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Alexander Technique

Searching for Still Water

Searching for Still Water

Does too much head movement negate the benefits of swimming for people with sensitive vestibular systems?

I was disturbed recently to come across a video of young adults with autism/ learning difficulties swimming front crawl, badly, at top speeds. They were putting their bodies under terrible strain, under the watch of a Special Olympics coach. It seemed like a kind of abuse, albeit unintentional, and reminded me of a comment Chris Packham made, summarising approaches to working with autistic people in America, “Let's force these people rather than adapt to accommodate them”.

Indicators of a sensitive vestibular system

Traits common to people with a sensitive vestibular system are: difficulty paying attention in a classroom; sensitivity to noise/ difficulty filtering sound; poor posture, balance and coordination; travel sickness; difficulty reading a map or moving in a straight line with eyes closed; ear trouble.

For anyone with these tendencies, it’s unlikely that swimming the formal strokes, with all the head movement and consequent overstimulation of the vestibular system this entails, will be stress free, especially in noisy, heavily chlorinated pools.

While I don’t have learning difficulties, I do have a sensitive inner ear which doesn’t like too much head movement.  So I have first hand experience of stress from swimming strokes, however carefully, particularly in my late forties.

When I think that 20 lengths of breaststroke means moving my head from underwater to a breathing position about 200 times and 20 lengths of crawl means turning my head 120 times, it isn’t surprising that I can get out of a pool after a lane swim feeling frazzled.

Last time I went to the pool I found myself doing a whole length of butterfly without coming up for air. But that was probably too much head movement too. Even front crawl with a snorkel can be problematic. My head stays still as my body rotates, as it should, but deep down it wants to turn and this causes conflict in my brain and tension in my neck. There's no two ways about this, it's because of a vestibular reflex called the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex.*

I don’t want to get out of the water feeling like I’ve been at the fairground, over excited, dizzy, headachy. As I get older, every lane swim carries that risk. It’s time to stop forcing myself. I need to adapt.

The real benefits of being in water, so obvious that we forget them, are contained in floating about without having to get anywhere; escaping from noise under the surface; enjoying weightlessness, space and freedom to move in all planes and directions, exploring the possibility of swimming without stress.

While I believe that, for people like me with a sensitive vestibular system, swimming the competitive strokes may do more harm than good, I do think that all human beings can benefit from being in water, especially people with sensitive vestibular systems!

Also see: Freedom from Form / When Movements Muddy the Water / Just Floating an Idea / Just What the Doctor Ordered

* For more information on vestibular reflexes see Mike Cross's website 


15-Nov-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Mindfulness: Word of the Moment

Mindfulness: Word of the Moment

Mental health benefits or meaningless buzzword?

I’m glad I learned to paddle a Canadian canoe. Having control of the boat means I can drift with the current on the river Teifi, sitting still, listening to the birds.

We went for a gentle paddle in the autumn sunshine last week. Now and then I rested my paddle and just sat. With the soles of my feet on the floor of the boat, I sent my head towards the sky and allowed my back to widen. My breathing opened up and my ears enjoyed the sensation of moving forward very slowly.

Drifting is the part of canoeing I like best but, without the ability to steer, it would be no fun at all. I’d be bouncing from bank to bank, stressed and tense, with the boat refusing to move in a straight line.

Being able to swim is important for the access it gives you to activities like canoeing. And in the water, you can discover the freedom of just floating, rather than swimming great distances. But, just as to be able to drift in your canoe, you need to know how to paddle it, to enjoy non-doing in the water, you need to be a reasonably competent swimmer. This would be my reason for recommending people to learn to swim.

Aerobic exercise may improve cardiovascular health, tone muscles and keep your bones strong. It releases endorphins, which makes you feel happy, and gets you out and about talking to other people. All these are good things and probably useful for mental health.

But what about mindfulness? What do people mean when they keep talking about it? Does it have anything to do with the above benefits? How likely is it to happen when swimming?

On my Alexander Technique training course I was taught to seek internal quietness by waking up my brain and taking the brakes off my body.  In a teacher's hands, my energy would begin to flow, my breathing would open up, my heart and nerves would flutter as I became lighter and ready for a simple movement. Moments of being present - mindful - were found not in an attempt to make myself move but in the expansion and calmness that arose when I stopped.

Leaving yourself alone and allowing yourself just to ‘be’ takes a lot of practice. The work is for a moment of quietness, of integration, of allowing your body to breathe, of connection with your environment. We can’t be like that all the time. We need to to get on with things. Sometimes we need to swim.

But seeking opportunities for more of these moments might be the best way to look after our mental health. Alexander said his technique, which people tended to associate with physical posture, was ‘the most mental thing there is’.  It could be said that the attainment of mental health is the most physical there is. You can’t be ‘in the moment’ if your head is jammed on the top of your spine. But it isn’t likely that many of us, regardless of endorphins, will attain mindfulness during, or through doing, vigorous exercise. Or in noisy swimming pools or triathlon races.

