Yoga for Swimming?

Open water swimming skills can definitely be enhanced with regular yoga practice, and at any age– as described below, yoga can develop both the mental and the physical aspects of open water swimming. Here is the short list of benefits:

1) Breathing skills. Most yoga instruction emphasizes breathing, and breath control: deeper inhalations, more complete expirations, and pauses after both, ultimately reducing the number of respirations per minute. One such exercise is the 4-7-8 method, where the numbers correspond to the counts for inhalation, breath-holding, and exhalation, respectively.

Getting full value of the lung capacity you have with deeper breathing exercises will enhance your respiratory reserve, your swimming endurance, and even your floatation and body position. Getting comfortable with pauses at both end-inspiration and end-expiration will enhance your breathing flexibility, allowing you to easily hold your exhalation for an extra moment when necessary, such as when in a trough or swamped by an unexpected wave.  Deep breathing has long been known to calm the brain–“Take a deep breath” remains good advice for any stressful situation, and broadly applicable if you are a newcomer to open water swimming.  Herbert Benson, in his seminal 1975 book, The Relaxation Response, has long shown that the parasympathetic nerve activity, such as induced with controlled breathing, controls the fight or flight response to stress.

2) Meditative relaxation. The meditative nature of yoga practice also helps calm the mind, reducing distraction and anxiety, encouraging focus on the present moment, and thereby promoting a relaxed state that swimmers do well with, especially in open water. This is often done by using an active focus on breathing, the calming effect of deeper breaths and slower respiratory rates, along with being more in touch with the body’s messages during movements.  Many swimmers come to use their open water swims as a great escape from stressors elsewhere, finding the rhythm and the water drowns out most other thoughts or distractions.

3) Core stability. The regular practice of yoga improves core stability, a vital component of a swimmers’ streamlined position. The more stable the core is, especially the abdominals and the posterior kinetic chain, the easier and more powerfully the arm and leg movements of swimming can be initiated without compromising good body position.

4) Flexibility. Regular yoga practice also improves general flexibility — for swimmers, more flexible ankles improves kicking performance, and more flexible shoulders improves reach and stroke length. Core flexibility also allows easier adjustments to body position in the water.

Better breathing, more relaxation, a meditative outlet, core stability, and flexibility of shoulders, ankles and trunk–add a couple of yoga sessions to your swim schedule every week, and watch your performance improve!

Mark Fromberg

60-something open water swimmer, trail runner, gym rat, retired MD, writer, consumed with optimal health in retirement

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