How Swimmers Get Better

I swim to reset my nervous system and to move in the most pleasurable way. Sometimes when I’m feeling stiff and creaky on land I have some glimmer of appreciation for the walrus, heaving his ass across a rocky beach but then fluid and genius when under the surface.

The feminine qualities of water have long been praised — its enveloping nature and absolute flexibility. What is fixed or obdurate about water?

It can’t be grasped or cut or broken.

But enough philosophizing about water — I loved it long before I had any ideas about it.

I want to leave you with some actionable advice for those who feel stuck. Perhaps you never learned or only half-learned. The main advice that I can convey in words is to give yourself large swaths of unstructured time in water. Float on your belly, try to sink, bob up and down, push off and glide. And OBSERVE. How do I float? Which parts of me float or sink?

If you’re feeling nervous, keep one or both hands on the ladder or the side of the pool and experiment with lowering yourself further into the water. When do you feel buoyancy kick in?

Does it affect your buoyancy if you exhale gently through my mouth?

How can you take as few strokes as possible to cross a certain distance?

I was lucky and privileged enough to spend the kind of hours in pools that astronauts spend in training. My neighbor had a pool, as did a local cousin, and my dad, a lap swimmer, would bring me to the community center where I would goof off: try to walk down the slope of the deep end, swim under him, and watch my exhalation bubbles turn into shimmering coins just before they broke the surface.

The point is, we learn through play.

As adults, especially ones who may hold low opinions of ourselves, we are not inclined to let ourselves “play” in the water. We want drills and a number of laps swam.

I, too, like swimming laps but if we don’t let ourselves slow down and observe the interplay between our bodies in the water, we will never grasp what competitive swimmers mystically call “feel” for the water. “Feel” is how one takes advantage of the properties of water. When someone has a feel for water, they swim as if the pool is parting in front of them. Could be you.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness.

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