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A Mini Guide To Breaststroke Swimming And Its Benefits 15 Apr 2014, 8:38 am

Thanks its relatively simplicity, stability and wide accessibility, it’s no wonder that breaststroke is currently the most popular stroke in the UK and the rest of the world. Because the technique entails working your arms and legs in tandem and performing long glides, breaststroke is suitable for swimmers of all levels. Moreover, since it works your limbs pretty hard, the stroke constitutes a great alternative for everyone who’s looking to tone their arms and legs.

The history of breaststroke swimming

The most popular recreational swimming style, breaststroke is a technique believed to have roots in ancient times. In fact, archeologists have uncovered several painting depicting people performing a similar movement near Wadi Sora in Egypt’s famous ‘cave of swimmers’. An interesting fact about this technique is that it was the only stroke allowed during the great plague during the Middle Ages; because the swimmer’s head is out of the water most of times, people back then believed it would limit the evolution of the epidemic.

Breaststroke swimming became highly popular during Victorian Era, perhaps the only time in medieval history when England knew prosperity, refined sensibility and peace under the ruling of Queen Victoria. Refined sensibility constituted the emphasis of these ages, as people back then considered the overarm action in swimming as inelegant and unsuitable. However, the breaststroke only managed to become competitive in 1875, soon after the famous Captain Webb became the first man to swim the English Channels.

Breaststroke may be easy, but also tricky

Although it’s relatively simple to perform, the truth is that few swimmers are able to execute breaststroke in a manner that promotes the good use of their entire body. The problem for most comes from the taking the idea that ‘breaststroke is the best means of keeping your hair dry’ too seriously. In spite of the fact that the technique allows you to keep your head out of the water most of the time, it doesn’t mean ALL the time.

In fact, by attempting to do so, you will put too much pressure on the spine and risk a serious strain. At the opposite end, if you maintain your face in the water for too long, then you will be too busy trying to breathe and hence, less focused on your arm and leg action or timing.

Sometimes, swimmers are unable to perform the breaststroke correctly because they picked up some bad habits during their childhood. In the latter case, the best method of correcting these strongly ingrained habits is to re-learn the stroke.

The key features of breaststroke swimming

Breaststroke swimming is best learned gradually. After you manage to attain effective arm and leg coordination, you can move on to a more complex synchronization of your limbs as well as breathing integration. Re-learning or learning the technique entails working on:

  • Orientation

    You should keep your eyes straight down during the glide, when your neck is fully extended, when your chin rests near the surface of the water and in the breathing position.

  • Arm action

    When you are in the initial gliding position, try to keep your arms slightly downwards. During the propulsive movement, you should focus on holding the water so your upper body is drawn forwards and upwards. Don’t force too much in the opening phase while your upper back widens.

  • Leg action

    Take note that the leg action is non-propulsive for breaststroke: simply release the legs before pushing backwards. To prevent knee injury and improve your hips’ mobility, it would be wise to go for a wide, wedge-like action.

  • Rhythm

    In the event you rely on breaststroke for competitions, then know that long glides are a waste of time. Because the primary objective is to move into the propulsive actions as soon as possible, a far better approach consists of a series of slides with active movements. This way you will have more time to exhale.

Breaststroke swimming is slow, but effective

If you want to tone and shape your legs, then a leg-dominant stroke like the breaststroke is ideal for the task. Although it is perceived as the slowest stroke, the truth is that the technique burns the most calories, strengthens your quadriceps and toughens your hamstrings. All in all, breaststroke swimming provides you with a full leg workout in a meditative and calming manner thanks to the gentle breathing repetitions.

Learning The Butterfly Stroke | How To Perform Body Undulation Drills And Dolphin Kicks Correctly 14 Apr 2014, 7:44 am

Granted, the butterfly stroke is quickly exhausting and among the most difficult swimming techniques an athlete can learn. Then again, mastering its unique and spectacular movements promises to be a lot of fun and provide you with the edge you need during competitive swimming.

What does the butterfly stroke entail?

The butterfly stroke implies holding your thighs closely together and gliding with the knees released, redirecting movement through the hips. As your hips rise, you press down with the upper body and while you push down with the legs, the upper body is elevated to the surface. Due to the specific motions, the stroke has often been compared with a dolphin’s way of swimming.

