The Real Reason I Trained as a Swimming Teacher: from punch-fit to peri-menopause
I’ll begin by saying that when it comes to sport, boxing will always be my first love. I could write a thesis on the reasons why, but I wont bore you to death. Just watch the YouTube footage of how Oleksandr Usyk (in my opinion, one of the greatest athletes of all time) trains (not how you think) or maybe be inspired by the boxer come artist Joe Joyce and his paintings, or Matt Windle, Birmingham’s Poet Laureate by day (2016 -2018) and professional boxer by night. Boxing is not just a showcase for edgy superhuman skills but is also full of glamour and fascinating idiosyncrasies that fuel my imagination.
In 2019 little old me (47 at the time), also Asian and female, trained to become a boxing coach. I’m not talking fitness boxing but coaching in sports specific technique. My brilliant trainer Matty Evans had his work cut out for him, what with my hypermobile wrists and wobbly ankles. After some incredibly hard graft where I had to accept and overcome a number of mental and physical shortcomings, I passed a 4 hour practical exam with 95% under the hyper-vigilant eye of Glen Smith, owner of the Red Corner Gym in Coventry. Glenn has over 30 years experience within the boxing world. After gaining his professional license he has trained several amateur and professional boxing champions. He is also super fucking strict and really made me earn (and cry) my right to be proud of my certification. I am one of very few women who have it.
In the few years prior to the pandemic, I became increasingly prone to joint injuries and suffered acute inflammation in my elbows and knees. I put this down to impact from being hypermobile and holding kick and punch pads for students, and also just generally getting older. Having seen countless physios and other allied professionals who couldn’t seem to help me, I had to accept that the time had come to adapt to and even embrace the natural order of things, changing hormones included. As a yoga teacher (I’ll come on to this shit show later) and health & fitness coach who has worked with clients for over 20 years, I had seen many women approach peri-menopause in a way that continued to push their bodies in a way that did not serve them. At the root of this seemed to be a lack of self-esteem and need to prove oneself whilst also being in denial of the ageing process. I feel this is partly a cultural issue embedded in the West, for e.g. if you are not partaking in (an increasingly stressful) challenge or event or flogging yourself for charity, you are not serious about your chosen sport.
I have found getting older immensely liberating in that the trauma of realising there are probably more years behind me than before me now, has enabled me to rediscover the joy of ‘play’ within recreational sport and all the other wonderful aspects of it besides competition, such as being part of a watery community, connecting with nature and exercising for health rather than super-fitness (which does not necessarily equate with being healthy). I believe that in order to age well, you have to slow down (I mean slow down, not go slowly or stop!) and adapt. Working against our natural evolution breaks us down much faster. Why beat ourselves up?
And so those that have known me forever as a yoga teacher may be wondering why not focus on just teaching yoga? I still do but have had to appropriate it for my needs, stage of life and revised health goals. My mother suffers from advanced glaucoma, a condition which is hereditary and why I get my eye tests free. I also have very high myopia in my right eye which is also astigmatic. These factors together with being Asian and 51 puts me at high risk of a detached retina if I so much as sniff at a Downward Facing Dog let alone a head/handstand anymore. Heavy weights are also out, as this can also easily increase intra-ocular pressure and potentially make me plain old blind! Eye specialists are very much divided in opinion as to whether inversions in yoga can increase eye pressure but I aint waiting to find out who is right and have decided to be very cautious! I limit myself to handstands, gentle dives and somersaults supported in the water for short periods of time and that is my compromise there.
Other reasons why I have disassociated from the ‘yoga world’ is that it encourages hypermobility (weak joints/instability), competition and being performative (what the pose looks like on Instagram). Everything that in my opinion is what yoga is not. Every body and every bone structure is different for a wealth of reasons and every posture should reflect that fact. Some peoples joints are not built to hold standard postures. They would break if made to do so, even in what are considered simple poses that by medical definition would be considered hypermobile (See the work of Alexandria Crow via Instagram for badass on this). Those people will never get into certain postures however hard they try.
Thankfully there are a number of teachers like myself who are working with healthful ranges of movement, focusing on strength as well as flexibility and finding creative ways of moving that don’t gaslight you into feeling like you have to be a gymnast. Yes I can nearly do the splits but I wish I couldn’t as I have to work twice as hard as everyone else to keep my legs from doing them in bloody breast stroke which is very inefficient! I’ve been talking so far about yoga as a physical discipline, but this is usually the first step and an accessible way of approaching the benefits of quieting the mind in a world where our senses are often overloaded.
This brings me nicely to swimming…my favourite subject at the moment! I wont go into my aquaphobic journey here as I’ve written about it in a previous post, but all the above has lead me to take on a new personal challenge of learning to swim properly…and then teach it. Luckily the only peri-menopausal symptoms I have at the moment are being prone to joint inflammation and having a bit of a foggy brain, both of which vanish when I am in the water and for a long time afterwards. Swimming in open water connects me more to nature than yoga ever has and the proprioception and muscle memory from boxing has helped me to use my whole body like a whip to drive the power through my arms when stroking in the pool.
The mental health benefits of swimming both indoors and outside warrant a whole separate post which will be coming next but I have already written about how practicing yoga has helped me progress very quickly with swimming efficiency and breathing (see previous post). In the water I am not limited. I am not a swimmer- I am a fish or a mermaid. I can still feel incredibly powerful, learn new things and improve my health and fitness with much less risk of injury. My age can ripen gracefully. It has become a magical and safe space that also provides adventure and opportunities for travel to oceans, lakes, lagoons, waterfalls and rivers around the world, and also to meet lots of awesome people. Why wouldn’t I want to teach this shit!!
Alongside my creative work, I have always been a teacher and a teacher-trainer of various things. I now find myself at a point of consolidation where all the skills I have accumulated over a lifetime can be channelled into helping people find their fish-side, feel confident, empowered and possibly save lives. I’ve also discovered that I adore teaching children and enjoy being part of this journey with them. There is sometimes no better way of learning a skill than to observe it, as well as obviously embodying it through practice, especially if you are a visual learner like me. Training to be a swimming teacher has made me a much better swimmer. I have improved even since a week ago by observing classes, shadowing other teachers and learning the technical aspects and laws of swimming in fine detail.
I’m also a bit of a rare sight on poolside, as not only are there a shortage of swimming teachers generally (and long waiting lists for private swimming lessons, but a shortage of black and Asian women in the aquatic industry. Sports, especially for women, has not been encouraged much in the Asian community and so I never had a role model, or someone doing what I wanted to do that looked like me. There was a big national campaign earlier this year to get more Asian and especially Muslim women swimming, and also to encourage more people of colour to train as teachers. Wearing a swimming costume and being in mixed sex pools has been a big barrier but one which is now being addressed thankfully. How I love this country.
With flexible hours I can fit around my writing and music projects and plenty of work available, I feel I have arrived at just the right time. I am developing ways of integrating yoga and swimming in and out of the water and already have a busy practice teaching classes and 1:1's. I work with everyone from those who are frightened of water and can’t swim, to those wanting an intro into open water, to athletes of all ages wanting to compete and understand the laws (not rules!) of the stroke.
I have always been an advocate for health and fitness in both my personal and professional life. If there is one takeaway, it is to encourage more people to find/try a sport or physical activity that they love and embrace it in a way that helps them live a happy, healthful and balanced life. It doesn’t always have to be about competition, winning, achieving or even PB’s. It’s actually much harder learning to just to be in the moment with it all. But by god is it worth it. Oh and enjoy getting old…it’s a privilege is it not?