When swimming is, and isn’t, therapy

Two opposite kinds of behaviour in water relieve stress.

Cold water immersion

Getting into cold water, embracing the cold, possibly exciting your fear reflexes, experiencing a bit of extreme stress and learning how to deal with it, is thought to help deal with difficulties in daily life.

It’s something I like to do. It doesn’t require much thought, body awareness or swimming ability. You don’t even need to be able to swim. But if you can, there is something to be said for immersing yourself with vigour, swimming a few strokes, enjoying your skin stinging with cold then waiting for your body to do what it needs to do to warm up again.

At the other end of the spectrum from cold water immersion is floating about, slowly and gently, in a warm quiet pool, enjoying the support of the water and exploring freedom of movement, as I advocate in many previous posts and will say more about below.

Does fitness swimming relieve stress?

I think there is a lot of confusion about the health benefits of what’s in the middle of these two extremes and what most swimmers do: swimming to keep fit. More often than not, what people do in the pool, in a quest for fitness, can’t be therapeutic because there’s no freedom in it.

It is difficult to be aware of what is actually happening, what we are doing, as we rush up and down the pool. If we’re asymmetrical in our repetitive limb movements, for example, we’re unlikely to feel it. The reasons for this and the principle of learning to prevent ourselves going wrong are emphasized in Alexander Technique work. But knowing the work doesn’t make us immune from what Alexander called ‘faulty sensory appreciation’.

Moving in a free, integrated way, without fear and tension, depends on the ability to let your neck be free. In the water, this means letting the weight of your head rest into the water. When Alexander Technique people go for a swim, they’re likely to be mindful of their neck but aware of a bit of a compromise, in the name of speed, exercise, fitness.

When swimming lengths, we kind of set ourselves up to behave fearfully, holding on to our head and limbs and gasping for breath. It’s a different kind of stress from dealing with cold water.

Walking into the cold sea or getting under a cold shower is more straightforward. You see your startle pattern for what it is, rather than not noticing it or attempting to keep it at bay every time you breathe.

Floating without fear

Instead of swimming up and down, or trying to cover any kind of distance, take time simply to float, giving the weight of your head to the water, letting air out without forcing it. This is easy for anyone who’s comfortable in the water and, for those who aren’t, it can be learnt quickly.

Float like a jelly fish, letting your head and limbs dangle from your back. If your legs sink, let them rest on the pool floor or, if you’re in deep water, float vertically.

You can add a few movements to create forward momentum, testing the looseness and flexibility of your limbs.

When I do this, I’ll swim maybe 15 metres, floating about underwater for maybe 30 seconds and then stop. I feel like a thing that swims, renewed, different, calmer, better. Quiet instead of overexcited. I’ve released and expanded rather than tightened and shrunk.

This isn’t a stepping stone to a better breaststroke or a fluid front crawl. It is simple, easy work that immediately relieves stress. Think yoga and meditation rather than competitive sport. But there’s nothing like being underwater to take you out of yourself.

A swimming pool can be an arena for terrible, horrible stress, bringing out all the flaws in your nervous system and all the faults in the way you think. A place for ‘endgaining’, as Alexander called it. Or it can be an absolute sanctuary where you become more like a thing that swims.

The crossover from one to the other can happen suddenly – freedom and calmness to loss of control and damaging patterns of use of ourselves. To think that, so long as you’re swimming, you’re doing yourself good, which people do generally seem to think, is a mistake.

If you can’t find a pool conducive to this kind of work, and let’s face it, in most pools we are forced onto the treadmill of lane swimming, the next best thing in terms of stress relief might be jumping under a cold shower.


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