The best way to learn the butterfly stroke implies practicing the movements individually. In order to perform this stroke with ease, a swimmer needs to study and practice several sequences included in the technique first, namely:

– Achieving balance without the use of your arms

Also dubbed the gliding phase, achieving body balance without the help of your arms is critical for correctly performing the butterfly stroke. Keep in mind that this is the only stroke in swimming that entails bringing both arms behind the body. Therefore, its role is to teach your how to regain control of your feet and your core muscles, both being critical to proper undulation.

To start the movement, step forward with your arms by the sides of your body and inhale gently. Lean your body forward and start exhaling lightly into the water. Once in the water, drift off into a glide while keeping your eyes down and without pushing actively. Try to maintain this position and refrain from moving your trunk or your limbs until you count to four; then, press your head down and tuck up quickly to regain your feet without any assistance from your arms.
To avoid injuries, make sure to keep arms, neck and shoulders relaxed at all times. In addition, be constantly alert about your position and refrain from pulling the head back or pushing off from the floor to regain your feet.

– The upright wave

The role of training to perform an upright wave correctly is to learn how to move your upper body – particularly the torso – as one unit. Although the movement appears difficult, rest assured that the uplift of the water and the associated resistance facilitates the motion.
If you prefer the opening stance, then tilt your upper body from the hips, while bending your knees slightly and keeping your palms facing to rear. As you sweep your arms gently behind the body, move the hips forward and keep your upper body backwards. Because the body needs to move as one unit, remember to initiate the motion from your hips and maintain your shoulders relaxed.

On a side note, if you prefer water threading, then make sure to maintain your heels in contact with the floor while tilting your torso. While performing the actual sequence, remember to move up on to tiptoes and keep your eyes forward. To prevent unwanted accidents, avoid pulling too vigorously with your arms or arching your back.

– Waving with your arms extended

Waving with your arms extended is basically the movement you’ll perform at the start of every stroke. The technique implies drifting into a glide while maintaining your head bowed, eyes front, gentle breathing and, of course, your arms extended. To glide you need to allow your hips to rise by pressing down with the chest and using the crown of your head to guide your body forward and down. As you look up again, let your legs push down and your body float up.
Take note that the upward movement is passive, while the downward is active. Therefore, redirect your look down to slide forward for a couple of seconds before you regain your feet. To prevent cramps and injuries, avoid over-bending your knees or keeping your hips too stiff.

– Waving with your arms trailing

Once you master the previous technique, you are ready to collapse your chest and push down actively to drive your hips upwards as your legs extend. While your hips move up and down, allow your knees to bend and use the up thrust force to lift your upper body. Remember to regain your feet each time you elevate the upper body.

At this point, you should learn how to let your arms loose by your sides and control the movement entirely with your hips and by lengthening your legs. To avoid straining your back, do not arch it excessively, over-bend the knees or lift your feet out of the water.

You need to be patient and focused on your training

Learning how to perform the butterfly stroke correctly entails practicing to develop an effective dolphin kick and mastering the art of body undulation. Take note that the stroke relies on the propulsion generated by the combined actions of the upper and lower body. Because learning to perform the combined movements effectively takes some practice, patience is highly advised in this case.

Swimming: co-ordinated breathing – breaststroke 1 Dec 2009, 10:05 pm

In the breaststroke, exhalation takes place as you release into the glide. Extending the arms forward exerts pressure on the diaphragm, naturally encouraging the expulsion of air from the lungs. Similarly, raising the body up and bringing the arms round encourages the opening up of the chest and lungs, thus promoting an unforced inhalation. Assuming that sufficient air has been expelled during the glide, air will flow in to the lungs without extra effort.

Standing up, bring your arms up to shoulder height and open them wide to either side. Think of the movement as starting from the back and shoulders and then traveling into the arms and hands. Notice how, as your arms open, there is a natural inclination to inhale. Now close your arms, bringing your hands together, and notice how it feels more comfortable to exhale as you do so.

