There’s not much that beats a chilled-out swim when you need to de-stress, but it’s hard to relax when the summer heat and holidays mean your local pool is busier than Brighton beach.
Luckily, you don’t have to escape to an idyllic wild swimming spot to find inner calm. By practicing mindful swimming techniques that stimulate your ‘blue mind’, you can find peace amongst the splashy chaos.
Swimming is well-known for relieving stress and anxiety. A YouGov poll commissioned by Swim England found that swimming has helped reduce the symptoms of anxiety or depression for 1.4million adults in Britain, with many saying it makes them feel happier and more motivated.
In fact, being in or simply near water positively impacts our mental wellbeing. There is a growing body of research that shows proximity to water increases levels of the happy hormones dopamine and oxytocin, and causes cortisol, the stress hormone, to drop.
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 drawn to water, because we come from, and are still largely made of water – the brain is 75% water.
‘When you see water, when you hear water, it triggers a response in your brain that you’re in the right place.’
This mildly meditative state, or ’blue mind’ as Wallace calls it, that we reach when in or near water can be activated by natural environments such as lakes and the ocean, but also more accessible water sources such as fountains and swimming pools. When coupled with mindfulness techniques, you have a powerful antidote to everyday stress.
What is mindful swimming?
Mindfulness is less ‘zoning out’ and more being aware of everything you’re experiencing in that 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 dip – you draw on your senses to become one with the water.
‘Each stroke, splash, and breath arrive in each moment with you.’
‘Being in the water, a screen-less environment, allows us to tune in and give our minds time to calm down.
‘This increases new neurological pathways that allow us to find stillness from the pool through conscious focus on breathwork, physical activity, and even goal setting.’
Charlie Inman, creative director of mental health coaching app Mindshine, swims most mornings for exercise and social contact. But it’s when the chatting stops that mindful swimming takes over.
He explains: ‘You notice everything that’s going on – the temperature of the water, how it feels against 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 mouth.
‘If you think about where suffering happens, it’s nearly always in the future and worrying about what’s to come, or in the past and pondering our regrets. Right now, everything is okay, especially when you’re swimming.
‘Being here right now, in the pool, gives your mind a rest from its constant worrying, cogitating and ruminating.’
How to try mindful swimming in a busy pool
But just as you relax… you’re navigating an armband in your face, a ‘swim bro’ powering across your lane, and some dive-bombing teens. How can you not get irritated by all the distraction?
Leo Oppenheim, head of yoga at fitness studio BLOK, says it’s all part of the experience. ‘This is merely sensory input that you can observe, then let go of,’ he explains. ‘You choose to respond to the sounds and stimuli from the outside world, you can also choose to switch off your response.
‘My advice is to tap into the breath – your breath is always your anchor, it dictates your mood, emotions and responses. Listen to its cadence and rhythm. This will drop you inward and take your awareness away from the external.’
Charlie adds: ‘Pay attention to your experience without judging it. Focus on the sensations. If you notice that you’re starting to tell yourself a story about them or judge, simply notice that that’s what you’re doing, 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 achieve that zen state if you find swimming a bit of a slog, with a few laps leaving you heavy-limbed and spluttering for breath.
Focus on implementing some easy tweaks to your technique and you’ll be gliding effortlessly to inner calm like a dolphin.
‘How you position your body in the water can have a massive effect on your stamina and efficiency,’ Daniel Hancock, swim teacher and coach for social enterprise Better, tells us. ‘If you hold your head too high, your legs will sink meaning you’ll tire quicker as you fight to keep them up.’
‘Don’t be afraid to get your head under the water as this will help with streamlining. If you’re not used to it, wear goggles and practice breathing out underwater, exhaling fully to clear the lungs before coming up for the next intake of air. Slow and steady breath will not only calm you down but also ensure you’re getting enough oxygen into the body as you exercise.’
Daniel believes that you don’t have to stick to that slow lane classic, the breaststroke – mindfulness can be found in the traditionally faster strokes too: ‘If you can swim it with ease, stretching long into each stroke and timing it with your breath, any of the strokes could work, even butterfly! Although, perhaps avoid backstroke as the constant worry of crashing into someone isn’t particularly relaxing.’
If you’re struggling to process the noise around you Lorna recommends ear-plugs as they can help focus attention inwards onto your breath.
Both Daniel and Leo are fans of waterproof headphones to help control one sensory element of their swim. In fact, a study by Brunel University found that listening to music during exercise enhances endurance by 15% and increases feelings of positivity.
‘I use them on every swim,’ says Daniel. ‘It means I’m not easily distracted and don’t have a reason to stop. You’ll never see me swim well unless I’ve got music on.’
A mindful swimming exercise for your next pool visit
Approach the whole experience, from poolside to shower to changing cubicle, mindfully.
Lorna says: ‘Step into the role of observer and notice the difference between what’s really happening, and the chatter of the mind trying to highjack your attention. Always come back to the sound of your breath and the physical sensations.’
Try this five senses technique and observe:
- Five things you can see – reflections; ripples; the colour of others’ swimsuits
- Four things you can hear – bubbles, splashes, children’s laughter; how it sounds underwater
- Three things you can feel – the temperature; the sensation of floating; water flowing past your body
- Two things you can smell – the chlorine; the humidity of an indoor pool or the summer air of an outdoor lido
- One thing you can taste – best to just lick your lips and not swallow the water!
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