Under, over and breathless: Reflections on my fear of swimming and my students’ fear of headstands

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I went to my last community swimming class this evening. Before the class started, I was asked to fill out an evaluation form and, almost to highlight how much of a minority I am to not know how to swim at this age, every question had the word child or children in it. Did you feel your child was safe? Did this children’s swim class meet your expectations? I crossed out “child” in the first question and put a smiley face next to it to indicate no hard feelings that this form seemed intent on reminding me that I have had more than three decades to figure this out.

The little kids who have shared the shallow end of the pool with me for the past eight weeks of this session —  the 3-plus “starfish” crowd — were promised certificates. We adults who have been timid about even entering the water were not promised any similar certificates. I understand. It sounds much cuter (and cooler, quite frankly) to graduate from being a minnow, guppy or a starfish than it does to graduate from the adult beginner class.

Plus, we didn’t even graduate. The other student and I (there were only two of us in this class — we started out with three but one person decided the class was not for them) were discussing whether we should try the intermediate class when the fall sessions start up. Our instructor very sweetly said that we might want to consider taking the beginner class again, so that we could work on refining our strokes.

“Refining” is a stretch. I first need to work on inhaling the right thing — air, not water — as I swim.

I am so happy I faced this fear of mine and took this class, though. I learned that I could tread water for 30 seconds, swim one length of the pool and float on my back without doing a backstroke — I mean, it is conceivable to just float and be more or less still! Crazy. I remember being so pumped about this novel discovery until my  partner in crime insisted that — um, it’s sort of known that people just naturally float. I disagree. I think my friend, who is also a non-swimmer, said it best in a tweet tonight calling this concept of people floating #shadyscience.

I teach four yoga classes of my own a week. Over the past three weeks, I’ve been subbing a ton more, which has resulted in the opportunity to work with several students — in small group sessions and in private session — who are afraid of going upside down. Their upside down is my under water. I get that fear. That intense feeling that you want to get to this place — being upside-down — because you know it will feel pretty damn good once you’re there. It’s just the whole getting there part. I want to be able to effortlessly swim a few laps so that I can exercise and relax — so that I can feel at home in water. I love water. My dream is to live near water. It’s just that I am afraid to be in water when it’s any deeper than 3 feet.

For students with fear, we take it slow. I suggest that they set up their arms — the foundation of the posture — and take several deep breaths before even going further. It’s the same thing with me — I’ve learned that I need to take a few deep breaths before trying to float on my back, because I other start to panic, then flail, then start to sink.

I suggest that students focus their gaze on a point either close to them on the mat or farther away that’s stationary so that their eyes don’t start to dart when they get imbalanced. When the gaze goes, it can hasten the falling-down process. It’s the same thing with me: early on, my swim instructor suggested that I get goggles. It made a world of difference. I’m so nearsighted that I can barely see clean lines of people across a room — they are just blurry — so when I looked down into the water and saw nothing but this vast pool of water waiting to pull me under, it would contribute to all the signals that told my brain that I should do whatever was necessary to get out of that situation as soon as possible.

So to everyone out there struggling with going upside-down — I am right there with you every time I get into the pool. Like you, I’m working on it, one attempt at a time. Baby steps.

Related post:

>>Like a matsya out of water: A yogi tries to learn how to swim

(Photo credit: “Pool” by zanzibar, via Flickr Creative Commons.)

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