Hello beautiful friends,
I'm thrilled to be sharing a story today that highlights the amazing and often unforeseen benefits of postural awareness practice.
Don't you love this photo? I do and it's beautifully left of field which is how my story came about today.
A story of Swimming ... sometimes accidentally!
I've always had a bit of resistance to swimming... you know the serious kind of swimming... freestyle... laps ... not the bathing in the ocean, rivers, lakes, the bath kind of swimming ... that I truly love.
I pondered this as I sat to write this article and I recalled a dramatic childhood incident of falling fully clothed down a steep embankment into a deep river. I was fished out by a dear family friend who dived in after me... a story he reminded me of only just recently. I was pretty shaken at the time.
So perhaps lurking in the depths of my psyche, there's some fear of water in there, but I've never shied away from it.
I even did Triathlons in my thirties. However, even though I was rather fit then, the swim leg was always the hardest. One time I had the rescue boat tracking me because I was making wheezing sounds as I swam. It turned out that my new wetsuit was too tight and was strangling me. That didn't help my swimming confidence. However, I digress.
Fast forward to recent years I have a friend who you would say "swimming is his thing". So in past summers I would half reluctantly accompany him some mornings on an ocean swim when I couldn't persuade him to take a walk in the national park instead.
The other half of me however wanted to go because I had a strong desire to feel really free in the ocean and confident in my ability to swim. It's right on my doorstep after all and I love everything about the ocean.
So I'd go along thinking "okay, I'll give this another try". I really want to master this. And always, I'd end up having to stop and float regularly whilst I caught my breath and calmed down an inner sense of mild panic. Bless my friend... he always slowed down and kept an eye on me in these episodes of my flailing about.
Then this summer, a few months back we went for our first ocean swim....
I stepped into the ocean at Little Cove, veering to my left as I walked out to the deeper water to surreptitiously shorten the swim distance back to Noosa main beach. Alas! My friend noticed and his customary jibes flowed.
And then we got down to it.
I swam freestyle, not rushing, but taking my time and trying to remain as relaxed as I could, as I always did. But this time I swam. And I swam. And swam. And swam.
If you could have seen the perplexed look on my face underwater I'm sure it would have been a classic.
What's happening, I was asking myself ? I can do this! I can SWIM!!! ... What?
And.... I'm actually enjoying it!
For the first time in my life I really understood how others love to swim. It felt great! I felt like a dolphin, gliding along effortlessly. The shore came too fast. I could have kept going and going.
Behind the Scenes
"So, what's changed?" "How is this possible?" "Why now, when previous attempts haven't been successful?"
And after chewing it over, slowly it dawned on me.
Over the previous six months I'd developed a regular (almost daily) morning practice of Pranayama and yoga asana based on the sequence of poses I created for the Yoga & Posture Workshops. And I've been teaching that practice with my students each week in the YogaPhysio classes further reinforcing this optimum bodily alignment.
I now realise that what I'd been practicing are all the individual components that add up to creating the perfect body template for swimming.
These components which I'll share with you today are designed to strengthen the core muscles to support a perfectly balanced spine and to mobilise the spine (and shoulder girdle) into that same effortless balance.
A balanced spine, balanced in relation to gravity and in relation to strength and mobility creates the foundation for the body to move with ease... and to perform any activity we might choose to do with greater ease.
So here are the four aspects of training that I practiced from my Yoga & Posture Sequence and YogaPhysio Class approach and how they created this little miracle.
These exercises don't cover all of the Yoga & Posture Sequence as there's more to posture when we stand on dry ground!
Meanwhile I can't wait to get back into the water once the big swells abate.
The Swim Sequence
2. Spinal Strengthening
3. Abdominal Strengthening
4. Shoulder Mobilising
Pranayama- it's gold!
Moving the breath consciously and altering our patterns of breathing such as with longer breaths, holding the breath and fast breaths, all expand our breathing capacity and strengthen the diaphragm.
In my morning practice I've been doing just that. Long, slow breaths, breath retention and rapid breathing ... pumping, mobilising and strengthening my diaphragm like I've never done before.
