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.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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

Wide-mouth-guppy

"Big mouth guppy" by Alice Chaos via Flickr Creative Commons

I don’t know how to swim, and I feel as if I am the only one in this country over 8 years old who falls into this category. Every year, I tell myself that this will be the year I stop flailing in water — the year that I can look at a pool and think about what I can do in that space, rather than what I can’t.

Well, tonight I took the first of eight 30-minutes classes I’ve signed up for through my local park and rec department. I figured it was time. I’m not getting any younger, and  life only gets busier. Besides, 2011 has been a great year so far for me trying out other ways to feel more expressive in my own skin.

Clinging

Being the former inquisitive reporter that I am, I asked the very sweet, young instructor if adults are the hardest to teach. She said no — that little kids cling to her and cry, scream. I asked her if she was sure that none of us (me) would eventually get to that point.

I don’t know why I don’t know how to swim. I have fond memories from my childhood of taking swimming lessons, with my mom and her radiant smile watching from the sides. But somehow either the lessons didn’t stick or fear took over. Fast forward, for instance, to my middle school years. I was extremely lucky to win a scholarship to Space Camp — yes, it was as awesome as it sounds — and while I mostly have fun recollections from that experience, there was one activity held in water. I think it was a team-building exercise to build some geometric shape in the middle of the pool. The only thing I contributed to was my lack of confidence in a body of water, because I remember clinging to the side of the pool most of the time. Fast forward again, to freshman year. At my high school, all students were required to take swimming in the ninth grade. But the pool was going through a renovation the semester I was set to take it, so I escaped (which, being a body-conscious teenager who did not want to be near any other human being (especially of the male variety) while wearing a bathing suit, I couldn’t have been happier about). I saw it as an escape at the time, but it was another opportunity to avoid facing my insecurities.

The dunk

Class sizes are limited to six in this program, and there were three in our group tonight — one of whom happens to be a former coworker. Neither of us knew we were taking this class, and we were surprised to see the other, in no small part due to the fact that we both think we are alone in not knowing how to swim.

The instructor started us out slow, allowing us to simply get accustomed to standing in the shallow end of the pool. While the pint-sized “starfish” next to our little area were all moving around with as much gusto as if they were on land, we adults  — being the land-tied creatures that we are — were very cautious, thinking about, and discussing with one another, every instruction before we actually tried it out.

I was feeling pretty good, though, until we were instructed to dunk our head under water and either blow out of our mouth or nose.

I hated it. And although we were supposed to do it a few times, I could only stand doing it twice.

It occurred to me then that I don’t mind being in water — I mind the act, or even the thought of the act — of having my head under water. I can’t pinpoint why, but maybe  it reminds me of having asthma attacks as a kid. All I knew is I wanted out — immediately.

Testing new waters

As a yoga instructor, one of my favorite classes to teach is an intro to yoga class. I think of it as being a tour guide to a new experience — which means that I can’t take anything for granted. I may be accustomed to connecting a movement to a breath, but that doesn’t mean the person on the mat in front of me is. I may feel a sense of exhilaration from the chest-breathing (versus breathing into the low belly) technique used in Ashtanga yoga — called ujjayi breath — but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible to someone who is stepping on a yoga mat for the first time.

Needless to say, I was grateful that this instructor took nothing for granted either. She didn’t even assume that we were comfortable standing in three feet of water away from a wall. The 30 minutes felt like 15, and by the end, we were getting from one end of the pool to the other using swimming strokes but with one hand holding on to a flotation barbell.

I’m looking forward to next week, and I’m happy to take this slowly so that I can start to isolate what exactly it is that’s holding me back.

Guppies, yoga-style

If you’re curious about the title of the blog post, matsya means “fish” in Sanskrit. Matsyasana, or fish posture, occurs in the finishing sequence of Ashtanga yoga. In Ashtanga, you see it done while the legs are in padmasana, or lotus pose. Outside of Ashtanga yoga, I see it more frequently with legs extended.

Myths of the Asanas tells the story of Matsya, the special fish who overhead Shiva telling Parvati about yoga. By listening, the fish became the first student of yoga. The book continues:

When someone becomes truly enlightened, he or she has an opportunity to return to earth in order to help the rest of us who are interested in this kind of liberation. Matsya chose to come back, and he was born, as legend tells it, as half fish, half human. He was called Matsyendranath, ‘the lord of the fishes.’

Ardha matsyendrasana, or half lord of the fish pose, is a spinal twist that occurs in Ashtanga second series. There is a a very challenging posture called purna matsyendrasana, or full fish pose, that occurs in a very advanced series of Ashtanga yoga. The difference between the two is that in the full version of the pose, the bent leg is in half-lotus.

(Photo credit: “Big mouth guppy” by Alice Chaos via Flickr Creative Commons)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.