Swimming is a repetitive movement which responds well to yoga as both a complement and a counter-balance. Regular practice will improve mobility, strength and encourage body awareness. Importantly it also provides weight-bearing exercise that's essential for those who spend many hours a week suspended in water. Challenging the body in static poses helps to stabilise the joints and strengthens the bones, preventing early withdrawal form the sport due to injury, and later on in life protects against osteoporosis.
Our aim is to practice moving with ease on the mat so we can flow in the water. Yoga designed for swimmers uses dynamic sequences to warm and open the body, encourage stability from the core and to move in a way that's different from the pool. That means stretching the chest open to balance the constant contraction of the chest and forward roll of shoulders in most swimming strokes. We work to strengthen the back and shoulder muscles that are under-used or abused in the pool avoiding injuries to the rotator cuff ('swimmer's shoulder').
Every class ends with some time in stillness, holding static poses for a few minutes to deepen the stretch and stress on connective tissue and joints. This helps to restore energy flow in the body and so aids recovery from training. A focus on the hips is of benefit to breast-stroke in mobilising the hip joints to free the knees. And not forgetting the feet; which need to be flexible in all strokes but when stiff can be like 'trying to lift a plane off the ground with the flaps down'!
Overall, regular yoga practice will improve body alignment and the feel of your body in the water, so you'll know when your stroke is wrong or you're dragging in the water. I love to finish each class with a twist, squeezing tension from the spine and upper back so that when we lie still at the end of each session we can fully appreciate the relaxation that sweeps through the body.
Many of us have lives that are primarily Yang in nature – rushed, busy and energetic with a premium on getting things done and moving on. There’s nothing wrong with this if it’s in balance with rest periods, in fact a certain amount of eustress* keeps us as at our mental and physical peak. That’s why we enjoy sports and hard physical training.
It’s the ‘in balance’ part of the deal which many of us find hard to achieve however, often because the Yang doesn’t stop when we’re inundated daily with ideas, opportunities and asks. Even if you are good at saying ‘no’, if you’re one of the many perfectionists in sport you may get caught in the trap of over-committing to training which can lead to burnout.
Personally this is where I felt my life tip out of balance when the commitment and drive I applied to my sport outweighed the time I put aside to genuinely stop and rest. I’m not one for sitting on the sofa and putting my feet up. What worked for me is a form of yoga known as Yin, which is broadly similar to restorative yoga. Each pose is held for 3 to 5 minutes to allow you to get still, spending time just breathing and deeply affecting the connective tissues and joints of the body, going much further than a standard stretch.
Although the poses are reasonably simple, spending such long periods in each position can be both physically and mentally challenging. To aid with comfort we use bolsters, cushions, blankets, aromas and music to make the experience relaxing albeit in a gently challenging way. At the end of a session the levels of relaxation that can be reached in Savasana, resting under a warm blanket and lavender eye pillow are way deeper than I've normally experienced. I now put aside an hour of Yin Yoga once a week (usually on a Sunday) to help me reset and prepare for the week ahead.
From January 31 I will be leading a one hour Restorative Yoga class at Sweaty Betty in Bristol, 3:30 - 4:45pm. See more here...
*means beneficial stress - either psychological or physical (e.g. exercise), consisting of the Greek prefix eu- meaning 'good' and stress, literally meaning 'good stress'.