Coming to Quiet

JA Thompson, a Scottish expert on soft corals wrote, over 100 years ago, “One of the dangers of our civilization is that one function of the nervous system, which is to prompt action, to excite, should grow out of all proportion to another function, which is to inhibit, to control, to quiet, to rest.” The Biology of the Seasons, 1911.

“Just you be quiet,” 90 year old Margaret Goldie used to tell an anxious, twitchy Fiona Robb, as recorded in her diary of a course of lessons, Not To Do (1999).  I read that book in one sitting, during my training course.

Every day I had to work on what Miss Goldie called ‘coming to quiet’, not reacting, so that teachers could guide me into movement without my resistance, and eventually so that I could put my hands on other people without theirs. 

“Your directions will get you there,” my head of training Stephen Cooper told me…’Work to do less’. 

While I knew I needed, and liked, the work, I didn’t want to stop being normal – going to football matches, drinking in pubs, watching TV, swimming for fitness. But, once the process had begun, something had to give. It still does.

When I go to the water I’d like just to swim, like everybody else. But non-doing Alexander work in the water seems to benefit me more. 

As I glide off down a lane or to a distant buoy, I might have a notion, a feeling swimmers often have, that I’m leaving all my baggage behind. But I’m more likely to be lugging it along with me. There’s too much action for my nervous system not to be excited. Too much turning, or undulation, for breath.

To find some freedom in my neck and allow my body to breathe, to welcome lightness of being, I need to stop and to think directions, without doing anything or going anywhere. ‘Head out, back lengthening and widening, knees forward and away’. It’s an inner process, sending these messages from my brain, which results in physical changes not done but observed.

So I tell myself, ‘Float about. Flip a limb. Forget cardiovascular training sessions, front crawl technique, toning your flabby chest’. 

I think a lot of people would benefit from giving up the idea that some kind of physical fitness programme is necessary for health and happiness, and that swimming should provide it. I think this because I observe what people do, in the name of exercise, especially in the water.

If you decide to throw out the exercise agenda while continuing to visit the water, you’ll have an opportunity to calm your own nervous system, with the water’s help, which might be the most important benefit swimming offers.

Maybe just going to the pool and doing a few lengths, like so many people do, will do that for you. Most swimmers would say it does. But I think we have to be careful about making that assumption.

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