There are already many great articles out there on the numerous benefits of swimming outside, so I thought I would offer a slightly different perspective aligned with my training in Ayurveda, also known as traditional Indian medicine. Ayurveda is also considered to be the ‘sister science’ of yoga and gives us useful tools to help us live in sync with the natural world for optimal health and wellbeing. According to this system of medicine, the root of most diseases is in the mind and often occur when we become disconnected from our senses. Our 5 senses, or 6 if you include intuition, enable us to read and process the world properly. When they become frazzled and overloaded from things like stress, digital fatigue and poor lifestyle choices the consequences can be far reaching. I was initially going to dedicate this post to the benefits of outdoor swimming for mental health, but as mind and body are a continuum, it is difficult to separate the two. Tending to our senses is a very simple and effective way of nourishing the pathways that help to sustain us and I have found that open water swimming is an activity that is accessible in providing this level of self-care:
Sight: I remember when I put my head under open water for the first time. It was a cool but sunny day and the surface of the lake rippled a deep navy blue. I was expecting to meet the same darkness beneath but was stunned by a sea of luminous green pierced by rays of the sun. That night, I rose and fell in a dream that took me to places I had never felt or seen. And for this reason I never wash my hair after swimming in a lake because I’m sure it continues to seep through my brain. To sleep and wake with the echo of the distant sea in your hair is a special kind of magic. The spell deepens as the day goes on and everything seems touched by it, including the way I walk through the world: calmer, brighter...more fluidly. Just above the waterline, where ducks float in tandem, where the waterlilies whisper and dragonflies hover, is a swim-seat view of extraordinary beauty. It is a space that invites us to connect to the wild and to remember our own wilderness that we topiary to death in our manicured urban lives. I have come to learn that exposing young eyes to sunlight may be the best way to counter the worldwide increase in nearsightedness. This information comes a bit late for my acutely myopic eyes at the age of 51 but my vision is stimulated in so many other ways that grow my imagination and feed my obsession of writing about water! The interplay of things in, on and around blue spaces is also the source of many great works of art and literature that continually reframe my experience of open water and how I might engage with it.
Sound: Happy to share that my hearing is a damn sight better than my eyesight despite many years of very loud gigs and band rehearsals. As a musician/singer/spoken word artist/poet, the use of sound runs at the forefront of my work. As a longstanding teacher of yoga, I have regularly taught classes that use sounds from the natural environment as a focal point for meditation. It is a great pleasure to now find a new connection to sound through swimming. There is something about the stillness of a lake that makes you really listen. It provides the perfect backdrop for the symphony of birdsong and for the expression of the elements. Whilst weaving in and out of the water with breaststroke, an ethereal silence alternates with the soothing voice of mother nature. These soundwaves and undulating rhythm are hypnotic in their effort to transport me around the lake. They tune my ears out from the traffic, mobile phone, laptop and noise pollution that whir relentlessly in the background of everyday life. I gain headspace to think about what I’m going to say and to consider the consequences of my actions. Therefore a good swim (as an alternative to seated meditation) makes me a smarter and more efficient human being as well as a happier and healthier one. The euphoria of being so directly immersed in nature also does funny things to conversation. We begin to laugh and talk of joyful things, share thoughts that are more perceptive, insightful and as open and as deep as the water we find ourselves in.