Due to the pressure of water (hydrostatic pressure), breathing out into water requires slightly more force and takes longer than exhalation into air. A leisurely glide in the breast stroke should allow enough time to release sufficient air from the lungs for a comfortable inhalation to take place in turn. It’s a common error to suppose that one needs to fill one’s lungs to capacity with each inhalation or to breathe out every last drop of air. This is a recipe for anxiety and tension.

The length of time you choose to take in the glide will indicate the speed at which the breath needs to be exhaled. A faster rhythm of the stroke will require a shorter, more forceful exhalation. So when we accelerate our arm movements for the sake of speed, thereby encouraging repeated inhalation with every pull, problems arise because there’s not enough time to exhale sufficiently in the short periods when the arms are in the forward position. The repeated pulling back of the arms without sufficient intermediate pause can create a tendency to hyperventilate, which is a common reason for breathlessness and discomfort in the breast stroke.

Discover your optimum rhythms by trying out glides for different lengths of time. You can set a rhythm for yourself in advance by counting, say, to a slow beat of four. Think ‘glide’ to the count of three, and ‘up’ on the fourth. Explore this first on land and then standing in shallow water: as you extend your hands forward, bow your head and shoulders and exhale into the water. Exhale counting three beats while your hands stay together ahead of you, and come up to breathe on the fourth count.

A common fault is to leave the head in the water too long before pulling it back hastily to snatch a breath. It is much more comfortable to allow the head to rise as an integrated part of the torso when your arms open and draw back. The pace of rhythm needs to be adapted depending on how fast you swim. Ultimately, the exact rhythm of breathing will depend on all sorts of factors: your weight, height, speed, orientation, or just the way you choose to swim at the time.

Finding your feet and aspects of balance in the water 1 Dec 2009, 10:04 pm

Try the following set of maneuvers for recovering your footing in the shallow end of a pool. This procedure is particularly important for beginners and those who lack confidence in recovering an upright position in shallow water after a glide.

Breathing presents a challenge to maintaining good orientation in the water. If we were able, like seals or dolphins, to submerge ourselves for extended periods without breathing, it might be- easier to maintain a balanced head-neck-back relationship. But we need to inhale through our nose or mouth more regularly. Because this means our face must surface above the water, learning to incorporate it into our stroke without interfering with good orientation is an important aspect of the art of swimming. Attempts are often made to side-step this problem.

Medical professionals, even while recommending swimming for health, sometimes advise against swimming breaststroke or front crawl for this reason. But the backstroke has its own complexities for maintaining good orientation. Some people think snorkels are the answer, but that merely limits the possibilities of the swimmer’s art. In fact, it’s far more rewarding to meet the challenge creatively, and thereby to expand rather than curtail your experience of swimming. There’s great pleasure in discovering that it’s possible to swim all the strokes and breathe well, without the use of props.

Good orientation in the water requires a continuous, flowing sense of balance. As we use our limbs to propel us through the water, the point of balance changes constantly. Holding the head in a fixed position interferes with this dynamic process. The point of balance at any one time depends on the relative positions of the various parts of the body, which are constantly changing as we move. One of” the keys to discovering the art of swimming is a keen awareness of the delicate balance of our bodies in the water. Such awareness provides the basis for ease and grace of movement, the distinguishing mark of the accomplished swimmer.

The body has a natural symmetry. Its weight is more or less equally distributed on either side of the spine. When we swim, the use of our limbs can either impede or assist the maintenance of our natural balance. If we pull harder with one arm without noticing it, we not only affect our ability to swim in a straight line, but disturb our overall poise. Similarly, uneven or uncoordinated use of the legs, which can be observed in swimmers who exhibit a ‘screw-kick’ in the breast stroke, reduces our control of how we move through the water.

In addition to these aspects of lateral balance, our body needs to find a dynamic equilibrium along its length. As with a see-saw, the weight of the head acts as an effective counterpoise to the downward pressure of the pelvic area. If we let go of our neck muscles when we lie face down on the water, our head naturally tends forward under its own weight. Rather than resist this tendency, we should learn to allow it to work in our favor when we swim.

