When I was small, I learned to swim at my local swimming club. Swimming was fun but I never had aspirations to swim competitively. I was a ‘good enough’ swimmer, but I was never going to be a good swimmer. As with so much in my life, I was hampered by my breathing.
Throughout childhood, I couldn’t breathe through my nose, only ever breathing through my mouth. My adenoids were removed when I was 6 or 7, as the doctors thought this might cure it but it didn’t. I could never blow my nose, and it was permanently blocked. In my late teens I learned that I have a dust allergy, and this was the cause of this inability to breathe properly. I resolved this during yoga teacher training. Learning to breathe properly transformed so much in my life.
Clearly, being unable to breathe through my nose was a problem if I wanted to swim well. I hated putting my face underwater. It makes me feel frightened and unsafe, as if I might drown. My memories of swimming club are mostly of being told off for poor breathing. Whenever I wasn’t at swimming club I preferred to swim breast stroke with my head above the water. This stroke isn’t good for the neck and back, and I find it very tiring. But I prefer that to the feeling of not being able to breathe that I experience when I try to swim with my face underwater.
An adventure holiday when I was about 12 confirmed my fear and mistrust of being underwater. When canoeing, my canoe toppled over, and I found myself upside down in the water. I was terrified, it is about the only activity I remember from that holiday, for all the worst reasons!
Conquering my breathing demon
Although my breathing has improved considerably in recent years, I am still restricted by the fear and reluctance of putting my head underwater. I enjoy going swimming for exercise and fun with my son, but I still can’t swim efficiently. I love being at the beach, but don’t go in the water much beyond paddling, in case I end up under a wave. Irrational fears these may be, but they have a powerful hold on me.
These fears are being challenged by a desire to learn something new. Alex, whose blog post I published recently, has offered to teach me the basics of paddle boarding. I really want to try it, but have found myself coming face to face with my fears of underwater at the thought of it. The fear of trying anything that might result in me falling in the water makes that activity unthinkable to me. But now I can recognise that idea for what it is, an irrational fear and old, unhelpful story.
I don’t like being prisoner to irrational fears and old, unhelpful stories. These days, I work hard to break through the old ideas I hold about myself and my life. I have recognised that this is an opportunity to grow and to step into a new way of being, so I am going to embrace it. I need to learn how to breathe so that I can swim with my face under water,
Breathing techniques for swimming
I looked up how to breathe for swimming, and was delighted to discover that I know how to do it! The breathing tips for swimming recommended by Ferrari Pools are very similar to things I teach already. So I don’t need to learn how to breathe when swimming. I need to work on the stories and fears. This is not new, I have done that before with so many fears and stories. I can definitely do this.
Focus on the exhale
When swimming underwater, the only part of the breath that takes place underwater is the exhale. Swimmers aim to breathe out slowly, to extend the exhale for as long as possible and to empty the lungs completely. I know from my own breath practice, and what I teach, that when you focus on the exhalation, the inhalation takes care of itself. This focus on the exhalation is, in itself very relaxing. This will help to keep me calm and relaxed, and remind myself that I am safe.
Don’t hold your breath
I think this is probably what I do when I try to swim with my head underwater. As a Yoga teacher, I know that there are times when we want to hold the breath, but definitely not when we are trying to move as well. I see people in my classes holding the breath when postures get uncomfortable, and they always relax more when they release the breath.
Keep the breath steady
My Yoga training has definitely prepared me for this. I have learned good breath control now and am able to keep my breathing steady and controlled even when walking up hills, as long as I am maintianing conscious awareness of it. I can keep my focus on my breath when I am active. Sukha Pranayama, a simple pranayama practice where we learn to breathe in and out for the same length of time, is excellent training for this
Breathe with the movement
This is a fundamental of Yoga asana (postures). In Yoga we inhale as we lift, and exhale as we lower the body. In swimming it will be different, but the recommendation is to breath in every second stroke. Keeping the breath in tune with the body is a great way to keep conscious awarness of both, and an effective way to establish that rhythm.
Control the inhale
When you are giving yourself a small window of time to inhale, it is important that you use the lungs efficiently to take in as much air as you can. Yoga has given me pwoerful tools to control how I take my breath in, and to ensure I fill my lungs to their maximum capacity
Putting it into practice
I don’t know when I am going to be able to take Alex up on his kind offer, but I am excited to use the idea of it as fuel to improve my swimming, conquer some demons, and develop another area of breath control. A few days ago, I headed off to my local swimming pool, armed with a pair of Marcus’s goggles and a determination to succeed.
Despite some resistance, I made it into the pool, and began my work. I practised a little holding on to the side of the pool, putting my face under and exhaling. Feeling empowered by the ease of this, I swam a short width, then moved on to the 25 metre length.
I managed to achieve the four lengths I had promised myself. It was so much easier than I had imagined. I lacked style and finesse, but I wasn’t aiming for those. It surprised me to discover that I was calm and relaxed most of the time. I had to stop to take a couple of calming deep breaths to calm a moment of anxiety. After three deep breaths, I was able to continue.
It is amazing what fears you can overcome when you decide to face them head on, and remember to breathe. I am looking forward to practising this more in future. It will enhance my swimming times with my son, as we can have lots more fun if I can swim better. I can enjoy swimming as exercise much more now. And I can look forward to learning the new skill of paddle boarding sometime later this year. That WILL be fun!
The benefits of learning to breathe
This would not have been possible for me if I hadn’t learned that I could control my breathing, and through that, my emotions and stress level. There is such power and empowerment to be found in learning to breathe well. Yoga Pranayama is a wonderful gift you can give yourself. Learning to breathe can help you live a happier, more connected life. A life where you decide what you can and can’t do, not your emotions.
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This is fabulous.
I remember going to the world surfing championships in France and feeling brave went out in the water and found myself washed up on the shore – almost bikini less. I didn’t enjoy the process.
Another time I jumped on a boyfriends surfboard and thought this has to be easy and found myself dumped in the water.
Both times I fought with the fear of the water. The water won.
But having said that I have gone swimming and put my face in – but only with goggles so that I can see where I am going. This has helped. Almost as if seeing helps me to breathe.
I hope you enjoy your sessions.
Oh my, some amazing stories there! Thank you for sharing 🙂
I can’t even begin to imagine being under the water without goggles, certainly not in our local swimming pool, the chlorine is overpowering. I’m sure I’ll be ok in more natural water. Will find out next month, I’m off to Cornwall in a couple of weeks to try it out.