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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
Freedom from Form

Freedom from Form

Available to everybody including me

Learner swimmers need to focus on enjoying the support of the water and develop a feel for it through play,  instead of being restricted by the form of competitive strokes. They shouldn’t be too fixed on the goal of being able to swim lengths for exercise.  Swimming up and down without freedom of movement does nobody any good.

I explain all this with enthusiasm to people attending our course and encourage them to be bold and do their own thing.

Then I go off to the pool and swim lengths, almost exclusively using the four competitive strokes, albeit with the intention of freeing my neck.

But if I want to swim with the Alexander Technique, the cornerstones of which are non-doing and direction of energy, I really don't need to be using conventional strokes.

I have photos of myself as an infant, always tilting my head to one side. The twist that causes this is related to mild hearing difficulty, left eye/ right hand dominance and a retained baby reflex which hinders independence of the head from the neck and back when turning. It persists in every activity of life for me. So swimming the four strokes, even though I can execute them well, with all the head movement it entails, creates problems for my neck. Floating face down on the other hand, and doing a bit of movement from that foundation, does me the world of good.

On my last swim of the summer holidays, I went for a 20 minute dip at Aberporth.  I told myself to be creative and decided not to do anything that could be construed as a proper, conventional stroke.

I started with some crawl but rolled all the way onto my back every time I needed to breathe. It felt odd, stopping and starting, like a learner. But I knew it would be better for my neck and I kept going till I arrived at the last buoy from the shore. On the way back I began to play with breaststroke. At first, when I popped out of the water for a breath, I looked to the left and then to the right, to help stop my head from fixing in its twist as I rolled it out to breathe. Again, this felt a bit silly but there was nobody around.

Then, without any real planning, a new breaststroke sequence began to emerge. Face down, head resting underwater, I did a big arm sweep and a kick then a smaller sweep and another kick, before popping out for a leisurely breath on the third stroke. I was spending more time underwater, relaxing, and less time bobbing up for air. This produced a definite rhythm - my own rhythm. I felt like the ‘bloke on holiday’ I try to encourage non-swimmers to be. And my neck was fine when I got out.

“You were a long time,” said my friend Clive.

06-Sep-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
What’s Welsh for Puddle?

What’s Welsh for Puddle?

Learning to let learning happen

I’ve lived in Wales for 18 years, my dad’s Welsh and a friend recommended I put myself in the position of learner starting from scratch, like a lot of our pupils. So I’ve started learning Welsh.

The internet course I’m doing,  Say Something in Welsh, involves constructing a sentence, using the language you know,  before the teacher says it.  Trying too hard to get the words out in those few seconds freezes my brain. But when I don’t worry about speaking and just listen, understand and absorb, like a child does, it’s much more relaxing. I often fall asleep halfway through a lesson or ‘challenge’ and am woken by Aran, the teacher,  telling me how well I’ve done to make it to the end!

Babies ideally crawl a lot before they walk and do lots of listening before they start to talk. Non-swimmers need to enjoy floating around and playing with movement before learning strokes.

Watching the growing confidence of our two year old grandson Gruff is inspiring. With limited language he manages to communicate what he wants very effectively and he understands a lot. When we go for a walk with him, we don't get far. But he’s always learning. The other evening he spent about 10 minutes dropping stones into puddles.

While I wouldn't be able to string two sentences of Welsh together in the real world, I do feel engaged in a learning process. I wake up in the morning, knowing how to say, “I met your sister in the pub last night’ or ‘I’ve got a friend who knows your brother”. And when I listen to Tommo on Radio Cymru I’m starting to recognise more and more words.

I might do a residential Welsh course but I’ll have no expectation of being able to communicate in a natural setting by the end. That would be like a non-swimmer coming to us and expecting to be ready, on course completion, to enter a triathlon.

Learning without caring about results, without crippling yourself with expectation, must be the best way to learn anything. With Welsh, I remind myself to give up the idea of getting anywhere, but not to give up.

Also see:  Floating Foundations / Floating is a Feeling  / Sing When You're Winning / Rescued, Learner Lost with Woggle at Leisure Centre  / Learn Not to Swim / Stopping the Fight for Survival / Landing Before Standing


24-Jul-2017 /  written by Ian 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
Going Away and Getting Somewhere

Going Away and Getting Somewhere

Cheryl's home from her Strel Swimming Adventure in Montenegro.

Thank you Strel Swimming Adventures for the lovely trip in Montenegro last week.

This was the prize I won in the raffle at the 2017 Cold Water Swimming Championships.

On Monday, before breakfast, we had our first swim from the beach outside the hotel in Tivat. This was so our swimming guides, Borut and Laura, could have a look at our swimming speeds. Our small group was very easily split into two groups. The fast group (two Dutch ladies and a man from South Africa) were all in training for various competitive events later in the summer. The slower group was made up of another keen Dutch swimmer, though not interested in events, a German 'head up' breaststroker and myself.

After breakfast we were off on Gudo's boat into the beautiful bays of Risan and Kotor.  

Not having ever swum any kind of distance in open water I was surprised to find how much easier it was than I expected. Easier than in the pool. The first swim of just over 2k was over in what seemed like 20 minutes (it was more like an hour).

The other unknown was how tired I would be swimming 2-3k twice a day. The answer was not tired at all thanks to the very relaxing time spent on the boat between swims. We visited the lovely villages around the bays, and Laura's lunches on the boat were just right.

We also got to see some underwater footage filmed and critiqued by Borut (mostly from a 'how to go faster' angle most helpful for the competitive swimmers) and were given useful tips.

The whole trip was lovely and personally I was very pleased with my swimming performance. I knew my strokes were comfortable but thought I'd find keeping going more mentally challenging. Generally I spend my time in the water just enjoying its support, feeling my movements become freer and simply playing around rather than actually getting somewhere.  I'm pleased to say the 'getting somewhere' was also enjoyable. I now feel more confident about swimming in open water.

 I'm looking forward to spending much more time in the sea at home in Pembrokeshire this summer. I know the beautiful weather and sea temperature on the trip contributed a lot to the pleasure but I do have my Aqua Skin to help.

Also see: Old Man River / A Timeless Swim / It's All Right Once You're In / What Are You Training For? / Camp Training / Clock Sucker / Tame Swimming / Mediocrity and Excellence


04-Jul-2017 /  written by Cheryl Cross