I started this past year training for a half marathon and as fall nears I am still unable to run more than 3 miles without leg pain. I have a bone cyst and it is healing. But it is taking everything I have not to push myself too hard. I really do miss running, which I never in a million years thought I would ever say.
So unable to run this year I focused on swimming. Swimming has always been a part of my life. I have been swimming competitively on and off since I was 6. It is the strongest leg of a tri and my favorite activity. This summer instead of waking up to run I joined my local swim team and alma mater the Chestnut Run Stingrays for practice. There is something so humbling about swimming with the kids you taught swim lessons to 15 years ago, and try to keep up with them. It was great to get in the pool and log a few thousand yards a day.
Open water swimming isn’t a completely new concept for me, this is my 4th year completing ocean/distance swims. This year I really embraced it. Starting in May with the 2.4 mile Navesink river swim and ending with the Atlantic City Pageant Swim. I completed 7 open water swims, ranging from 1 to 3 miles, Including a 1 mile swim in Lake Tahoe. And not to brag but placing in 6 of the 7, and first over all female in Tahoe.
My other passion is yoga. I practice and/or teach 6 days a week. It is part of daily routine. In the past year I have noticed a huge change in my practice; physically and mentally. What started as an alternative to going to the gym 10 years ago has turned into a lifestyle for me, a deeper connection to myself and those who I share this wonderful practice with.
As I was swimming my first open water swim this year I really noticed a change in how I approached and executed the swim.
In the weeks following I began to integrate this into my yoga lessons: How yoga can become much more than just an hour on your mat. I wrote this mostly just for myself, but I have had the opportunity to share it and I would love to share it with all of you.
As the summer approached I started to plan my open water-swimming schedule. I started the season with a river swim. This year I opted for the 2.4 mile swim, while last year I stuck with the 1.2 mile. I knew this would offer a whole new challenge physically and mentally. But I was prepared. I practiced in the pool, and worked to build up my distance. As the day approached I had a mix of nerves and excitement. I knew I had what it physically took to finish the race, but now the challenge was to swim faster and smarter.
I arrived early and got my cap and timing chip and found a spot to get ready before the race. Put my earphones in and allowed myself to tune out all the activity around me—the hundreds of swimmers and family buzzing around. I began to stretch, and without thinking about it moved right into sun salutations. I was ready, stretched warmed up and excited. As we got into the water the anticipation began to build; it’s hard to think of anything else but reaching the first buoy without getting kicked or kicking someone else. The race started, and I found my rhythm. The first 1.2 mile loop was smooth, it felt good. As I rounded the first turn I started to notice how this swim was different than any other swim I had ever done. Why was this? I asked myself, what was so different this year as compared to years past. My first thought was this feels like a really good yoga practice.
Why did it feel like a yoga practice? I can break it down into 3 contributing parts: physically, mental and the breath. Physically, I see the changes in my body from my daily yoga practice. My muscles are stronger, I stand taller, and I’m overall healthier and happier. Beyond the obvious physical changes I noticed that I was able to control where I used energy. I didn’t have to work as hard to go faster. It just seemed to happen. I could feel the space in my body. In class we talk about creating space and moving into that space. Space in the shoulders, in the chest, between the ribs and the hips, lengthen the spine. I felt this space with each stroke. I have had great swimming coaches in my life, tons of drills on how to lengthen the stroke, I was taught how to get the most out of each pull. But this felt different, I felt like each stroke was long and smooth, there was no struggle. The energy I was conserving allowed me to complete all 2.4 miles.
Mentally, before each class we ask that everyone block out outside distractions, to allow the focus to turn inward. As my strokes became longer and stronger I worked my way into a rhythm. I blocked out the swimmers around me, the splashing and kicking. Instead of thinking about how much further I still had to swim I had appreciated how far I had already gone. My thoughts turned inward, and I found an internal rhythm that kept me going.
Lastly: the breath. The rhythm was the sound and the feeling of my own breath. While yoga breathing and swimming breathing are on the outside much different, it is still breathe, it is still prana, it is still life force. In yoga we breathe in and out of the nose. Pulling the air deep into the belly with each inhale and letting go of all the air on each exhale, making space for new fresh air. We all breathe, but if you ever take a moment to stop and notice your breath chances are it is quick and not very deep. By pulling the breath deep into the belly, expanding the ribs and lung capacity we can take in more oxygen which results in more energy and more life. Swimming breathe, on the other hand tends to be more of a mouth breath, and it happens pretty quickly. Inhale, head in water, blow out the breath, turn head breathe, this formula sounds simple enough. What I started to notice was that I was able to slow this pattern down without becoming short of breath. I could inhale deeper into the belly, and exhale all the air out. The feeling I got with this was more energy and a deeper, longer stroke. I didn’t have to take as many breaths, which allowed me to stay in a more consistent pattern.
My swim felt like a yoga practice, a complete union of mind, body, breath. It was an amazing experience for me. Overall I was stronger and more confident in my stroke and more consistent over the 2.4 miles. So it got me thinking. How has yoga affected other areas of my life? This connection can be associated with anything you do, whether it is a distance swim, run or bike (or a combo of all three), playing a musical instrument, hiking or just playing with the kids in the yard. Begin to look at your activities and notice a change. And if yoga isn’t part of your daily practice yet, think about what could be affected by adding it into your life. Being stronger and more flexible both physically and mentally, standing taller, breathing deeper. These are things that everyone can benefit from
I love swimming in the ocean, no walls or lane lines just me and waves. It takes a lot of practice, patience and persistence but anyone can do it. I hope to see more pink shirts at swims next year. The swim community in NJ is one of the best, and is growing every year. There is nothing like swimming out past the breakers, it’s one of my favorite ways to spend a morning in the summer.