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The Deep End 

How a new way of swimming is helping me get my chi back.

You wake up from a dream with a start. Maybe you were being chased by greyhounds, or being de-pantsed in front of your high school classmates. Whatever the case, it was vividly real. Sitting up, your heart is pumping, and your pajamas are drenched in sweat.

But with every second of wakefulness, the dream slips further and further away, and the harder you try to recover it — to remember why you were being chased, or who was yanking at your trousers — the more quickly it recedes into nothingness.

That’s exactly the feeling I’ve been having in the pool at the YMCA lately.

I’ve always been a dreadful swimmer, for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the minor ear problem I developed at age 6, which temporarily barred me from dunking my head underwater at precisely the time that all the other kids my age were learning to swim. Consequent to this, I’ve had a lifelong ambivalence toward water — in love with the feeling of it, but embarrassed by my incompetent flailing.

But I’m discovering that there’s another important reason for my ineptitude.

I recently stumbled across a recorded lecture from the annual TED Conference in California, in which the lecturer spoke of his childhood fear of water.

“I was terrified of swimming, and my inability to swim has been one of my greatest humiliations,” Tim Ferriss, an entrepreneur and the author of The Four-Hour Workweek, told his audience. “[But] at age 31, I took two weeks to re-examine swimming and went from swimming one lap like a drowning monkey to jumping in the ocean, swimming one kilometer in open water, getting out and feeling … like the Incredible Hulk.”

Ferriss is a disciple of what he calls the “new rules of swimming,” which have been developed by an upstate New York swim coach named Terry Laughlin. This new approach, dubbed “Total Immersion,” turns on its head all the conventional wisdom that’s been taught by swim coaches and Red Cross instructors for decades. It’s not about pushing water with your arms, Laughlin says, or kicking like a paddle wheeler. It’s not about being brutestrong, indefatigable or gym-trained.

Rather, it’s about streamlining, moving efficiently through the water. Arms aren’t booster rockets but pistons operated by the engine that is your body’s core. There’s little kicking involved. It’s about being “slippery” in the water, swimming longer and faster with fewer strokes, breathing rhythmically and emerging from the water feeling relaxed and vibrant.

This, I reasoned, is where I’ve been going wrong all these years — trying to propel my scrawny frame through the pool with what I thought were all the right moves — big arm pulls and hyperactive karate kicks. I bought Laughlin’s introductory book, joined the YMCA and have been dutifully performing the awkward initial drills in the pool there nearly every day for the last week and a half.

But I’ve quickly discovered that there’s more to Total Immersion swimming than just jumping in and gliding effortlessly. Laughlin himself is quick to point out that this new style is in some ways harder than normal swimming. Though you don’t need to be strong, you do need to master certain skills and imprint into your body memory the connected and seemingly counter-intuitive body motions that will allow such gliding.

Forced effortlessness. Exacting grace. The inherent contradiction there reminds me of my brief practice of t’ai chi in college. Harnessing and releasing the “chi,” or your body’s energy, comes not from flexing muscles but keeping your body loose, while moving in precise, connected ways.

“The similarities to t’ai chi are strongest in that we advocate swimming be done as a practice rather than as most people do — as a workout,” Laughlin wrote by email this weekend from England, where he was hoping the weather would clear for a relay swim across the English Channel.

I’m thinking about that as I push off from the wall at the Y. Head aligned, body long, hands soft. Press the buoy of your lungs downward. Keep your arms weightless. Breathe.

It takes tremendous concentration but also a kind of laissez-faire absent-mindedness. The moment I think about my lack of quick progress, the moment a muscle tenses, the entire sequence crumbles. The harder I chase down that dream state — of dolphin-esque grace and speed — the more quickly the dream dissolves in a spray of bubbles from my chopping, discombobulated arms. To succeed, I have to forget what’s happening outside of the pool and mediate with my entire nervous system — not just my brain — on the simple, elegant set of tasks at hand.

“[There’s an] uncanny similarity between the ‘rules’ for swimming well and those for living well,” Laughlin writes, when I tell him about this. “My Kindle is full of books about happiness, mastery and flow. There is near-perfect symmetry between their advice for achieving the object of each of their titles and the mindset and approach to practice we have long advocated for swimming.”

After a week and a half of this practice, I still can’t swim like a fish. But I’m not really worried about it. Even if I never do achieve that kind of grace, the process of getting there — the concentrated relaxation, the unambivalent enjoyment of the water — may be its own destination. The practice may trump perfection.

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