The Indian Mermaid – Swimming towards myself

Sangeeta Pillai writer and founder of the South Asian female power platform https://soulsutras.co.uk/, creator of Masala Monologues® and the  Masala Podcast came to me for swimming lessons a few years ago. 

I asked her to write a piece for my blog about her experiences. She kindly agreed.  Here it is. 

sangeeta1

Trauma. A small word with the biggest impact on my life. I was born into a traditional Indian family, where being female was a life-long sentence. My earliest memories are of my mother being battered on a nightly basis, my father being a drunk, scary monster and me being a terrified, cowering young girl.

Trauma is in my DNA, in my breath, in my body. It dictates how I function, jumping at every loud sound or raised male voice. It is this silent yet all-powerful beast, stalking me for most of my 46 years on this planet. Yet I wasn’t aware of its existence until two years ago. I’ve been battling to take back “control” of myself, but trauma…she won’t let me go.

Except when I’m in water. You see, in water I’m weightless. Nothing holds me down. Floating. Darting. Moving. Lady Trauma can’t get her hands on me there.

It’s the strangest sensation, swimming. Or rather learning to swim. I’ve been trying to learn for the past 20 years or so. Utterly unsuccessfully.

Because trauma make it very difficult. Every time my head is in water, Lady Trauma tells me that I’m going to die. Each time I find myself surrounded by water, each time my feet can’t feel the ground, she convinces me this is the end. So my body responds as it has learnt to do during all the violence of my childhood. My body freezes. Panics. Heart racing. Breathless.

I’ve finally found a teacher, the lovely Jane, who seems to instinctively understand my panic. And she works with it, rather than pooh-poohing it like every other swimming teacher has done so far.

Jane talks about moving in water, dancing in water. She talks about letting the water take me, heal me. I love the sound of letting the water hold me and heal me.

I know this isn’t going to be easy. Jane & I have been teaching my body and mind to be in water. And I can now do that without believing it’s going to kill me within seconds. And that’s huge progress.

I remember the first time I swam the entire length of the small pool. It felt unreal, like an out of body experience.

I have started to move in the water, swim even. But I can’t seem to figure out the rhythm of swimming and then coming out for breath. You see, holding my breath in fear is what I have done my entire life. I watch all the other swimmers in the pool, they seem to do it so effortlessly. To me, it feels like figuring out rocket science.

But, but…here’s the best bit. Thanks to Jane, my body has started to love the feeling of being in water. I’m fluid like some languid sea creature, effortlessly slicing through water, splashing around with joy.

Like an Indian mermaid finally at peace, deep in the ocean floor. The world of pain and panic high above her, not really touching her.

One day, I will swim properly. I will emerge for breath from under water, like everyone else. I will swim in the Arabian sea, maybe off the beach in Goa. I will feel the salt on my skin, the sun on my body. I will be free.

Until then, I will let the water hold me…heal me a tiny bit each time.

Fruit bats

oliveFor some people floating is quite frightening. This may seem strange to a confident swimmer but the thing about being in the water is that although it holds you up, it does not hold you still. So that even when you are floating, you are moving a little bit all the time.   You can stop yourself from moving but you can’t stay still in one place.  For a novice this can feel odd. I like to teach my pupils this way of relaxing in the water. By anchoring themselves to the side of the pool by the lower leg, they can allow themselves to float without floating away.

It is a bit tricky to get into the position but once there it is a lovely way to relax. When I am teaching a class of children they often decide to relax in this way in between activities. I see them suspended along the side of the pool like a row of little fruit bats.

olive and hazel

Photos by www.instagram.com/dana_andtheredshoes/

Family swim

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I like to make my swimming lessons as relaxing as possible but the other day even I was surprised when a little girl fell asleep floating on her back. Her dad was supporting her under her head and she was so happy and calm floating on the water that she slept for about ten minutes.

It is a family lesson where Mum, Dad, the five year old, and the toddler are learning together. The five year old is of course the best swimmer but everyone is coming along at their own pace. The mum is at the moment the least proficient swimmer as she has mainly been looking after the baby and has spent the least time in the pool, but this week the five year old swam towing her Mum along on a float. The Dad is now confident to jump into the pool and even attempted a dive last week. The five year old has promised me that she will be awarding her Dad a sticker for being able to swim through a hoop although she hasn’t done it yet.

I really enjoy teaching parents and children in the same session, and I don’t really mind if I am teaching children of different abilities in the same lesson. I find that each swimmer learns from the others. So much of learning to swim can’t really be taught as such but has to be experienced. I think one of the things that makes it difficult for adults to learn to swim is that they don’t feel the same freedom to play in the water that children have. When parents and children learn together there is inevitably an element of play involved. This helps everyone.

I didn’t mind at all that the youngest member of the class felt so relaxed and at home that she took the opportunity to take a nap during the lesson.