Technical aids and accessories of swimming 1 Dec 2009, 10:04 pm

Because a sense of ease in the water is so essential to the art of swimming, equipment that helps to promote this is a worthwhile investment. Adults who have difficulty putting their face in the water for any length of time can find good-quality swimming accessories invaluable. As the majority of swimming-pools use chlorine as a disinfectant (and even lakes and oceans may contain eye irritants), the eyes are likely to sting if they stay open underwater for long periods. To help prevent this, there’s no substitute for a pair of good, well-fitting goggles. Without them, many swimmers will prefer to close their eyes the majority of the time. This not only increases the risk of bumping into things such as walls, lane ropes and other swimmers, but more importantly it contributes to a feeling of nervousness and of being in an alien environment. This is particularly true for swimmers who have poor eyesight to begin with. Straining one’s eyes to see the end of a pool or to avoid obstacles is not conducive to feeling at home in the water.

For some swimmers, goggles feel uncomfortably tight or constricting and seem to leak and fog up constantly. In the box below are suggestions for ways of overcoming such concerns. Today there are hundreds of different makes of goggles on the market, and it’s worth getting a pair that offers maximum effectiveness with minimum discomfort. If necessary, they can be ordered with lenses made to your prescription. Overleaf are some points worth noting about goggles.

Apart from goggles, a number of accessories are widely available to help swimmers deal with their concerns. It’s worth considering anything that serves to prevent distraction, difficulty, or genuine discomfort. A swimming cap is a boon for swimmers with long hair, and may be useful to prevent waterlogged hair flopping over the eyes and mouth. Although you may have to accept that they are uncomfortable and not always totally effective in keeping the hair dry, their main purpose is to keep hair out of your face so that you can attend to your swimming. Watertight ear-plugs are helpful for swimmers prone to ear infections or who suffer earache when the head is underwater. However, they can add to a sense of isolation in the water.

Similarly, nose-clips are not recommended unless you have specific sinus problems, because they’re likely to prevent you learning the appropriate ways of breathing when you swim. For hair and skin, shampoos and gels are widely available to neutralize chemicals and remove the smell of chlorine.

For children (and sometimes for adults), floats and armbands are commonly used accessories. But it is worth pausing before assuming that these are helpful for learning to swim. Above all, they can interfere with learners developing a sense of their natural buoyancy, the keystone of confidence in the water. While they may sometimes be considered essential for safety requirements, they should therefore be used only sparingly, if at all, in the context of children learning to swim under proper instruction.

Swimming – tips of fitness can damage your health 1 Dec 2009, 10:03 pm

There is a Law of Reversed Effort. The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing. Aldus Huxley

A common feature of the case histories is the emphasis on trying to achieve, the sort of end-gaining that invariably accompanies the unthinking pursuit of fitness. We must be careful not to apply the same sort of trying to the task of learning a new approach, thus replacing one form of end-gaining with another. Alexander found that when pupils try to do the ‘right thing’ they are inclined to apply the wrong sort of effort to the task, which actually prevents them from performing it efficiently. In his Notes of Instruction we read: ‘I don’t want you to give a damn if you’re right or not. Directly you don’t care if you’re right or not the impeding obstacle is gone.’ Swimmers who try to ‘do it the right way’ create tensions which serve only to restrict their movements in the water. The anxiety aroused by trying to do the right thing is itself detrimental to awareness. The Alexander Technique shifts the emphasis away from trying to do the right thing to learning to prevent the wrong.

Learning the art of swimming involves discovering how to control the body’s natural buoyancy and make it work for you. As the body has a lower density than water, it will almost always float unless something is done to prevent it. Many adult beginners are reluctant to let the water support them, and may think that if they do nothing they will immediately sink to the bottom. Although there are individual physical differences which make it easier for some people to float than others, the main obstacle to floating is the false notion that the body must actively be held up in the water. The idea of non-doing also applies in another way. Swimming efficiently involves using the least effort to overcome resistance from the water. Applying too much effort increases friction and turbulence. Studies of Olympic swimmers have shown that the fastest swimmers are the ones who take the fewest strokes to cover the distance. What counts is not the amount of effort, but the appropriate use of effort. It can be interesting to see how few strokes you need to take to swim a given distance without loss of momentum.

