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.

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.

Baby swimming – gently does it.

This little boy and his mum have been swimming with me for a few months now. He is not really a baby anymore, he is almost three. He loves being in the water and seems to feel very comfortable. I really admire the way his mum is with him. She is always in the water with him. She never pushes him to do more than he wants to but is gently encouraging when he decides it is time to venture a little bit further. I so often see adults trying to get children to do more in the water than they are comfortable with. It is always counterproductive. Children have great survival instincts that are stronger even than their desire to please. No amount of persuasion will get them to do things they don’t want to and if you force them you can put them off swimming for life. There is some kind of myth that if you just throw the kids in they will learn to swim. I have never, ever seen this work, although I suppose it must have done occasionally. Much more common in my experience are stories like the eighty nine year old woman who came to me. She had learned to swim as a child but then an unkind or impatient teacher pushed her in to the pool. She had hardly swum since. Eighty years of non or fearful swimming caused by one thoughtless adult. It was amazing to see that she had not forgotten how to swim and I think and hope that she enjoyed our lesson.

Dancing in the water

dancer

One little girl arrived at her swimming lesson last week, jumped into the water and when she had surfaced said with a huge smile

‘I love swimming because in the water you can MOVE.’

She then executed a series of balletic turns and dives under the water. She is quite a new swimmer and her stamina for long swims is still developing but she is learning the kind of freedom of movement in the water that I want for all my swimmers whatever their age.

I believe that swimming is the closest a non dancer can get to the  freedom, grace and elegance of  a professional dancer. In the water you can forget about gravity so you can move in way that would take years and years of training to be able to achieve on land.

I never want to give my pupils too much instruction, especially children, because if you let them they will find a natural, fluid way of moving in the water. This can so easily be interrupted if you give them instructions like ‘kick your legs.’ Just as (I imagine) with dance, swimming is often about stillness in the water. You don’t have to move all the time. A good swimmer knows how to glide and flow with the water.

Just as with dancer a swimmer can exist in the moment.

I will never ever be able to feel the magic of dancing like Sergei Polunin in this video but swimming gives me a tiny glimpse into what it must feel like to be him.

 

 

 

 

 

Patience

waiting

I have been teaching a little six year old girl for several months now. She comes right across London to get to the lesson. I think it takes her parents about an hour and a half to get to me. It is a long drive for a swimming lesson but the parents were in despair of what to do as their daughter had developed a real phobia of water, a deep seated fear and although they had tried with many different swimming lessons, including one to one, the fear seemed to be getting worse.

At the first lesson her whole body was rigid with terror as she approached the water. She was caught in a dilemma: she wanted to be able to swim but her fear was so strong that she could not allow herself to relax and trust either the water, or the adults teaching her.

We started very, very slowly, just walking round the pool, playing with a few toys and talking about her cat. Gradually she was brave enough to walk to the centre of the pool and after a few lessons she could start to let herself float a little bit, with buoyancy aids. She absolutely did not want to put her face in the water, which is more or less a requirement for learning to swim. Just the thought of it was frightening for her.

She was a delightful little girl and did make great progress but the face in the water thing was a real stumbling block, the more I tried, gently, to persuade her to do it the more resistant she became. We had one very frustrating lesson where she seemed not be listening at all and would not engage in even the usual games.

I felt that the reason she was being less cooperative was that she could feel me trying to persuade her too much. I decided to back off completely, never to mention putting her face in the water again and just to play. I worried a bit that the parents would feel they were wasting their time and money on coming all the way across London but I knew it was the only way we were going to keep things moving forward.

‘She will do it eventually’ I thought to myself: almost certain I was right.

With my change of approach she was immediately back to her usual cheery self. She could sense I was not going to push her and she could relax and enjoy being in the water.

When it was time to get out the next little boy climbed down the steps to start his lesson. I focused all my attention on him as he is much younger and can’t put his feet down in the pool where we work.

I glanced very briefly over towards the little girl and to my amazement she had submerged her whole face including eyes nose and mouth into the water . She came up grinning, and did it again, and again.

‘I really like it!’ she said.

She must have been coming to me every week for at least six months nothing I could have done would have persuaded her to put her face in the water before, but when she was ready, she did it.

We were all delighted; me, her parents, the little girl herself. She will be a swimmer now, probably for the rest of her life. It took time and patience, more than even I would have believed, but we got there in the end.

It taught me once again to remember that sometimes, in life, progress is very slow, but that there are things that are worth the wait.