Touch: My first experience of silkwater was at Lenches Lakes in Evesham, a beautifully managed clear lake fringed with yellow flowers and water lilies. I wore a dress made of algae and sunlight and the ripples on the water formed the folds of my flowing skirt. This is my fantasy every time I swim in this special place, the whole lake is my dress fanned out. The texture of the water here is noticeably silky, syrupy, creamy. I was surprised to discover that water could have such distinct qualities in different places. I felt a sense of luxuriousness that made the lake more enchanting and full of possibilities for poems. Together with its massaging effect (hydrostatic pressure), the coolness of open water is known to draw out inflammation: the nervous system is at once stimulated and soothed. The subsequent relaxation response triggered by our skin receptors contributes to what is known as ‘swimmers high’ and you don’t have to train hard to get it. In addition, the sense of weightlessness from being supported by the water can help to counteract the heavy pull of grief and depression. Many people in the outdoor swimming community have paid testament to this in incredible life stories of how the hug of the water has helped to heal them. The interaction of other elements also makes for a sensory playground. On sunny days, it is delicious to swim through patches of shimmering warmth linked by contrasting areas of colder water. Then there is the dance of wild rain and winds that tease the surface of the lake, the fish that tickle your feet and the odd swan that wants to knock your block off. It all makes you feel so alive. Every swim is different even if it’s in the same place. I sometimes wear a wetsuit for speed and buoyancy but wearing ‘skins’ offers extra exposure and connection to the elements as well as more freedom of movement.
Taste: Unless you are swimming at Dosthill where the water is 500 times above the government guidelines for drinking water and full of healing magnesium, you’re probably going to keep your mouth shut. Our sense of taste is the one that is usually most abused. According to Ayurveda, addiction to sugar, salt and the processed foods they inhabit causes the fire element (read inflammation) to rise in the body-mind. Could it be that the cold water helps to dim those flames? According to Ayurveda, yes, along with measures such as wearing cool colours, soothing our thoughts with meditation and consuming foods that help reduce our temperature. This holistic approach helps to eliminate heat from the body-mind and rebalance our sense of taste so that we are less likely to reach for the substances that aggravate our constitution. This is also a process of re-sensitisation where we can begin to detect subtle flavours, not just in our meals but in our environment. The cooling and calming effects of the water always help me to access a deeper level of connection to the elements. Tastes and smells become more acute, as awareness is heightened and allowed to focus on the moment. Gently swimbling around the lake, I pick up the taste of the air, grass, flowers and earth, the taste of woody reeds and chlorophyll in the water. There feels a refinement and delicacy of the taste buds waiting to flower around more wholesome fare post-swim.
Another important concept in Ayurveda is that of Rasa which in Sanskrit generally means taste. However this word has a much richer meaning and significance. Each taste (sweet/sour/salty/bitter/pungent/astringent) according to Ayurveda has an emotional and psychological impact on our wellbeing as well as a particular post-digestive and physical effect. Rasa goes on to influence our very consciousness as it is not only what we detect on our tongue but what we process through all our other senses in order to master our very taste for life. Rasa also means joy, delight, essence of or joie de vivre! Swimming in the open waters for me, is certainly all of these.
Smell: Every place I have swum has its signature smell with its top, mid and base notes. It is said to be both our most powerful and primal sense, influencing cognition, memory, emotion and even our other senses. Our sense of smell is so strong that it aides dramatically in how we perceive taste. Scent-driven behaviour is clearly seen in animals. What is believed to be their ability to tap into some mystical sixth sense is actually the sum of their highly developed senses working efficiently. Unlike those of creatures that sensed the arrival of the Tsunami long before people lying on the beach, our instincts have been diminished from living in increasingly urban and industrialised environments. We have become disconnected from nature and ultimately from ourselves. In open water we have an opportunity to directly sharpen and develop our senses. This raw re-connection is the essence of our rewilding and an expression of the body’s natural intelligence and ancestral wisdom. Through smell I form a special bond with a lake which I take home on my skin. The faint spirulina-like scent catches me at points in the day whilst doing mundane tasks and transports me right back to the magic of the water. It is also the smell of the ocean, wide skies and the sun; of contentment and being in the seed of the moment; of joy and friendship and owning being lazy; the smell of ageing and slowing down with nothing to prove; of womanhood, peri-menopause and coming back home to myself; the smell of poems and their unruly words, and the smell of our own wild which we must guard with the ferocity of a lion. When I first smelt all this in my hair, lying in bed at night, I realised those dreams were not dreams but a gradual awakening to the stars.
To learn more about how our five senses relate to the five elements in ayurvedic thought, click HERE
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