In 1953, a year after I graduated from high school, my Aunt Mercedes Barbarosa gave me two books as late graduation presents, something that I could carry with me as I left for military service in Korea. The first was a copy of her beautifully illustrated book, The Living Goya. Aunt Mercedes, (We called her “Aunt Mercy”) born in Spain, was a leading scholar of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Alas, as you might well guess, her Goya book was not a best seller in this country.
The second book was somewhat more interesting to me. It was called Yoga and Health*, by Selvarajan Yesudian, a yoga instructor. I was young and active and curious, so I breezed through both books, then put them aside. I did not look at those books again for decades. Well, the decades passed, along with dear Aunt Mercedes. Life happened, school, military, a wonderful marriage, raising a family and a satisfactory career. Retirement.
A couple of years ago, it was time for us to do what is called “downsizing”, when you get rid of many of the things that you have accumulated over the years. Among the things hiding in the boxes in the attic were the two books that Aunt Mercy gave me in 1953. Out of belated respect for Aunt Mercy, maybe guilt, I felt obliged to give both books the attention that I thought she would appreciate. Goya was instructive but sleep inducing. Yoga, on the other hand, held a few surprises for me so many decades later.
Before going any further, be aware that there are many schools of yoga, each approaching the subject from a different angle, some of them very different from my small and very limited experience. They come from an ancient and rich culture.
I will tell you what I got from Aunt Mercy’s Yoga book. First, some of the asanas, yoga poses, are excellent for stretching a swimmer’s muscles, especially those muscles that we tend to stress and overwork in our swim workouts. Variations of a few common asanas are part of my daily early morning workout at home. It would be difficult for me to describe them in detail, but with some research, if you are so inclined, you can come up with your own regimen. In fact, many of the stretches that you are already doing could very well be derived from yoga.
“Swimming is considered the most natural and perfect exercise. It is a natural exercise, not an artificial one.” (True, when compared to baseball or cricket.)
“It is the only sport, because of the perfectly rhythmic movements, that requires us to breathe deeply in the pranayama manner.” (Controlled, rhythmic breathing.)
“Swimming, when practiced regularly and in moderation, is extraordinarily beneficial to the health.”
“Endurance swimmers unconsciously practice yoga. They breathe less frequently and blow the air out of their lungs (with) their faces under water. The whole secret is smooth, easy, rhythmic swimming without exertion.”
It all comes down to controlled, rhythmic breathing, something that is an absolute necessity and common to both swimming and yoga. I believe that it is more applicable to longer distance swimming, especially in open water.
I cannot say with any certainty, but I suspect that yoga master Yesudian never even saw a 25-meter pool back in India so many decades ago. If so, did he ever have to make a turn every lap? Such a discontinuity would surely disrupt his composure.
But when I swim in open water, not during a race, my swimming is very much like meditation for me. I find myself in a state of deep relaxation, I breathe effortlessly and comfortably. I can concentrate on how my body feels, and on the pleasant sensation of water passing across my skin as I move through it, in it, one with it. There is a feeling of completion, of belonging. At the same time, I have to make sure that I am paying attention to what I am doing, and that I am aware of my surroundings.
*(Yoga and Health by Selvarajan Yesudian is probably long out of print. It was published by Harper and Brothers, New York, in 1953.)