Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Zen of Swimming

I enjoy swimming not just for physical exercise, but also for mental well-being. The journey from the days when I first seriously started lap swimming a year and a half ago to now, when I am nearing my goal of swimming a mile breast stroke in half an hour, hopefully will serve as a tale of hard work and perseverance. The first day I went to the old 25 meter pool at Rice, I could barely swim 2 laps without getting winded. I was incredibly discouraged, thinking to myself that I would never be able to swim more than couple laps without getting hopelessly out of breath. But, I kept going to the pool, and slowly and steadily the number of laps I was able to swim increased. But I wasn’t just forcing myself to do this, compulsively exercising for the sake of it.

I actually love the water. Perhaps this originated from my mother, who was born on a houseboat, and who learned to swim by being tossed overboard into Victoria Harbor with a rope tied around the waist. Not having a pool of our own, from the earliest age we swam in several of our neighbors’ pools. We also went to the beach almost every day in the summertime, thrashing about in the cold Atlantic, risking as far as we could go before our feet wouldn’t touch the sandy bottom any longer. Swimming lessons were also an integral part of our childhoods. Although I took swimming lessons from “real” instructors, the best instructor I had was my mother, who had such an eye for detail and would correct our every stroke, making sure we were breathing right, and most importantly, instilling in us love and appreciation – and a healthy fear – of the water.

Humans, from the earliest of times, have both loved and feared the water. Fear of water is rooted in our collective primeval fear of those indomitable elements of nature – the darkness and unknown-ness of night, the unpredictability of storms, the raging of wildfires, the brooding silence of the vast and mysterious forest and its beasts. But knowledge of how to live with and in the water – as with all of nature – is the only way to ease our fear. Of course, I think all humans still have within them a grain of the primeval fear – and those who don’t, or who ignore it, are reckless (just watch some of the idiocy on TV, notably people who play with pilot whales and expect them to play back, etc.)

There’s something indescribable about jumping into a pool on a hot summer day. Especially now that Rice has built this fantastic new Olympic-sized, outdoor competition pool, swimming has taken on almost a whole new dimension. I cannot describe the feeling of the plunge into the coolness of the water. At this very moment, I am savoring that sensation, how instantaneous and almost shocking it is, like warping through a tunnel into another medium. And the other best part is plunging down and watching the sunlight wavering on the pool bottom, then coming up for air, observing the tiny ripples on the tranquil surface of the water, and the plunge back down. There are so many visual things about swimming that I enjoy. One may ask, don’t you ever get bored just swimming back and forth in a straight line? (The same question, then, should be asked of runners). The answer is no! Not when you approach swimming in the same way you would approach carrying out careful labwork or painting a picture – where every stroke counts. I need to continually be mindful of my stroke, to pay attention to every thing my body is doing and to maximize efficiency. That takes 100% observation and mindfulness. Especially when you swim a stroke like the breast stroke, which can get sloppy fast if you don’t pay attention. I notice that when my mind strays or if I’m not fully devoting 100% of myself to the swimming at hand, I swim less laps than I would if I were more attentive. I believe this approach has paid off, slowly but surely. The adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is quite appropriate for swimming. You start to realize that if you keep at it, even pushing yourself to do one more lap each swim pays off in the end. The reward after a good swim is also another indescribable feeling – that of every single molecule and muscle fiber in your body vibrating, stretched, worked out, like the sprouting of tiny seeds in the soil after a burst of sunlight, but a millionfold. It is absolutely such a great feeling.

Not to mention, exercising in a medium 400 times denser than air and 30 degrees colder than the average Houston summer day would seem to reap much more bang for your work-out buck than running. Whenever I see some poor fool running and panting for breath, pelting with sweat, red-faced and miserable – I silently think to myself what they’re missing in a pool.


CTA Lee said...

nice piece on swimming. but aren't you a little harsh on the joggers? that could be a zen-like experience too, no?

Emily J. Chin said...

haha, yes, it is - if it's not 100 degrees outside. i used to jog, but really gave that up in houston. i suppose if one finds panting in the heat zen-like, then more power to them!