At age 15 I started swimming on my high school swim team after my knees decided they didn’t like soccer (running) anymore. I knew how to swim, but I had never competed before. I joined the team and swam 6 days a week for 3 months. Swimming gave me such an incredible feeling. I felt euphoric after swim practice, where my lungs felt open and my mind cleared. Although I felt muscle fatigue, I felt at peace. It was 3 months out of the year when I felt at home in my mind and body. Anxiety fell away during swim season, my focus was better, my grades were better, I felt strong and alive.
It wasn’t until years later, upon reflection, that I understood why that was. It wasn’t just that swimming was exercise, swimming was also yoga, meditation, and breathwork.
Swimming as Yoga
Vinyasa yoga, which is what I practice and teach, combines breath with movement to flow from one pose to the next. The breath is the connecting thread through the whole yoga practice, keeping your mind present in your body. You move intentionally, with strength and ease, so even when practicing physically challenging poses, you are relaxed. You control your breath and time it to begin and end with the poses. There is an intentional rhythm to the breath when practicing yoga, it becomes part of the practice. I also just described swimming.
When you swim, you time your breath with your movement, because there are certain times to breathe built into each stroke. If you hold your breath, you will tire quickly, but if you slow down your exhale to time out with the movement of your arms, everything works smoothly. Your body relaxes. Even as you power through the water, swimming requires a certain amount of ease. If you push too hard, your hands just slice through the water without doing anything to propel you forward. When you soften with the water, you can move the water backward, propelling you forward. Strength and ease. Breath and movement. Yoga and Swimming.
Swimming as Meditation
Meditation is the practice of noticing what is happening in the present moment. The mind becomes clearer and focused on a single thing. It might be the breath, it might be movement, it might be a candle, it might be a mantra. There is often something specific, and often repeated, that the mind notices.
I have found swimming to be a meditative experience, especially in open water. Every Summer I swim in a pond near my house, from my private beach to the public beach and back. There are no lane lines, and rarely any people. All I have is the rhythm of my arms and legs, and my breath. I’ll count my strokes to help keep my mind occupied, breathing every 3rd stroke. This repetition of the numbers, of the strokes, of the breath, leaves me in a calm and tranquil state of mind. I am fully present and aware of my surroundings, and fully at peace. Swimming is a moving meditation, just like Walking Meditation; moving meditation for aquatically oriented beings.
Swimming as Breathwork
When we practice breathwork, or Pranayama, we learn to control our breath. Different breathing techniques have different effects on the body: energizing, calming, centering, cooling, warming, etc. Learning to control your breathing is powerful, as it can change how your mind feels almost immediately. When you feel stressed and you let out a big sigh, that’s your body trying to regulate your mind. Intentionally taking 5 deep breaths helps you feel calmer and more grounded in a short period of time.
Swimming is all about the breath, in my mind. Yes, you have to coordinate the physical movements, but if you don’t breathe properly, it can be a miserable experience. You inhale through your mouth, then (ideally) slowly exhale underwater through your nose. The water causes resistance to your exhale that is different from any other time that we breathe. It is more effort to exhale through the water than it is in the air. It requires more force from the diaphragm. This is an opportunity to build breath capacity and control. You need to get all the air out before it is time to inhale again, so you need to control how fast or slow the air comes out.
This rhythmic process of quick inhale and slow exhale calms the mind, and relaxes the body. That is the beauty of swimming and why, as a teenager and now, I feel euphoria and mental clarity after I swim. Whether you swim a lap, a mile, or across the English Channel, swimming is yoga, meditation, and breathwork, all in one practice.
Yoga and Swimming is coming up on Saturday June 10th at Lake Cochituate in Wayland, MA! If you want to see how yoga can improve your swimming and swimming can improve your yoga, click here to sign up!
Movement and Meditation happens every Monday at 8am ET online! 20 minutes of moving and stretching to wake up the body and work out the stiffness, followed by 20 minutes of guided and silent meditation to calm and ground the mind. My students claim it is the best way to start the week! Click here to sign up! If you can’t make it live, take the class anytime on demand!