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/

Haruki Murakami on teaching swimming.

lindesimmetOne of my pupils recently told me how much he loved the writing of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.  I have just started running regularly and so, with my pupil in mind,  when I saw Murakami’s memoir and treatise on running  ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’, I was curious to read it. I loved the book and read it in one sitting.

As well as running, Murakami has competed in several triathlons. For many people the swimming section of a triathlon is most difficult.  With swimming it is not enough just to swim a lot in order to train. It is not just a matter of putting in the hours, to swim efficiently and well you also have to understand and work on your technique.  In  this short book Murakami talks about the difficulty of finding a good swimming coach. He says

‘Lots of people know how to swim, but those who can efficiently teach how to swim are few and far between. That’s the feeling I get. It’s difficult to teach how to write novels (at least I know I couldn’t), but teaching swimming is just as hard. And this isn’t just confined to swimming and novels. Of course there are teachers who can teach a set subject, in a set order, using predetermined phrases, but there aren’t many who can adjust their teaching to the abilities and tendencies of their pupils and explain things in their own individual way. Maybe hardly any at all.’

I completely agree with Murakami. Teaching swimming is difficult. The problem is not the subject matter, the technique, the strokes; these don’t change. But every person is different and reaching each one and helping them to learn or improve on a skill that can either save your life, or, in the worst case, cause you to lose it, is very difficult indeed. You have to understand what the person needs and wants, and to find ways of helping them to achieve their goals. Because of this my work is endlessly fascinating and I learn something new from each person I teach.

 

Riff Raff the swimming dog

riff raffMany dogs of my acquaintance love to swim. They seem to understand the pure joy of being in the water. Unlike humans, dogs, and most mammals it seems, don’t need to learn to swim. They can just do it, in fact most dogs are better swimmers than humans. Their heads are above water, their fur keeps them warm, many have waterproof undercoats, they have a low centre of gravity, their lungs have a higher capacity than most human’s and some breeds even have webbed feet.

The beautiful, kind and radiant, Riff Raff, who sadly died yesterday was an exuberant and enthusiastic swimmer. Watching her leaping into the water reminded you what joyfulness, hope and optimism was.

I mostly saw her swimming in the Thames but here she is on one of her Scottish holidays, deep in canine meditation, immediately pre-dip.

Swim slowly to swim fast – like Alexander Popov

I often tell my pupils, mainly the children, that if you want to be able to swim fast, you have to learn to swim slowly. In other words it is not about thrashing madly through the water, it is about developing a smooth efficient stroke so that you cut down water resistance and maintain a strong streamlined stroke. There is great pleasure and satisfaction to be found in perfecting the stroke, listening to the water and finding a relaxed and sustainable pace.

With this in mind I was delighted to read about the swimming technique of Alexander Popov, the Russian swimming champion. Popov became the world’s fastest and most efficient human swimmer partly through learning to be like a fish. What I mean by this is that he seems to have worked on ways of gliding through the water, creatively finding ways to cut down the water resistance. I believe when you are swimming you have to read the water and adapt your body to the response you feel from the water. In this way you can use the water to help you.

Popov’s stroke is long and relaxed. He stretches his arms forward to achieve a long glide and he looks straight down at the bottom of the pool. Although he swims fast scientists estimate that his power output is at least 25 % lower than most of those he races.

Apparently Popov does most of his most important training at slow speeds. The emphasis is on getting the stroke just right, not on swimming as fast as possible. This is what I call mindful swimming.

Swimming for happiness

I have noticed that whenever I am feeling low going for a long swim lifts my mood. It has helped me through some fairly prolonged troubled patches in my life.  I found that no matter how bad I was feeling, if I went for a swim, my mood would lift significantly about 2 to 3 hours after I had left the pool. The effect was clear and predictable. I always felt better, at least for a time. The effect would then last for 3 to 4 hours.

I believe that part of this is the effect of excercise on the brain, and would have perhaps been the same if I had gone for a run, but it seems to me that there is something extra that swimming does to the body.

I looked to see if I could find some research on the effect of swimming on mood, but although it may exist I couldn’t find any. All I have to go on is my own experience.

I have a regular weekly appointment to go swimming with a good friend of mine who suffers from a chronic physical condition, rheumatoid arthritis. She swims every day partly because it is the only form of excercise she can realistically do, and partly as a way of coping with the challenges of her illness. I always meet her, every week, for a long swim, no matter what else is going on in my life. There have been some bad times when it has seemed like the only thing I could rely on. We usually go to the local pool. There is an outdoor pool that is open from May to September so five months of the year we swim outside. We always have a coffee and a chat afterwards and that can be very therapeutic in itself as my friend is very calm and kind and wise, but I am sure there is something in the swim itself that is so helpful and healing.

Besides possible biochemical changes in the brain, swimming requires the alternating stretch and relaxation of skeletal muscles while simultaneously deep-breathing in a rhythmic pattern. These are key elements of many practices, from hatha yoga to progressive muscle relaxation, used to evoke the relaxation response. Because it is so rhythmic swimming lends itself easily to a meditation. As I am always trying to work on the smoothness and efficiency of my stroke I am very aware of my whole body and how I am using it. I often chant or even sing to myself as I am swimming.

Again I have nothing to prove it but I am sure that swimming strengthens the immune system. I swim at least one kilometre a week and have done regularly for the last six or seven years. I swim mainly front crawl and I swim quite strongly. Although I do very occasionally get colds, I find that they are over very quickly, just as they were when I was pregnant. The cold would come and go very quickly instead of dragging on for days or even weeks which was sometimes my experience before I started swimming so much.