When we swim, with the muscular action of our upper limbs occupied with the stroke and many of those upper limb muscles attaching to the chest, there's less expansion of the chest possible (the action of the intercostal muscles). The swimming stroke also inhibits us from using our upper respiratory muscles as freely as for example when we're upright with our arms by our sides.
Hence to swim with ease we need the diaphragm to work strongly as the primary respiratory muscle which is ideally it's main function.
With this dedicated practice of mine in the last half a year I'd deepened my breath and increased the strength of my diaphragm.
2. SPINAL STRENGTHENING
As I've sat in meditation and pranayama I've been consciously maintaining my spine upright and balanced in line with the centre of energy / gravity in the lower abdomen.
I've also been practicing a small amplitude pulsing movement ('Micro Movements') to mobilise the lumbar spine using the strength of the small muscles of the back (shown in photo below). This is a unique practice that we're exploring in the YogaPhysio classes.
In so doing, I've both mobilised and strengthened my lumbar spine. This has created a stronger foundation for the upper limb muscles to pull against as I swim as well as complimenting my abdominal training.
3. ABDOMINAL STRENGTHENING
Over the past few years as I've researched, experimented with and taught postural alignment in yoga classes and workshops, I've learnt a great deal about the anatomy and biomechanics of the body. This knowledge has enabled me to identify the true essence of what it requires to create core strength, especially abdominal strength (core strength involves a lot more than simply strong abdominals). And the answer isn't doing heaps of planks or sit ups with medicine balls.
In strengthening the abdominals there's one action that must come before all others and that is the ability to activate the deepest muscle, the Transversus Abdominus in an inward moving abdominal action.
If your abdominals move outwards or expand as you contract them then your core will be weaker and less effective in supporting the lower back. True strength lies in our ability to draw our abdomen inwards, thus creating a corset-like action around our abdomen and lower back.
Try this test for yourself. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet to the floor, hip width apart. Then do a curl raising your head and shoulders as you reach your arms towards your knees. Observe the movement of your abdominals. Do they rise as you curl or do they flatten?
The inward action comes from the effective contraction of the Transversus Abdominus (TA).
When the TA is working effectively in this way it facilitates a deeper, shorter contraction of the more superficial abdominals, the Internal and External Obliques and Rectus Abdominus through the interconnected layers of fascia. With practice the resting tension of all the abdominals shorten and a flatter stomach ensues.
All the abdominal exercises that I practice and teach focus solely on this action. With the balanced co-contraction of the lower back muscles, effective abdominals create stability at our centre and build a strong foundation for the entire body to move, push and pull against.
I love doing abs. This inward contraction is beneficial for not only our musculoskeletal system but for the health of our organs, digestion, circulation, lymphatics and detoxification.
4. SHOULDER MOBILITY
The final exercise I've been practicing that relates to swimming is active mobilisations of my shoulders, a technique I often teach in my private practice for shoulder rehabilitation.
Despite my best efforts in aligning myself with good posture as I've worked with clients over the decades as a Physiotherapist, my shoulders have complained every so often with tendon strains and joint stiffness. And I've noticed too that they always love a good Yin (prolonged) shoulder stretch.
So last year, probably responding to a niggle from within, I began to practice regular active mobilising exercises and am very happy to report that my shoulders have never felt better. These exercises deepen the inner range of strength of the relevant muscles whilst at the same time lubricating and freeing our joints.
It's easy to understand how that would help swimming. In the freestyle stroke I feel my arms moving effortlessly through both the air and the water.
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I didn't know I was training myself for swimming at the time I was doing this routine which is quite simply another fabulous testimonial to the power of postural alignment to enhance our entire physical function in readiness for whatever we choose to do in life.
So if you have joint pain, muscular strains, poor posture, stiffness or weakness or you're interested in fine-tuning your body, improving your sporting performance, enhancing your physical wellbeing and maintaining greater vitality through the ages then call me now for a consultation or join me each week at the Yoga Circle Noosaville.
You never know what you'll be able to do later this year... perhaps quite accidentally.
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