I can feel dents from the pool edge forming in my rear end as I adjust and readjust and re-readjust my swim cap and goggles. Poised over my lane, I dip one toe into the water, assessing temperature. I’m sluggish this morning, and a hard workout is definitely not on the agenda. Today I will do a meditative swim. Finally, with one deep breath, I’m in, pushing off the wall and allowing all the watery sensations to pass through my awareness. In my first few laps, I sometimes like to notice how my wet elbows alternately reaching above water surface feel colder than the rest of my body.
You might be wondering if I’m cheating, both in my swim workout and on meditation, by squashing them together. Can a swim count as my morning meditation?
As for cheating, it’s true: I am guilty of sitting meditation avoidance. I know of many scientific studies showing the value of sitting quietly to meditate and I have felt the positive effects for myself. But I hardly ever seem to find time to set my meditation timer for five measly minutes. If I could only make myself do it until it’s a habit…
…but until then, I have swimming.
Would I get more out of doing both kinds of meditation? I suspect so. On the other hand, when I take a meditative approach—using the techniques I outline below, I am able to turn the repetitive motion of lap swimming into my own self-guided meditation. And I sustain it for anywhere from a few laps to the entire 40 minutes of my swim.
Meditation is not an automatic consequence of lap swimming, however. Like any kind of meditation, it requires specific intention. Otherwise I might just lap swim lost in a reverie, or drive myself by intervals on the clock to become a more powerful swimmer. Setting aside the interval workout, fantasizing (of returning to Hawaii, for instance,) is pleasant, but is exactly the opposite of meditation. The definition of meditation I’ll use here is a kind of an amalgam of different formulations: mindful attention to the present. (Feel free to argue in the comments section.) Imagining myself elsewhere, doing something different, is not being present in this moment, and therefore day-dreaming, not meditating.
Interesting side note: Psychologist and researcher Matt Killingsworth describes in his TED talk his findings that staying (mentally) in the present moment correlates with being happier, no matter the activity.
So, how to stay present? Here are a few meditation exercises (I’ll share more in later posts) I use to meditate while swimming which promote present moment focus. I’ve developed them through techniques I’ve learned from Buddhist teachers and psychologists as well as my own experience and preferences. Note that the following examples make use of “just noticing” which means to be aware without imposing judgment (no matter how pleasant or unpleasant.) All the techniques here use the senses to stay grounded in the present.
Exercise 1: The feel of water. What does the water physically feel like as it meets my body? I take my time and with curiosity to track the sensations of water against each part of my body. It takes me several lengths of the pool. I might notice, for instance, the water feels warm on my face, how it intermittently pools lightly in the small of my back, how it drips languidly from my fingers on each stroke, and how it creates a current sliding off my feet. The sensations may be appealing or uncomfortable. Just notice.
Exercise 2: Body scan in motion. What does my body feel like? I use a full body scan noticing each part as it moves. I can pay attention so slowly, noticing only tension and relaxation, that 500 yards may go by before I’ve gotten from my head to toes. My shoulders might ache from weight training or my jaw might be clenched. Just notice. (And notice, too, how noticing sometimes changes bodily sensations or tightness.)
Exercise 3: What’s the view? I usually first notice the tiny bubbles following the hand below me or the way the squares of pool tile drop off as the lane gets deeper. I try to notice everything, in motion swimmers next lane and stationary pool tiles, my twisting torso propelling me, and flags passing above as I swim by. None of these are positive or negative; I just notice. (Though I have to admit, something about water bubbles always delights me.)
Exercise 4: I repeat exercise 3 with All five senses. Today I noticed, for instance, that the chlorine tasted vaguely salty on the back edges of my tongue. I noticed the sound of water rushing past my body pushing off the wall (very subtle).
Exercise 5: Wide Angle Focus. It’s easy to get stuck focused in my own body or lane, and forget about the rest of the world. Just like it’s easy to fall into tunnel vision in the rest of the life. This exercise also serves as antidote to tunnel vision. It is a modification of a sitting meditation technique which develops wider awareness.
How far, I ask myself, can I notice? From the person in my lane, to what’s going on in all the rest of the lanes: the splashers and the smooth swimmers, the aqua joggers, the people getting in or out. Wider angle: the poolside lifeguards, floatation at the ready, people in and out of the sauna, the hot tub, which is marked closed. Further out: through the windows. The café and then the weight room beyond where I feel like I can see the stair steppers and weight hoisters. The windows onto the parking lot where cars are pulling in and out, where the sky is half trying to be sunny. I try to see, hear, observe, and sense an ever widening circle. Can I notice what is beyond the grounds of the YMCA?
If you like to lap swim, why not try these sample exercises at a pool? I’ve got lots more, but I encourage you to spend more time on fewer exercises rather than the reverse. I’d love to hear how these work for others (in the comments). I would imagine other types of movement could use some of these techniques. If you try any, let us know how it goes.