 

Backstroke

back

I have read that back pain is often (some say always) caused by tension and stress. My work as a swimming teacher has demonstrated to me that this may be true. When I see non swimmers in the water for the first time I can see how they hold all the stress and fear of being in an unfamiliar environment in their neck and back muscles. In this case the tension comes from being in the water but I can imagine that if you walk around for months or years holding tension in your body in this way you would develop pain.

When my children were small I started to develop lower back pain. At times it was quite severe. A friend of mine who was a neurologist said to me ‘No one really understands backs. The best thing you can do for your back is swim every day.’  I had always been a swimmer but I started to swim more, not every day, but as often as possible. I learned to swim front crawl; until then I had always swum breaststroke; and gradually  my back started to get better.  I have been  completely free from back pain for several years.

Swimming became so much a part of my life that I decided to train as a teacher. I especially liked the idea of teaching adults. I have taught many adults who are fearful of the water: either they are learning to swim for the first time, or although able to swim a bit they have never felt comfortable in the water.

It is easier to learn to swim if you put your face in the water. This is because if you lift your head out of the water the weight of your head will push the rest of your body downwards. If you either lie on your back (difficult for most new swimmers) or put your face in the water, and allow the water to support your head, your body will float naturally. However if you are lying rigidly in the water even with your face submerged unless you soften and relax your spine it is very difficult to lift your head out of the water to breathe. If you are lying on your back and you are very tense the tension in your back will cause you to lift your head a little bit in which case your legs will sink and your face will probably become submerged and you will get a nose full of water.

In order to learn to swim properly you have to learn how to let go of the tension in your body. But if you are in a fearful or stressful situation your body will hold on to the tension for you, no matter what you decide. This is why in order to learn to swim well  have to learn to feel comfortable in the water. There is no way around this, and this is why I feel so many people find conventional swimming lessons don’t work for them. Teachers focus too much on technique and not enough on learning to let go. You simply can’t learn to swim well if you are afraid and it seems that your body, especially your neck and back, will hold the fear for you.

 

 

 

Wild swimming

Felix swimming

I am always very happy when someone who has come to me for swimming lessons, especially someone who has felt fearful or nervous in the water, finds the time and the motivation to swim outdoors.

Personally I love swimming in rivers more than any other kind of outdoor swimming (maybe it is the sense of actually being able to go somewhere rather than just swimming about that appeals) so I was very happy to receive this photo from one of my pupils.

When we started working together he told me he couldn’t really float, but as you can see here he really can. I don’t know that this is exactly ‘wild swimming’, I would say it is fairly sedate but how glorious it looks.

Reflections in the water: Conversations in the pool this week.

pink goggles

‘All the nice boys in my class like pink.’ Sarah, 7, reflecting on why none of the boys in the class want to use the pink goggles.

God didn’t make me able to sit still’ Alex 5, on the autistic spectrum trying to cope with ‘time out’ at school.

‘Ask him if it still hurts’  Marlon, 5, after seeing the scar on Frank the lifeguard’s foot. Frank had been off work for 5 months after being stung on the foot by a sting ray whilst on the beach in Equador. I did ask him. It didn’t.

‘I love swimming’ Eleanor, 6, having been terrified of water, suddenly finding she can put her face in the water.

‘I stay positive’ Max 7 when I asked him what he does when he is bullied at school, (he told me he had been bullied that day when I asked him if he had any news.)

‘It is going to be a surprise when my family find out I can swim.’  Jas, late sixties, learning to swim for the first time.

I love my life. I am also learning to do a headstand’ Elsie, 73, widowed, retired, also learning to swim for the first time.

 

 

 

Face in the water

face

Many people tell me before they come to their fist swimming lesson that they can’t put their face in the water. So far every single adult I have ever taught has been able to do it within about five minutes of arriving at the lesson. Some people have had a fear of this for years but for some reason, and with a little bit of guidance they are always able to do it. I am not sure exactly how many people I have taught but it is certainly in the hundreds.

Children are quite a different matter. They will not put their faces in the water until they are ready for it. This may take five minutes or it could take several months or longer. You absolutely cannot persuade a reluctant child to do it if they don’t want to. This is one of the main ways in which teaching children differs from teaching adults.

To learn to swim you do really need to be able to put your face in the water. This is a simple matter of physics. Our bodies are less dense than water, but only slightly. That means that most people float (there are some very rare exceptions). But any part of the body that is held out of the water is heavy. This means that you cannot float without doing something. If your head is out of the water you have to move your arms or legs to keep you afloat. If your face is in the water you don’t have to do anything.

It takes time to learn what the resistance of the water feels like, how to ‘catch’ the water, and how much effort you need to use to propel yourself forward, or to keep your head out of the water.  Once you have learned to swim it is easy to swim with your face out of the water, but to learn to swim this way is not impossible, but quite difficult.

As I say I have never had any problem at all persuading any adult, however scared they are, to put their face in the water. This is never a stumbling block. But there is a point where many people get stuck and that is in allowing themselves to float. Many people find it very difficult to let go and allow the water to hold them.