My husband swims regularly for exercise. I like to run, but since it was going to be a very hot day, I joined him to swim laps at the pool.
For Christmas I gifted my husband pool time. Meaning I committed two days a week to getting home early after work in order to take care of the dog and free up my husband’s time so he could swim. Today was my first pool visit since last summer. I forgot how relaxing swimming is and am reminded of its benefits.
More so than running, when I swim I feel more focused on the moment: my breathing, my legs kicking, my hands entering the water.
Yoga instructor, Rachel Long writes on Manlyyoga.com (Manly is a beach-side suburb of northern Sydney) that there are three parts to cultivating mindfulness in our meditations: Pranayama, Pratyahara, and Dharana.
These yoga terms are breath control, the withdrawal of energy from the senses, and concentration. Swimming easily comprises these three steps.
I breathe in. Inhalation. Hold the breath. Count four strokes. Exhalation. This is a practice in pranayama.
“When you dive in all the noises and sights surrounding you dissappear and all that is left is the water.”–Anonymous
Pratyahara is concerned with taking our mind, emotions and intellect that are focused on the outside inward. This stage is so crucial, getting our mind to shut-up so we can concentrate. When running, I find myself thinking about work, friends, and to do lists. In the pool, I rarely am thinking about anything except the motions of my muscles and my breathing. Being under water reduces external stimuli, especially sound I feel, and facilitates concentration. There are very few visual stimuli. I focus on the shape of my cupped hands entering the water and the black line running below me and terminating into a tee. Occasionally I marvel at the dappled sunlight on the pool floor.
Dharana stage is fixing the mind on one place or object. You can test your concentration on how well you keep up with counting laps. Sometimes I lose track and end up starting back with the previous lap. I like to mix up strokes, and I will grab a kickboard to break up the laps. I concentrate on kicking and not making any splash.
Many say the joy of swimming is the ability to merge mind and body in mindfulness. Moving meditation which merges brain and body can have a powerful, lasting effect on the brain. A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and published in a January 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found noticeable changes in the brain. Participants spent eight weeks in a mindfulness based stress reduction program which included practicing a mindfulness activity 27 minutes each day. MRI scans were taken before and after the eight weeks and found increased density in the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for learning, attention, and emotional intelligence. None of the changes were seen in the control group.
Suggestions found for swimming mindfully:
Notice the sensation of water touching your body when you enter the pool.
Focus on each movement and stroke.
Observe how water feels when your arms are moving in and out of the water.
Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion Swimming, recommends focusing on a specific thought or intention every time you push off the wall.
Swimming is a full body workout. A vatiety of strokes all engage the core abdominal and lower back muscles. A beneficial side effect is improved posture. Swimming greatly reduces the risk of heart disease (leading cause of death in women), stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Swimming also improves running performance. A study published in the February 2015 Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that swimmers who followed a controlled breathing technique improved their running economy by six percent after just twelve swim sessions.1 Utilized as a mindfulness activity, swimming is very restorative. So keep calm and swim on.
1. Lavin, K. M., Guenette, J. A., Smoliga, J. M. and Zavorsky, G. S. (2015), Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 25: 16–24. doi:10.1111/sms.12140