There’s not much better than a leisurely swim when you need to de-stress, but it’s hard to relax when the summer heat and bank holidays mean your local pool is busier than Brighton Beach.
Luckily, you don’t have to flee to an idyllic wild bathing spot to find inner peace. By practicing mindful swimming techniques that stimulate your “blue spirit,” you can find calm in the splashy chaos.
Swimming is known to reduce stress and anxiety. A YouGov survey commissioned by Swim England found that swimming has helped 1.4 million adults in the UK reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression, and many say it makes them feel happier and more motivated.
In fact, being in or just near water has a positive effect on our mental well-being. There is a growing body of research showing that being near water increases levels of the feel-good hormones dopamine and oxytocin and decreases cortisol, the stress hormone.
dr Wallace J. Nichols, author of the book Blue Mind, which explores the science of how water benefits us cognitively and emotionally, believes, “We are attracted to water because we are made of water and are still made mostly of water— The brain is made up of 75% water.
“When you see water, when you hear water, it triggers a reaction in your brain that you’re in the right place.”
This slightly meditative state, or what Wallace calls “blue spirit,” that we achieve when we are in or near water can be activated by natural environments like lakes and the ocean, but also more accessible water sources like fountains and swimming pools will. Coupled with mindfulness techniques, you have a powerful antidote to everyday stress.
What is mindful swimming?
Mindfulness means less “getting out of the zone” and more being aware of what you are experiencing in the present moment. Combine this sensory immersion with the physical immersion of swimming and it’s a wonderful way to meditate on the move.
Mindfulness and meditation teacher Lorna Bailey tells Metro.co.uk: “It’s more than a relaxing bath – you use your senses to become one with the water.
‘Every punch, every squirt and every breath gets through to you in every moment.’
“Being in the water, a screenless environment, allows us to tune in and give our mind time to settle.
“This amplifies new neurological pathways that allow us to find calm from the pool by consciously focusing on breathwork, physical activity, and even goal setting.”
Charlie Inman, creative director of mental health coaching app Mindshine, swims most mornings to exercise and socialize. But when the chatting stops, mindful swimming takes over.
He explains: “You’re aware of everything that’s going on – the temperature of the water, how it feels on your body, the smell of the water, the sensations in your muscles as they move you through the water, the taste of the water in your body mouth.
“When you think about where suffering happens, it’s almost always in the future and worrying about what is to come, or in the past and thinking about our regrets. Everything is fine at the moment, especially with swimming.
“Now being here in the pool gives your mind a break from its constant worrying, thinking and brooding.”
How to try mindful swimming in a busy pool
But even as you relax… you’re navigating with a bracelet in front of your face, a “swimming brother” crossing your lane, and some teenagers throwing bombs. How not to get irritated by all the distractions?
Leo Oppenheim, yoga leader at BLOK gym, says it’s all part of the experience. “It’s just sensory input that you can observe and then let go of,” he explains. “You choose to respond to the sounds and stimuli of the outside world, you can also choose to turn off your response.
“My advice is to tap into your breath – your breath is always your anchor, it sets your mood, emotions and reactions. Listen to its cadence and rhythm. This will make you fall inward and divert your attention from the outside.’
Charlie adds, “Pay attention to your experience without judging it. Focus on the sensations. If you find yourself beginning to tell or judge a story about them, simply notice that you are doing so and bring your mind back to focus on the sensations. Keep asking yourself: how does it feel?’
You may be in the moment, but it’s hard to get that zen state when you find the swimming a bit tedious, when after a few laps you have heavy limbs and gasping for air.
Focus on making some simple changes to your technique and you’ll glide like a dolphin to peace of mind with ease.
“How you position your body in the water can have a massive impact on your endurance and performance,” tells us Daniel Hancock, swimming instructor and coach for Social Enterprise Better. “If you hold your head too high, your legs will sag, meaning you’ll tire more quickly while struggling to keep them up.”
“Don’t be afraid to stick your head under water as it helps with rationalization. If you’re not used to it, wear goggles and practice exhaling underwater and exhaling fully to clear your lungs before surfacing to the nearest air intake. Breathing slowly and evenly not only calms you down, it also ensures you’re getting enough oxygen to your body during exercise.’
Daniel believes you don’t have to stick to the slow classic, the breaststroke — mindfulness can also be found in the traditionally faster strokes: “If you can swim it with ease, stretch each stroke long and align it with your.” Breathe easy, any of the strokes could work, even butterfly! Perhaps avoid backstrokes, though, as the constant worry of crashing into someone isn’t particularly relaxing.
If you’re having trouble processing the sounds around you, Lorna recommends earplugs as they can help draw attention inward to your breathing.
Both Daniel and Leo are fans of waterproof headphones that help control a sensory element of their swim. In fact, a Brunel University study found that listening to music while exercising improves endurance by 15% and increases positive emotions.
“I use them every time I swim,” says Daniel. “It means I’m not easily distracted and have no reason to stop. You’ll never see me swim well if I don’t have music on.”
A mindful swimming exercise for your next visit to the pool
Be mindful of the whole experience, from the pool to the shower to the changing room.
Lorna says: “Put yourself in the shoes of the observer and notice the difference between what is really happening and the mind’s ramblings trying to get your attention. Keep coming back to the sound of your breath and the physical sensations.’
Try this five senses technique and observe:
- Five Things You Can See – Reflections; Waves; the color of other people’s swimsuits
- Four Things You Can Hear – Bubbles, Splashes, Children’s Laughs; what it sounds like underwater
- Three things you can feel – the temperature; the feeling of floating; Water flows past your body
- Two things you can smell – the chlorine; the humidity of an indoor pool or the summer air of an outdoor pool
- You can taste one thing – it’s best to just lick your lips and don’t swallow the water!
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Contact us by email at MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.
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