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.

 

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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Be a wave. Autism and swimming.

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I teach several children who are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are very different each one is delightful and I enjoy teaching them very much. Statistics show that there is an appallingly high incidence of drowning in autistic children. This terrible situation may be because they tend wander off by themselves and like most children they are often fascinated by water. It may also be because it is more difficult for them to be accepted into mainstream swimming lessons  and so they are less likely to learn to swim although there is absolutely no reason on earth why these children shouldn’t swim as well as anyone else. In fact for a child who is usually extra sensitive to noise, environment, touch, everything, the water can be a deeply calming and relaxing environment.  These children need to learn to swim more not less than other children. It may even save their lives.

One of the children I am teaching is an adorable, funny, charming, gentle five year old, who was actually turned away from mainstream swimming lessons (they gave his mum her money back).  He was afraid of the water at first and his Mum told me that he didn’t like to have his hair washed or go in the shower. He doesn’t like to wear a swimming hat or goggles, which is completely fine, neither do I really,  and we spend most of the lessons playing while his confidence in the water is increasing dramatically.

One of the games I get all the children I teach to play is ‘sea creatures’. They have to pretend to be a creature you might find in the sea  and I or the other children have to guess what it is. This little boy liked the game but he wanted me to be the creature. He asked me to be a walrus, a blue whale, a white whale, a killer whale and finally and most challenging for me a wave.

I told him I didn’t really know how to be a wave so he showed me and for the first time and with no hesitation dived under the water and swam to me. His technique needs some refinement, but his mum could not believe that he happily submerged his whole body in the water and came up smiling.

It was raining that day and the pool was an outdoor one. After the rain the sky turned an unusual sandy yellow colour as evening approached.

My little swimmer looked up in wonder and said

‘A desert!’

I could see what he meant.

Another little girl who came to me during the summer saw a pigeon in a tree nearby and exclaimed.

‘An eagle!’

Afterwards I wondered if she meant ‘seagull’ as we were by the water but I am not sure. She was delighted  by it anyway.

Another little boy counts his lessons in the number of trains that pass on the nearby train track. Like many children on the autistic spectrum he loves trains. If he has had a really good lesson he sometimes asks if he can stay ‘for twenty trains’. But unfortunately the lesson only lasts for ten.

It is just wonderful for me to watch as the children grow in confidence in the water and the other day I had the greatest compliment when the mother of a twelve year old I teach told me that the boy himself had recommended me to his physiotherapist. I don’t think I could really ask for greater affirmation.

 

 

 

 

“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious” – Carl Jung

Water-802215“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious. The lake in the valley is the unconscious, which lies, as it were, underneath consciousness, so that it is often referred to as the ‘subconscious,’ usually with the pejorative connotation of an inferior consciousness. Water is the ‘valley spirit,’ the water dragon of Tao, whose nature resembles water- a yang in the yin, therefore, water means spirit that has become unconscious.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para 40)