Calm water is a suitable environment but, if it’s mental health benefits you’re after,  it might be a good idea to swim less and work for more quiet moments.

Also see: Just Floating an Idea / Old Man River / Freedom from Form / Head Away From Knees


31-Oct-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Just What the Doctor Ordered

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Get creative and enjoy the bohemian pleasures of a dip outdoors

People who recommend swimming for exercise are often unaware of the strain it can cause. Few swimmers are free from the tendency to fix joints, compress the spine and overdo the breathing.

It’s easy to see that swimming lengths with the face out of the water, which most ‘recreational’ swimmers in UK do, strains the neck and back and restricts breathing.  But the sort of stuff that ‘fitness’ swimmers do, using the competitive strokes, is probably just as likely to cause problems somewhere along the line, particularly if it’s done in high quantities.

Lanes are a kind of trap for people taking up swimming because counting lengths, doing lots of repetitive movement without really knowing what you’re doing and learning the competitive strokes are all problematic.

Some non-swimmers and improvers who come for our lessons hope that swimming will provide exercise without risk of injury, as they get older. This is achievable, with guidance, an understanding of the importance of keeping the neck free and a creative approach to movement in water.

What I recommend to everyone is lots of floating around, gliding and easy movements, like rotations, which help you to find the support of the water and enjoy the moment of transition between water and air. Moving forward from one end of the pool to the other is ok if you’re not in too much of a rush.

But lane-swimming in the leisure centre may not be the best way to explore a new approach. There's a growing number of people who swim outdoors, not for aerobic exercise but for more holistic benefits. Here’s just a few:

  • * New sensory experiences, like being enveloped in soft, silky water;
  • * Magic moments,  'light on the water, the colour of the sky, the feel of cold on our skin..' (1)
  • * Cold water immersion as a tonic for the immune system;
  • * Special times with friends, post swim warming drinks and cake.

So, for at least some outdoor swimmers, there is no worrying about stroke technique, or measuring distances, times and fitness gains. This must be a step in the right direction.

Even if you’re pootling along with your face out, the fresh air and views are good for you, and if you’re happy in the water and not trying to get anywhere, the head-up technique won’t do you too much damage.  Having said this, for the fullest experience, I would always choose to have my face under the surface most of the time. So the following skills are key: 

  • * Floating, both face down and vertically; 
  • * Resting and moving on your back, 
  • * Swimming underwater; 
  • * Being able to make the transition easily between water and air.  

These are the things that give you freedom to be creative in water, to do whatever you want, indoors or outdoors.

And if being outdoors gives you freedom to be creative, it might inspire you to start experimenting with what really works for you in the pool.

(1) from theswimmingsisters on instagram

Also see: Freedom from Form / Just Floating an Idea / Old Man River Sento  / It's All Right Once You're In / Tame Swimming  / A Timeless Swim Swimming Up / Outdoor Swimming - Going It Alone /  Swimming With A Hangover  /  Transform Your Day In 10 Seconds / Head Away From Knees Away from Worries on the Beach / Searching for Still Water


27-Sep-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Following the Flow

Following the Flow

When leading is misleading

When I’m teaching swimming I often hear myself saying  “It’s about letting it happen, not making it happen”.

At Salsa class this week, the teacher gently reprimanded me for ‘trying to lead’ in other words for trying to make it happen.

When learning to swim strokes, as when learning to dance Salsa, it’s hard not to rush to the next movement, losing rhythm and flow.

As I’m not very good at remembering the dance steps, I was happy to hear that, “ If you’re following, you don’t need to learn the steps, you need to learn the technique.” Another echo of my regular refrain: “You don’t have to worry about your arms and legs, if you’re comfortable in the glide everything will fall in to place.”

The technique of Salsa dancing (I think!) is very similar to the technique of swimming strokes.  Look at the similarities:

Learning to dance Salsa:

Use your eyes - Look at your partner and particularly back towards them when you’ve been turned away.

Connection. With the floor - use it to support your weight. With the rhythm of the music. And with your partner - letting them initiate each movement.

Poise  – Don’t let your movements (steps) get too large and upset your balance. Keep your frame (elbows in front of body - relaxed but directed so the whole body can  move when led and the legs move to stay under the weight of your body).

Don’t try to lead - Anticipation of the next movement and a preconception of what it should look and feel like makes you rush ahead. Ahead of the music and your partner’s lead.

Learning to swim:

Use your eyes - Look down at the ‘fish’ and particularly back towards them when you’ve rolled out to breathe.

Connection. With the water - use it to support your weight. And with the rhythm of the stroke - letting it initiate each movement.

Poise – Don’t let your movements (of arms and legs) get too large and upset your balance. Keep your frame (relaxed but directed so as the weight of the whole body moves, the arms and legs can fall in to line).

Don’t try to lead - Anticipation of the next movement and a preconception of what it should look and feel like makes you rush ahead. Ahead of the rhythm of the stroke and the help of the water.

