Swimming: A Meditation

Swimming: A Meditation

A Masters Swimmer Discovers a New Way to Cross-train

    Last Monday I took a seated meditation class in UVAC’s mind/body room. As I left the session—undertaken as a group with the gentle guidance of our instructor, Charlotte—I felt peaceful, restored. I reflected on what brought me there.

    I developed my own meditation practice last spring, after I underwent surgery. I’m an avid Masters swimmer, but I learned I’d be forbidden to get in the pool for two months following my procedure. In fact, the only exercise permitted was gentle walking. Before my surgery, a therapist suggested I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. Not only was the title apropos of the way my life seemed to have been going, its 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program aligned with my recovery timeframe.

    Swimming is a sport that is difficult to replicate through any other activity. What would an 8-week hiatus mean? One of my first acts of meditation was to put aside thoughts of how much slower I’d become. After all, I had no control over my circumstances.

    During those weeks, I instead exercised my mind, building up to nearly an hour of meditation every day. I sat still, in a chair, to focus on breathing in and breathing out; or I lay down on my couch to perform the “body scan” by systematically focusing on sensations from my toes to my head. Each day, for the time I had set aside, all I had to do was maintain a state of relaxed awareness.

    I’m not going to lie, though: meditation can be hard work—perhaps even harder than working out. It can be incredibly boring. Your thoughts can wander. Will wander. You may wonder why you are wasting 5, 10, 20 minutes or more sitting still, doing nothing. Or to put it more positively: “simply being.” But if you stick with meditation every day, you may start to sense that you are doing something. A few weeks into my practice, I felt a growing awareness of my surroundings and an improved ability to place situations into perspective.

    When my eight weeks of recovery were up, I jumped back in the water. I took off for 200 yards, half-expecting my coach to send me back to Splash Camp. Instead, I was amazed, upon finishing, that the clock’s second hand had fallen at its old familiar mark: I had lost no swim speed at all.

    Maybe I swam well because I was so happy to return to the pool and to my teammates, but I suspect meditation also played a part. Perhaps it was a way for me to continue practice, continue swimming, even outside of the pool. I’ve heard many swimmers comment how the sport is their meditation. It does have similarities: the personal time set aside, the rhythmic movement of the breath, the silent disconnect from outside distractions.

    Since my recovery, meditation has continued to play a part in my swimming: it’s helped me stay aware of how my body moves in the water, and which technical tweaks work. It’s helped me consciously breathe more deeply during rest periods. These days, I am swimming faster than I have ever swum before.

    I believe that by embracing stillness, athletes can work out without having to swim extra laps, run extra miles. I am glad to see that the aquatic center has embraced this idea too: meditation is an important part of cross training.

Want to give meditation a try? Try Charlotte M.’s Seated Meditation course on Mondays, at 5:15 pm.

By Elizabeth Kelsey, a UVAC member and U.S. Masters swimmer, writes about wellness for businesses and publications. She can be reached at elizabethkelsey.com