A blue tonic
Awaken your Blue Mind is the beautifully conceived project by Bluetonic, a charity dedicated to creating wellbeing experiences in, on or around the water. Presented as a Winter Challenge, it began on 30 October last year and will run until 26 March 2023 when participants will claim their badge for completing 21 out of the 60 watery activities suggested on their site. Included on this list is swimming in various outdoor locations, and mindfulness practices such as lakeside yoga. Having just joined the charity as an ambassador and a writer who now teaches both swimming and yoga, I am very excited about the potential of developing some new experiences that combine these disciplines.
Moving like water
Words, water and yoga all share the capacity to flow. Words flow onto paper, yoga poses flow into eachother to create sequences (vinyasa) and water flows all around us on this magical island. The rising popularity of wild swimming & yoga retreats are an already proven match made in water. They are one effective way of bringing the healing quality of fluidity into ones life, soothing the nervous system and helping to cleanse our minds from the stress pollution that infects most of our lives. The work now, is to seek ways of making such experiences more inclusive and accessible to those who need them the most. Bluetonic offers a unique and creative solution, through connecting communities to their blue spaces and to their Blue Ambassadors who volunteer their time to helping improve visibility of and engagement with the charity.
Whilst just thinking around the many possibilities of how I could integrate yoga and swimming to promote wellbeing in my community, my blue mind began to awaken. On a recent swimming workshop I was taught to be more slippery and fishlike and therefore more efficient in the water. I also noticed that many of the dryland prepatory exercises felt like the alignment practices of yoga, practices designed to help us develop interoception (awarenesss of sensations within the body) as well as proprioception (our sense of how we move through space). They are things we need, to improve both our swimming technique as well as the self-awareness that helps us detect subtle changes in our body-mind before they develop into illness or disease. This is why I believe that sport even on a leisurely, recreational level can be so empowering. Add in the therapeutic nature of water and we have not just a blue tonic but a preventative blue medicine as well.
As well as helping to hone swimming technique and prevent injury through stretching, strengthening and heightened focus, yoga can greatly enhance the experiences of another category of swimmer- Swimblers! A Swimbler in the open water community, is someone who swims just for the pure pleasure of it, usually with other like-minded Swimblers. While I practice laps in the pool for health and fitness purposes, I often love to take a swimbling approach when I swim outside. A beautiful lake for example, demands a similar type of focused attention as getting into a delicious yoga pose. I want to take time to absorb my surroundings and the healthful sensations of being fully immersed mentally and physically in the water as well as in the moment.
The hydrostatic hug
When we practice yoga and begin to switch off our stress hormones, a number of things happen physiologically that can greatly enhance our experience of open water. Firstly our senses have an opportunity to rest and therefore become more receptive. We begin to see, hear, feel, taste and smell our environment more acutely which in turn strengthens our connection to nature and the many benefits this brings. Secondly, due to better intero/proprioception we are able to enjoy clearer sensory feedback from the water and truly embrace that hug you get from hydrostatic pressure; swimming now reveals its meditative potential helping us to decompress even further.
Grow your gills
A consistent yoga practice can also help us regulate our breathing in order to relax. This is really useful when overcoming controlled cold water shock or if we happen to fall into water and hyperventilate involuntarily. Tight, dense muscles are more likely to make us sink. Conversely, if we can remain calm and inhale slowly and deeply on our backs we are able to float. After taking decades out from swimming while I pursued other fitness activities, I was surprised and delighted to discover I could swim whole lengths underwater when I returned to the pool. This I believe is certainly due to years of practicing pranayama, the branch of yoga that deals with breath control via a number of mindful breathing exercises. One particular exercise, trains the lungs to empty very slowly producing a super long exhalation. Underwater, this translates to being able to breathe out bubbles for a long time. As a singer, I can now hold notes for also, a very long time!
Seeing blue & green
If the sea, lakes and rivers connect us to our blue spaces, then yoga can be said to connect us to our green spaces: tree pose, lotus pose, mountain pose, cat, cow, crow, monkey and peacock are some of the ways we shapeshift according to nature in order to channel its healthful qualities. Boat pose, dolphin, fish, heron and frog are some postures that also reflect blue space, helping us to develop somatic awareness as well as a greater appreciation of the natural world that we are increasingly becoming disconnected from.
Although yoga has become synonymous with postures and its physical aspect, its deeper and more traditional teachings have been passed down to help us become more attuned to different life forms and the environment which we share. Thus when we enter the water after a yoga practice that is truly holistic, it can take on a whole new life-affirming dimension. When we feel connected in this way, our mindwaves move from their turbulent sea state to a clear, still lake. The wellbeing we can experience from this integrated blue-green practice then overflows into our day to day life as we begin to better appreciate what is around us and live more mindfully.
In yoga, the Sanskrit term anusara is often translated by practitioners of Vinyasa (a popular style of yoga where one pose links seamlessly to another) as ‘flowing with grace’. It is this quality of movement that mostly draws me to the practices of both swimming and yoga, not just in terms of how it appears but how we experience its force internally. If there is such a thing as the body-mind continuum where the body reflects the mind and vice versa, then how we learn to move in, on and around the water can help us to think in the same way too. Grace, elegance and poise can also be a state of mind, one that brings us closer to understanding our greatest superpowers: kindness, insight and compassion. I raise a glass to Bluetonic and their much needed presence: bluetonic.org.uk