So next time at Salsa class, I’ve just got to make sure I don’t fall into the usual trap of trying to get the technique ‘right’. The blank stare of concentration and the stiffness of trying to make sure everything’s  in the right place – the one we often observe when we’re teaching the strokes.

Also See: Freedom from Form / Old Man River / Zen and Now / Meet Me at the Symmetry Gates / Diving into Breaststroke / Easy Adaptation / Waste of Space /  Three Strokes and You're Out / A Man Made Pool's What You Make It / Control Freak? Can't Swim? / I Believe I Can Fly


24-Sep-2017 /  written by Cheryl Cross
Not So Slow Sophie

Not So Slow Sophie

Cheryl makes friends with a head-up breaststroker on holiday and shares her top tips

On my recent  Strel swimming trip I met Sophie from Germany.

She was in the 'slow' group with me and another lady. Sophie clearly loved being in the sea and was a very competent head up breaststroker. 

For our first proper swim I breaststroked keeping fairly good time with Esther's crawl and resting or looping back to make sure Sophie didn't get too far behind.  She kept going really well for the whole of the 2k plus swim. But it was clear that as Esther and I got into our stride, she wasn't going to be able to keep up.  Despite her lovely stroke and confidence, keeping her head above the water simply made her stroke less efficient than everyone else's. 
Luckily, we were a small enough group that our guides could cope with our now 3 speed groups and Sophie continued to enjoy her swims without going as far as the rest of the group. She very quickly decided to do something about her "so slow" swimming on her return to Germany. 

I had a few minutes with Sophie to give her a few tips. Here they are: 

Drop your forehead to the floor (in this case to the seabed!). 
This opens up your neck, your breathing, your buoyancy, your freedom of movement and generally makes it all wonderful. 

Keep your mouth open 
Sophie was able to breathe out of her nose underwater but tended to close her mouth on crossing the surface. By keeping it open she avoided the stop/start action which interferes with a natural breath. 

Look at the fish
Something I encourage in the pool at Croft Farm! In the Montenegrin bays seeing the fish, and generally just looking around, helped Sophie relax. 

Fall forwards
By letting the weight of her head, arms, chest carry her forwards and leaving her legs to trail loosely behind, Sophie was able to feel a glide. 

Look at your hands
On the way out to breathe, seeing her hands in front of her meant Sophie had the time and support she needed to allow an in-breath. 

That's all we had time for so Viel Gluck "not so slow" Sophie!


17-Aug-2017 /  written by Cheryl Cross
Just Floating An Idea

Just Floating An Idea

Swimming less and floating more may be better for us.

“If I teach people they can float, the rest is up to them,” my sister in law Chie said, in a conversation about how to teach non-doing in water.

Non-doing is at the heart of the Alexander Technique, not movement but what's behind it, not posture but prevention of postural distortion brought about by what we’re doing.

Floating, not swimming, lends itself best to non-doing. To float, you need to do nothing whereas to swim you need to do something, to go somewhere. As soon as we start moving, we may be going wrong without the first bit of recognition. When we float, if we’re doing nothing, we can't really go wrong.

Swimming outdoors is popular at the moment. Perhaps there's more liberation in ‘wild swimming’ than pool swimming, with its constraining man-made walls, and chlorine.  But in the sea this summer I've been asking myself if there may be more freedom in floating, just giving myself to the salty water, letting it support me and looking around.

The healing properties of salt water have been acknowledged for centuries. But if there's going to be healing, in or out of the water, the less we ‘do’, the better. And I think that might be the reality which is clouded by the idea of swimming.

When you are able just to float, you calm down. You connect with the water and yourself. Your body can release and expand. You might stop holding on. Your moro reflex isn't excited, it’s  quiet, at rest. These are the benefits Alexander work brings. If I really want to attend to the process in the water, floating not swimming gives me the best opportunity. It's an open goal.

If you're a non-swimmer or nervous in the water, floating freely is the thing to aim for. It may not be easy to let go at first but it's the most important thing you'll learn.

When in water, the less we swim, the easier it is to do less. Doing nothing in the water might not make you fitter, stronger or thinner, but the health benefits of stopping may go beyond those three.

I always swim a bit, two or three strokes at a time, to get through an open cave, avoid a jellyfish, or explore the possibility of non-doing in movement. But floating is the best thing I can do for myself in water. It might be the same for you. Perhaps it comes down to how much stopping, how much quietness, you need.

Also see:  Old Man River Sento  / It's All Right Once You're In / Tame Swimming  / A Timeless Swim Swimming Up / Outdoor Swimming - Going It Alone /  Swimming With A Hangover  /  Transform Your Day In 10 Seconds /  Camp Training / Head Away From Knees Away from Worries on the Beach / Just What the Doctor Ordered / Mindfulness: Word of the Moment / Searching for Still Water


08-Jul-2017 /  written by Ian Cross