alleviating a range of common ailments from stress to back pain.

Not only are unconscious habits an obstacle to mastering any creative activity, but they get in the way of enjoying the experience to the full. This is as true for swimming as for any other activity. Swimming can easily become boring if you plough through the water automatically, without any sense of development and exploration. Incorporating the AT brings the whole process to life. By opening ourselves to greater awareness through practicing the Technique, we can discover in swimming a tremendous opportunity for continuing development and endless self-exploration. While AT phraseology sometimes reflects the Victorian era in which the Technique originated, the principles of the Technique have enduring and far-reaching implications for the art of swimming.

Swimming – fitness can damage your health

High-speed travel and electronic media dominate our lives and continue to proliferate into the 21st century. They have led to a huge increase in sedentary occupations and have diminished active physical involvement with our environment. Nowadays we no longer need to use our bodies in the way our ancestors did. Alongside technology’s undoubted potential for liberation, the achievements of the hi-tech age offer constant inducements to physical and mental laziness. In the wake of explosive technological growth, the lives of individuals are progressively alienated from activities which require a balanced use of the whole self. Our way of living and working encourages physical inactivity. As a result, the lack of adequate, regular exercise has become a major cause of disease and ill-health in the modern world.

Even when we exercise we want machines to work for us. Technology so permeates our lives that we have come to associate fitness with the latest electronic exercise equipment. Fitness has become a fashionable commodity. Commercial organizations and the media continually reinforce the imperative: thou shalt be fit. We are made to feel ashamed for not being fit or not taking enough exercise. As a result, more people than ever work out, jog, cycle, swim, and indulge in other forms of exercise with fitness as their stated goal. The craze to become – or at least to appear – fit has led to a growing incidence of anorexic emaciation, spinal injuries, steroid abuse, and strained muscles.

On the other hand, many people still resist the pressure to get fit. They actively avoid exercise because it feels like a strenuous, uncomfortable, and tedious way of spending time, despite the insistent reminders that it can make a vital contribution to their health and quality of life. After all, there is clear evidence that regular aerobic exercise reduces the risks of coronaries, strokes and heart disease. It enhances cardiovascular efficiency and encourages fuller breathing, helping to regulate blood pressure and reduce stress. Better breathing and circulation boost mental functioning and hormones such as the endorphins which are stimulated by vigorous activity, have a revitalizing effect on the whole system. For most people, regular exercise brings about a significant increase in energy and vitality. As long as it is performed in an intelligent manner, exercise undoubtedly has the potential to promote health, longevity, and a sense of well-being.

But how intelligent are we about exercising? Surrounded by noise and haste, we tend to match extreme situations with extreme responses. When we feel we have gone wrong, we seek to redress the balance with something equally wrong. In the face of ill-health caused by inactive life-styles, our characteristically unbalanced response is to pursue a dubious ideal of fitness. So on the one hand there is unhealthy inactivity, on the other all the absurdities of the latest fitness craze. When we launch into activity, we too often adopt a second-hand, thinly considered approach which denies a whole spectrum of possibilities for balanced change. This pattern of response is what Alexander was thinking of when he made his paradoxical-sounding remark that ‘the opposite of wrong is wrong.’

Beyond the art of swimming

Life-giving, cleansing, and endlessly abundant, water has nurtured humanity from the earliest times. When we swim, we are interacting with a medium that has exercised magical and spiritual associations for people since the dawn of history. In its myriad forms water has inspired poetry, art, literature, music, wonder, exploration, and love. In a world of dwindling ecological resources, it is a gift to value and cherish. The art of swimming cannot be complete without a profound appreciation of our connection as living beings to the wonderful, unique medium which is intertwined with every aspect of our existence. Water surrounds and embraces our lives with its awesome beauty and variety. We watch it, marvel at it, listen to it, bathe in it, drink it – and swim in it. According to ancient Egyptian legend, the gods bestowed the gift of water on humankind in recompense for enclosing us in a physical body. It was said that through our association with water we become connected to our spiritual nature, and our bodies might discover the freedom that our souls had lost. The Hebrews imagined water as a primordial element, present at the birth of all creation when ‘the spirit of the Lord moved upon the face of the waters’. The religions and mythology of Sumeria and Babylonia, of India and China, of peoples ranging from Australasia to the Americas, are replete with stories and symbolism which speak of reverence for water.

The ancient Greeks recognized water to be the source of life. They worshipped spirits of the water, and pondered deeply on its spiritual and physical qualities. Their myth, art, poetry and literature reflect on it and celebrate it in all its aspects. More than two and a half thousand years ago, Thales, one of the originators of the tradition of Western philosophical thought, identified water as the wellspring of all Being, the substance from which all things arose. Heraclitus used the image of water to demonstrate the ever-changing nature of the universe. ‘Everything is in flux,’ he stated, ‘one cannot step into the same river twice.’ The poet Pindar praised water in a famous line as being the ‘noblest of all the elements.’ And it was while bathing that Archimedes came upon his insight – immortalized by his exclamation ‘Eureka!’ -that a body’s mass can be determined by the amount of water it displaces.

