Author Haruki Murakami wrote a memoir called What I Talk about When I Talk about Running . I think about this as I swim. Murakami runs; others lift weights. I swim. Doesn’t require much skill. Flap your hands; flip your feet; and buoyancy does the rest. Michael Phelps you don’t have to be.
Swimming is pleasurable and relaxing. Its repetitive motion provides a good background rhythm for the mind to unspool and thoughts to sort themselves out. I get ideas for columns; sentences come easier. I am swimming now as I make up these words. What did you expect? It is hot out. Pools are the only place to be.
The most common mistake that amateur swimmers make is to hold their breath. I used to do this too until my coach, a curmudgeon as the best coaches are wont to be, told me so. The trick is to consciously blow bubbles as soon as your head goes into water to make sure you are exhaling. Then you come out and inhale with your mouth. A simple thing like that can completely change your swimming routine. It did so for me. I used to stick to the easier breaststroke, alternating it with the backstroke after a few laps. I couldn’t do freestyle for longer than, say, 10 laps. Now I can. After Jeanne, my coach, told me that I had to stop holding my breath, I learned how to blow bubbles under water. Initially, I blew too hard, through nose and mouth. I used to make this “Ommmmm” sound to make sure that I was exhaling bubbles. Slowly, I settled into a softer rhythm and this ultimately is what a swimmer needs. If you breathe right, you can do the freestyle continuously for an hour or more, without getting tired at all. I know this because I used to be a piddling freestyle swimmer. Could only do 10 laps at most. Now I can go on forever. Well, for an hour at least, perhaps two. And I come out of the pool feeling rejuvenated, not tired. This is quite in contrast to my prior pool experiences.
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It may also have to do with the type of swimming I do. I’ve watched other swimmers in pools. They swim gracefully, purposefully. They flip themselves upside down when they reach each side so that they don’t lose their momentum. I do none of the above. I swim like a turtle. I am not exactly ungainly, but I am certainly not gainly either. My arms move like rotating windmills, my body sort of slithers along from side to side and my feet paddle up and down. I don’t aspire to anything when I swim. I have no ambitions of becoming a better swimmer, or doing a certain number of laps. I don’t even think about reaching the other side. To me, it is all about staying the moment and not getting bored. It is about what Harvard professor-turned-guru Ram Dass called Remember: Be Here Now. Or what Shunryu Suzuki called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Both these ideas are actually quite profound and I return to them frequently. Be here now, I tell myself when life gets crazy and I get beside myself. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I tell myself when I begin a project. You could spend a lifetime mastering these two concepts. Or you could talk about swimming, which is what we are doing.
Take the plunge: You needn’t be a champ to enjoy swimming.
When I swim, I think, which is something I don’t do too often. A lot of it is random stuff but a lot of it has to do with my long-standing obsession with becoming a stand-up comic. I spend a great deal of time trying to be funny. I am galactically unsuccessful. If you met me, you wouldn’t think I was funny at all. So I swim and try to come up with what the comics call “material”. Like I said, swimming, to me, is not about productivity; not about getting better at the task. It is about simply exhaling, and staying buoyant.
My body is curved like a turtle. Have you seen a turtle under water? I have. They are the gentle giants of the ocean. The ones in the Maldives are humongous; and now that the L&T-Tata Steel Ltd joint venture in Dhamra, Orissa, has been stalled, I will take my kids to Dhamra to see the magnificent and endangered Olive Ridleys as they come ashore to nest.
Turtles look wise. Every animal has a certain look. The felines—the big cats, and the small ones, actually—look snooty and angry. Wolves look watchful. Dogs do too, particularly if you bring out their biscuits. Dolphins look smiling and playful; rats with their darting eyes, impatient. Cows with their limpid eyes look motherly like the mystical life-giving Kamadhenu. Some animals look wise. Turtles and elephants fall in this category. They have wise eyes. A turtle under water looks like your grandfather. He swims as if he has all the time in the world. He swims without going anywhere; because he has nothing better to do. Yogi-like fish are the same way. They will stay suspended under water, almost unmoving, and then suddenly, with the flick of a fin, they are gone. Most marine creatures swim with the least effort, as if their only goal is to be buoyant. That’s how I swim. Until my instructor shouts: “Pick up the pace. Don’t dawdle.”
Shoba Narayan swims to stay buoyant. The turtle is her master. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org