Never Too Late: The Taiji of Swimming and Goals Beget Results…

Photo by PolaroidGal. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Photo by Michelle Gallagher. Licensed by Creative Commons.


It’s been a long time since I updated this particular blog. What can I say? Life gets in the way. Fortunately the intervening time has not been wasted as far as training goes…

Over the winter my Taiji training has continued as usual. I find myself, after nearly five years, at the point where I have pretty much learned the long form at long last (by renewed effort) and surprisingly, almost learned the ‘quick fist’ (fast form) too – this by the insidious and osmotic strategies of my teacher, for which I am eternally grateful.

Recently an opportunity arose to begin to teach Taiji at a basic level for a charity, which with the support of my teacher I have embraced, and found both fulfilling in the helping of others and in the inevitable process of re-focussing critically on my own practice, which comes with the responsibility for the guidance of students of my own.

I still had a strong desire however to improve my overall fitness (particularly cardio-vascular fitness) with other forms of exercise, and ambitions to test my Taiji ‘foundation’ in the exploration of other disciplines. With this in mind (and the full fury of the British winter still ongoing) I did two things early in the New Year: I entered the draw for a place in our local half marathon in September coming, and in the interim I signed up for a ten week adult beginners swimming course at our local pool. I figured I would at last face my fears and inadequacies in the water, and hopefully learn to swim properly; and the cardio exercise I got in the pool would hopefully stand me in good stead as spring came around and I started training for the run. Thus, over the last 8 weeks or so, I have discovered the ‘Taiji’ of swimming ! . . .

Back to School (In the Pool!)

So I found myself, at almost 43, back in swimming lessons for the first time in over 30 years. Once I’d committed of my time and finances for the course, and taken my place at the door to the kiddie’s pool late the first Monday evening, in truth, the hardest part was over. Thankfully the small pool is sufficiently segregated from the main pool and myriads of spectators at our local facilities to save any blushes. The kids were, ironically, training in the big pool at this time. At any rate, I had already decided that some small potential embarrassment was little enough price to pay in exchange for the chance to finally learn how to swim properly and gain some confidence in the water. So, along with a handful of older women, and one younger lady (who was also pregnant) – and notably no other men – I began the course.

Thankfully our excellent instructor (also a lady) was vastly different from the bad-tempered, overbearing (and I suspect not particularly accomplished) teacher I remember with trepidation from school. She was quick to apprise us of her approach to teaching adults. She explained that whilst she could to a degree cajole kids into simply doing as they were told and ignoring any minor difficulties, with adults who perhaps had a life-long fear of the water, a different approach was required. We knew what could happen in the water, so it was no good trying to persuade us otherwise. Instead she would let us do as much or as little as we were comfortable doing initially. She would assess us, offer help, advice and encouragement, and hopefully let us develop our technique and most importantly confidence in our own time; though crucially she wouldn’t let us get too comfortable, and would push us gently when she thought we could do more. The whole scenario, in short, was perfect for me.

As far as I was concerned, the clock was ticking from the get-go. I wanted to be able to swim by the end of the course. I had preconceived ideas about my goals: I had long since written off breast stroke as a ‘weak’ stroke for old ladies who didn’t want to get their hair wet (and could never do it anyway); I could crawl (freestyle) a little better, though only life-saver style with my head out of the water. I wanted to be able to crawl properly over longer distances, with my head down, and crucially to be able to tread water when out of my depth (somewhere I’ve seldom dared to venture).

I had no misconceptions about my ability though. So in short order I trotted out my crawl, and made a half-hearted attempt at the breast stroke. The instructor offered corrections – particularly in the breast stroke, which seemed simple enough (pull with the arms, breath, kick, glide) but I could make little impression on the correct stroke or timing initially. It was at this point that a question arose which cut straight to the heart of the matter: could I swim with my head down, under the water (using the correct techniques to take a breath then resume)? The answer of course was no.

So for the first week or two, I struggled with poor stroke and poor alignment in the water as I attempted to hold my head up, whilst remaining tense and (more often than not) holding my breath when my face was anywhere near the surface. The result ? Aching neck, aching shoulders, racing heart and not a lot else. The key, it turned out, ironically for someone who has practiced Taiji for the last 5 years, was RELAXING and BREATHING. Until I could master my fear and tension in the water, and learn that not only could I put my head under the water without drowning, but essentially that to swim properly I had to be able to complete half of my breathing cycle (exhaling) under the water, the rest was all for nothing. For anyone reading in a similar predicament, this, my friend, if there is one, is the secret to swimming.

So forget for a moment, the technicalities of various strokes. What helped me most?

Firstly, I had to get used to being under the water. I’ve swum under the water before, but always holding my breath (and closing my eyes!). Goggles were the only concession to ‘aids’ I made, and I would suggest are essential, as they at least remove the major inconvenience of not being able to see where you are going and which way is up when you’re under the water; and save painful eye irritation. Swimming under the water and seeing clearly is a revelation. Next I had to learn that I could be under the water and NOT hold my breath. Of course, you can’t breathe in, but you can (and to swim efficiently you must) breath out under the water – through the mouth, gently, is the recommendation for most beginners. But why must you get your head down into the water at all? That comes down to alignment. . .

