Swimming and Yoga: Flying Fish (Part 1)
Nude swimmer or human fish?
Sometimes when people ask me how was I first introduced to the practice of hatha yoga, instead of technically answering them “in my college acting class,” I want to give a more truthful answer: “swimming at my grandparent’s lake cottage in northern Indiana.”
That would make my mother my first yoga teacher. I remember her there in the water, up to her waist, holding me with her hand under my belly, telling me to kick or stroke, making me practice putting my face into the water and breathe. Then she turned me over and taught me the most important lesson of all: how to float.
I wouldn’t have said this a few years ago, but as you mature in your study and practice of yoga, you begin to discover that the principles of yoga and “gurus” have been around you your whole life.
In fact, swimming now in Lake Michigan, I often consider the Lake itself as a teacher. Certainly that little lake in Indiana was where I learned to confront the fears of deep water. Respect and fearlessness, the classic opposites of yoga, are there for you in every swim.
I never competed, though I was a jock in high school, swimming was not my sport. For me it had a kind of romance, especially lakes. We also had a backyard pool, and it was a place to escape many difficult emotions and the surprises my body seemed full of as a teenager. Ironically, it was yoga and the opening I felt in my body that really reintroduced me to the joys of open water swimming. And now, during the summers especially, I swim as much as I practice asana. Living by Lake Michigan in Rogers Park, I swim every day I can, and often long distances, over a mile at least.
I used to worry that swimming somehow competed with my yoga practice, thinking that it was taking away time and energy away from my practice. A healthy concern but it’s a phase many people go through in their practice, discounting activities and any kind of physical exercise off the mat as somehow profane and maybe even bad for your practice. Hiking, bathing, running, and dance are, as we all know, highly spiritualized practices in many traditions. But you learn that you can observe your body and mind in everything you do. Sometimes I try to blend them: meditating by the lake for a half hour before swimming, and then following a swim with an asana practice. Nothing, nothing is more soothing and energizing than this regimen. The prana is very rich by bodies of water. And I highly recommend it.
Yoga and swimming complement each other in many ways. Both of course rely on careful control and awareness of the breath. Yes, you use your mouth to breathe in swimming, but the rhythmic working of the lungs, expanding and releasing has taught me how to find the right patterns and effort when exerting and feeling stress. Anyone who has ever found themselves in panic situations in water, in currents or suddenly fatigued or cramping, knows that the first thing you do is turn over and float and relax your breath. I have also learned a lot about efficiency and effort in my swimming from yoga. I used to muscle my way in both yoga and swimming, now I feel for the ups and downs of energy, and adjust accordingly. Twisting and tunneling through the water, I find the proper rhythm, the most efficient stroke, and feel for just the right pace and effort to maintain propulsion. Swimming, I’ve come to accept, is an on-going vinyasa. Most important of all, I have learned to find the pleasure in both these parallel practices. And this, ironically, is still a struggle for me.
I practice freestyle or “the crawl” but all the strokes can provide a flowing movement. The crawl gets its name because you literally crawl through the water, just like a baby moving across the carpet. Back and forth, the body rocks through the water, joyously recalling perhaps ancient sensations deep within muscle memory of our childhood body floating there in the warmth of the womb.
When I’m not lost in the dreamy world of my swimming mind, where ideas flash with equal brilliance and absurdity, I often become mesmerized by the watery bottom, imagining the future when the rippled sand below hardens and is heaved and tossed across a yet unknown continent. The ancient bed of a nameless lake, forgotten over millions of years. Or looking to the east in the early mornings, I watch the sun, shattering over the surface up to my nose, lights that I swear are crackles of real fire dancing on the rippling water. And then, I’m awakened by my own body, as a wave of energy passes through me. Perhaps, I’m passing over a spring bubbling up? Or perhaps, it’s a jolt of adrenaline coursing through my blood, feeding the muscles in my arms and legs? Or is it, the lake itself, electrifying my skin with it’s own energetic life, a wave weaving its way through a watery world beyond my comprehension. And yet, I sense some lift, and for several seconds I seem to be swimming on top of the water, so light, it feels almost like I could leap out of the water like a flying fish.