The value of learning to swim is emphasized in many societies and traditions. For the Greeks it was a civilized accomplishment, on a par with learning the alphabet as a basic element of education. They were proud of their ability to swim and dive, activities represented in their earliest literature, the epics of Homer. Swimming was not viewed as a competitive sport, and did not feature in the ancient Olympic Games. But the Greeks took for granted that it was a skill necessary for self-preservation, not least in the event of shipwreck (it was a notable irony that the outstanding military genius of the ancient world, Alexander the Great, was unable to swim). The Romans were explicit about the instruction of swimming, both for military purposes and for pleasure. In a line of Ovid, a Roman poet of the first century B.C. and a keen swimmer, we encounter the first occurrence of the phrase ‘the art of swimming’ (arsnandi). In the Jewish Talmud it is considered an obligation, as well as a good deed worthy of respect, for fathers to teach their sons how to swim. In many countries today, children are expected to be taught basic swimming skills by the time they have completed their primary education.

For aquatic creatures like fish, seals, and dolphins, swimming is not an art. But for human beings, relating to water as if it were our element demands art. Thinking of swimming as an art encourages us to cultivate the natural affinity that human beings have with the water. It’s up to each individual how far we wish to develop that art for ourselves and incorporate it into our lives. Being at home in the water opens up a realm of possibilities which we can hardly contemplate if we are not familiar with the art of swimming. Aquatic activities such as snorkeling, diving, and swimming with dolphins, are exciting ways of discovering the underwater world and expanding our horizons through interaction with water.

Swimming: exploring orientation – breaststroke

Breaststroke is often considered a simple stroke to learn, but the need for fine co-ordination of limbs, and the challenges posed for orientation, makes it potentially more complicated than any other stroke. Efficient breaststroke can be viewed as a series of long glides punctuated by symmetrical movements of the arms and legs. In the action phase, swimmers pull back forcefully with both arms and pull the knees up towards the chest, followed by extending the arms forward while pushing out with the legs. Forward propulsion is generated by the hips and inner thighs, which push the water backwards when the legs are extended outwards and then brought together. This leads into the glide, during which the back should be allowed to lengthen and widen. The elements of movement and glide need to be properly timed for the stroke to be performed with fluidity and rhythm.

A common obstacle to swimming the breaststroke efficiently stems from a misunderstanding of the function of the arms. This is the only stroke in which the arms remain below the water-surface throughout, which limits the swimmer’s ability to exert propulsive force with the arms. It should be appreciated that the main propulsive force in the stroke, around 70%, is generated by leg action.

Overemphasizing the role of the arms sometimes causes swimmers to perform a wide, shallow arm-action, in which the forearms sweep back beyond the shoulder-line. This has two negative consequences. First, it means that the muscles of the neck and upper torso become the main means of lifting the head clear of the water. Secondly, the wide action of the arms tugs at the neck muscles so that the head is forced backwards. By using a deeper, bent-arm action and the body naturally rises with a minimum of effort and significantly less strain. Using our arms in an effective manner is therefore important for helping us maintain good use.

When your arms remain closer to your body as you pull them back, your head is not drawn back as far. As a result, you not only put less strain on your shoulder girdle, but you can maintain your forward orientation more easily.

Many breaststrokers lift their head excessively when they come to breathe in, so that their eyes are directed towards the ceiling. But to inhale, your mouth simply has to be high enough to break the surface and be in contact with the air. Any higher is both a waste of effort and reduces stroke efficiency by interfering with the body’s streamlining.

When you get into the water, experiment with this aspect of the stroke. Find out for yourself how little you actually need to disturb the head-neck-back relationship in order to rise up your body sufficiently to breathe in. Compare your habitual way of raising your head with a movement in which your face barely breaks the surface. There’s a fine line between raising the head just enough to breathe in adequately – and getting a mouthful of water.

The glide in the breaststroke offers the perfect opportunity to discover how stopping can allow us to release and naturally extend the body. Keeping the head pulled back interferes with this process of release and extension and impedes the flow and momentum of the stroke. Take advantage of and savor the opportunity of letting go in the glide. This is a liberating experience, enabling us to enjoy a powerful sense of release and natural extension as we move without effort through the water.

See how the balance of your body shifts when you change the position of your arms from by your side to ahead of you. Explore the different feelings by pushing off from the edge with your arms by your side. The shorter stance feels heavier and does not allow one to travel far. A longer body extension, with arms outstretched, gives a feeling of lightness and flow in the glide, and helps you slide easily through the water.

Competitive breaststrokers often exaggerate the extension phase of the stroke by incorporating a deliberate stretch into the glide. But what happens to your back if you do this? Overstretching creates an arching in the lower back and increases tension around the ribcage. Such stretching actually involves a narrowing of the back and compression of the vertebrae, a contraction rather than an extension of the body. This reduces our buoyancy, necessitating more effort to move forward. When we stop contracting, we lengthen and widen automatically, which is all that is required for an effective glide.

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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