Reflections on a Life of Swimming As Yoga

Reflections on a Life of Swimming As Yoga

Guest Post by Jennifer Dutton of Swim Stronger.

Yoga and swimming will be forever intertwined for me. I did not discover the former, although it is an ancient art, until well into adulthood. Swimming, on the other hand, has been my “yoga” for most of my life. I just did not know its name. 

Vinyasa yoga was a revelation of sorts. I have a complicated relationship with my body and have always had an uneasy agreement (at best) between my brain, my emotions, and my physical being. I generally swim a lot during the summer and then take some time exploring other things in September. One year I decided to try hot yoga. I had taken some yoga classes with Janine prior to this, so I had some sense of proper form and safe mechanics. The heat made it feel like a “good workout” but as I went on, I found myself gravitating toward continuous movements more than anything else.

I did try some other types of yoga, including Bikram and Restorative, but always came back to Vinyasa. I resonated  with the breathing and moving connection. I’ve never thought of myself as an athlete, and yoga was ok with that. The lack of mirrors in the studios was an absolute game-changer for me. It allowed me to observe my physical sensations instead of my own reflection.

The idea of observing thoughts and sensations and then letting them go was very new for me. I had always reacted to my own physical drama by detaching from my body and letting my mind take over. I do not recommend this! Hearing a teacher softly suggest staying IN a position, even if it was unpleasant or uncomfortable, would change how I catalog physical and emotional drama. I could coach others and myself more effectively, once I understood how to articulate patience and redefine “stress.”

Swimming was the yoga which got me through the first part of my life. It saw me through many injuries and conditions which I found turbulent, confusing, and frightening. The patterns of a swimming stroke are soothing in their regularity, especially when done in an endurance or long-distance way (as opposed to sprinting, which is a different beast). I gravitated towards the sensory deprivation of being underwater for as long as I can remember.

A huge factor for many folks when learning to swim is the function and mechanics of breathing. The breath is not to be taken for granted in the water. It must be planned for and deliberate, yet soft and not explosive. In this way, Vinyasa Yoga is a perfect match for a swimmer. The breath must be timed, the inhale and exhale managed properly for maximum effect, but not maximum effort. Strength comes from stillness. 

But what of the fight-or-flight moment when we brace against oncoming stressors with our strong posture, shoulders up, breath held, jaw muscles clenched, and every other recruitable muscle ready for action? It turns out, our strength is the ability to recognize those things. We breathe, and then we stop doing those things. Moving air in through the mouth and out through the nose and mouth is the best strategy in the water.

When swimming we must prepare for the breath physically, by getting our mouth to the air. Take a breath, not as if you are headed to a battle, but as if you are about to speak. Hold the sip of air in your throat until it is time to exhale with a sigh (not an explosion), together, out of your mouth and nose. This purposeful breath can soothe your nervous system and settle your soul as much as any meditation. 

Once I understood what yoga could do for me, I better understood what swimming did, does, and could continue to do for me as well. The value of meditative breathwork is well-documented, and as it turns out, mediation does not necessarily involve sitting still. Repetitive motion, especially cross patterning like the arm motion in a freestyle or crawl stroke, soothes the senses.

I spend many hours in the water each week noticing an intrusive thought, then having to let it go so I can manage my next breath. By the time the breath is over, a new and non-confrontational thought has hopefully entered my consciousness. If it is another uncomfortable thought, there is always another breath coming. The management of thought, breath, and movement patterns is the yoga of swimming.

Hi, I am Jennifer Dutton, formerly of Wayland, MA and now of the Florida Keys. I have coached swimmers of all ages for 25 years now, and working with adults is one of my primary projects! I see adult swimmers who are just starting their swim journeys as well as swimmers who have competed at the highest level, and this variety is what makes my work so satisfying.

One thing that is true for athletes of any level is that better balance in the water can create easier swimming. The art of breathing while swimming is not intuitive, so to learn the physical and mental aspects of the breath is really important, and when explaining breathing I go back to yoga for cues and ideas. I have practiced yoga, mainly Vinyasa, for many years now, and it helps me explain swimming more clearly. Yoga has also helped me, as someone without a very good sense of my body, to swim more efficiently.

Each year I swim at least one ultramarathon distance in a lake, and in recent years these events have ranged from 15 miles up to 43 miles in length. Yoga and swimming is a fascinating and logical combination for me as a coach and as a swimmer. The combination of strength, balance, breathing, and flexibility in yoga is a beautiful crossover to the grace, balance, and power that we need to swim well. Equally important is the emotional work! Many strategies I learned in yoga are instrumental to the work I do to keep my emotions in check during a tough swim.

I now coach in Islamorada, Florida, with workouts and private coaching available to locals and visitors alike. I host swim camps for adults, as well as clinics and events in France near Lake Geneva. I’m certified by ASCA, WOWSA, and the American Red Cross, and I even coach virtually these days at Sign up for my newsletter to receive tips and swim ideas! I would love to accompany you on whatever swim journey you choose. Let’s swim stronger, with a powerful mind and a balanced body!

Join Janine and Jennifer for Yoga and Swimming on Saturday, June 10th at Lake Cochituate, Wayland, MA! You will experience, first hand, the beautiful balance of yoga and swimming. Click here For more information or to sign up!

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