The other thing that I could (thankfully) already do, is relax and float or swim on my back. When you float on your back, it’s easy to breathe of course, and you quickly get the sense that your body is most buoyant when relaxed and completely flat on the surface of the water. What you have to realise is that when you swim on your front (irrespective of stroke) the same applies: the most efficient way is to be as relaxed as possible and flat on, or just below, the surface of the water. As soon as you lift your head and try and hold it out of the water for too long, that alignment is broken: your back locks, your legs tend to sink, you’re less streamlined and everything becomes a struggle. Best case scenario, you can swim, but use a lot more energy and risk strain injury to your neck, shoulders and back. So to swim efficiently, you have to get your head down and use the intelligent windows built into the strokes to turn or lift it BRIEFLY to take a breath. I would say that in my experience, this is 25% technique and 75% confidence (and of course, all about practice).

So in addition to taking tips on technique and stroke, I realised that breathing was the key to being relaxed and able in the water. I started by pushing off the wall and gliding under the water, holding my breath, then popping up. Just get used to being down there. You quickly realise how naturally buoyant your body is when relaxed, and in fact how much effort it takes to pull yourself more than a foot or so below the surface. Then I progressed to pushing off, gliding and gently exhaling under the water before standing up to take a breath. I practiced breathing out with my face in the water standing at the side of the pool, then lifting my head a little and taking a breath then putting it back under again. I even did this in the washbasin at home, I’m not ashamed to admit. Sometimes I’d get water up my nose and come up coughing and spluttering – but guess what – I didn’t drown – and with time you find the right techniques that work for you to stop (or at least minimise) that happening. The point is you have to do it and keep on doing it until you are relaxed, comfortable and confident breathing out under the water and breathing in with your face JUST out of the water; even when there’s water still streaming from your face.

Combining this new aquatic breathing experience with the strokes came next – and ironically, it was breast stroke where I got my first real breakthrough. I’d struggled for weeks with the timing of arms, legs and breathing in this (as I thought) ineffectual stroke, swimming head-up. I could get the stroke right, but not the breathing or vice versa. Until once again the instructor suggested I tried putting my face in the water. Quite suddenly, it seemed, in a few moments it fell into place. Breath in, push off, head down, glide, breathing out as I looked toward the opposite wall through the water; pull the arms back and under making the head and shoulders pop up briefly and – hey presto – I naturally took a breath – then head back down, exhaling, as I kicked myself forward into the glide again. The more I repeated it, the more relaxed I became – and the more efficient I got. Not fighting the water anymore – but actually swimming – propelling myself forward, in a relaxed and (for me) elegant and efficient manner; breathing comfortably in the stroke in a sustainable way. This was my first ever real experience of being able to explore and feel at home in this new environment.

Breast stroke, it turns out, when done properly is not the ineffectual old ladies technique I had believed it to be. I have since gone on to incorporate the correct breathing technique swimming head down in the crawl (rolling the head to the side to breathe in), and whilst I have found this a little more troublesome, the key again is persistence, and crucially confidence.

So ok – occasionally I still get a mouth full of water (or it goes up my nose). It will happen. The important thing though is not what happens but how you react to it. I didn’t get a good breath that time – so what! The next one will be better. I have water in my mouth – that’s no reason to panic: can I keep going and swallow it or better still blow it out instead? Ditto the water that just went up my nose. . .

Practice makes perfect: practice so that these little annoyances don’t happen so much; but when they do – you already know how to handle them. NEVER GIVE UP.

My final hurdle is to master treading water. Again, having tried a little, I suspect this is 25% technique and 75% confidence; and lots and lots of practice at the side of the pool. But having come this far, I’m not going back. I’ll master swimming once and for all. It’s great exercise for one, but more than that, if you can build your confidence and ability it’s a whole other environment to explore and enjoy, and such a shame not to have the chops to do it.

Just remember; relax, relax, relax – and don’t forget to breathe!

If you have never learned to swim properly, I would recommend adult swimming lessons without hesitation. In a safe, controlled environment, with a knowledgeable, capable instructor there really is nothing to fear other than fear itself. And don’t look upon it as something to be endured, however apprehensive you are around water; look at it instead as an opportunity to unlock a whole new world!

The Taiji of Swimming

1. Swimming is 25% technique, 75% confidence.
2. You must become comfortable in and crucially UNDER the water.
3. To relax, you must be able to breathe normally. However 50% of the breathing cycle (nearer 75% by time) – exhaling – can be done UNDER the water.
4. Taiji exploits relaxed VERTICAL alignment to allow gravity to PULL us efficiently into the ground. We practise Taiji this way because we stand, walk and move in an upright position. In swimming, we explore relaxed HORIZONTAL alignment, because we practise swimming in a prone position, and exploit buoyancy to let the water PUSH us away from the bottom.
5. In the water, relaxed, horizontal bodies tend to float; tense, upright bodies tend to sink.
6. Like everything in life practice and persistence are crucial. You have to be prepared to accept that you will get it wrong many times in order to learn how to do it right; but if the desire to succeed is strong enough then inevitably it will happen sooner or later.

Filed under Lifestyle