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. 

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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.

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Photos by www.instagram.com/dana_andtheredshoes/

Taking it easy

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Unbelievably, there is still a school of thought that says if you just throw children into the water they will figure out for themselves how to swim. I hate this view, and I know that it it is not true and it doesn’t work. I have taught too many adults who have been traumatised by this approach.  Children can also be frightened of the water and you must deal with the fear respectfully and gently. The little girl in this photo had hated her swimming lessons and was not able to move forward because she felt frightened and uncomfortable in the water. In the first lesson we didn’t bother too much about technique instead we chatted about various things, including the Great Fire of London (her history topic at school),  what you can do about difficult friends, her sister’s ballet exam and her cousin’s wedding. I sometimes worry that the parents will wonder why we are just chatting throughout the lessons but I sort of want the children to forget that they are in the water. Physical skills such as swimming take a long time to fully master. You have to enjoy the process of learning if you are going to get anywhere so the most important thing I can do is help whoever I am teaching to love swimming and to develop a sense of the deeply comforting and relaxing feeling that being in the water can bring. I think in this case I have succeeded.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Watermarks

I am honoured to have a short story included in this anthology. It is out on 8th May. Edited by Tanya Shadrick  and Rachel Playforth. Cover design by Neil Gower. Published by Pells Pool Lewes and Frogmore Press.

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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.