The principle of non-doing was crucial to Helen’s recognition that thrashing about wouldn’t help her learn to float, let alone swim. Non-doing is not the same as passivity or total inactivity. It’s simply the result of a conscious decision not to respond in a habitual way. The Alexander Technique sets out to teach us how to consciously undo undesirable responses. A non-doing approach to swimming can work wonders both for the beginner and the more advanced swimmer. The less one does to hinder oneself, the easier it becomes to move through the water. This results in a truer approach to fitness which avoids the strain imposed by trying to attain inappropriate preconceived goals. A step-by-step, experimental approach allows swimmers to change their unthinking or automatic responses both in and out of the water.

Most of us act from unrecognized assumptions about which we have a natural tendency to deceive both ourselves and others. Detecting some of the specific mental blocks which get in the way of swimming freely can be difficult.

Exploring swimming orientation – backstroke 1 Dec 2009, 10:03 pm

When performed correctly, backstroke can be the most elegant and relaxed-looking of all the strokes. However, if a good head-neck-back relationship is not maintained, it becomes disorganized and awkward. Some swimmers pull their head right back so that their eyes are focused on a point behind them, which can cause the back to arch unduly and water to spill over the face. Others crane their heads forward too far in an attempt to hold their face out of the water. This compresses the chest and puts a strain on the neck muscles.

Backstroke is performed with a regular arm action combined with a steady leg-kick. The head and spine should remain centered, while the hips and shoulders constantly rotate, requiring a free-flowing mobility of the hip and shoulder joints. The legs do not simply kick up and down at right angles to the water surface. During the stroke they will mainly be angled to one side or the other, following the angle of the torso and lower body. The alternating arm-pull required for propulsion creates continuous alterations in the body’s lateral balance.

Controlling body-roll helps to preserve balance and freedom. Maintaining good orientation is the means whereby this can be achieved.

Practice the backstroke initially in three stages, to explore the optimum release of the neck-muscles during its performance.

1. Push off from the poolside on your back, hands resting by your side. Your body should be slightly angled to one side. Release your neck-muscles, letting your ears submerge, and discover how effectively the water can support your head if you allow it to. Experiment with minor changes in the angle of your neck to see how they can affect the way you float, noticing how holding up the head requires more effort than releasing the neck-muscles.

2. Perform the same procedure with one hand gently supporting the back of your neck. With your hand feel the tone of the muscles in your neck as you experiment with different angles.

3. Perform the procedure this time with one arm extended behind you as you glide. Notice how much easier it is to float with the weight of the arm helping to balance the body along its length. Does this position have any effect on the sensation of release in your neck-muscles?

Unlike the breaststroke, backstroke requires taking the arms out of the water and placing them back in. This is a process requiring fine control and unless performed with awareness and skill can have detrimental repercussions for orientation. The temptation is to arch the back. If we hold our arms stiffly or apply undue force, muscles become taut throughout the body. If the neck in particular is not relaxed, the head will tend to follow the movement of the arm round into the water, pulled both backward and from side to side by the powerful trapeziums muscle which connects the neck, shoulders and back. If the backward movement is too extreme, we risk water splashing over our faces. If the sideways movement is exaggerated, we increase resistance to our passage through the water and may disrupt the rhythm of our stroke.

Explore how well you can control the entry of your hand into the water. While neck and arm muscles should remain as relaxed as possible, the hand should be carefully directed into the water, little finger leading. This requires a rotation of the shoulders and a looseness of the neck to allow the head to move smoothly on its axis.

Orientation in the backstroke demonstrates the importance of the sculling action which characterizes most forms of propulsion in the water. Sculling means pushing sideways towards the body with hand and forearm so as to propel oneself forwards on one’s front or backwards on the back. After the arm enters the water, the elbow should drop so that halfway through the underwater phase the forearm can commence to scull. To do this requires a relaxed flexion of the elbow: a rigid arm cannot scull effectively. Furthermore, if the arms flail like windmills or propeller-blades, their very rigidity will cause the strain and imbalance in the stroke that has been described.

Swimming – healing power of water 1 Dec 2009, 10:03 pm

Water is both literally and symbolically the source of life. It’s the most abundant substance on the surface of the Earth, covering more than 70% of the planet. It constitutes a large proportion of all living things: about two thirds of a human being’s body mass is made up of water. To ensure the efficient functioning of our metabolism and bodily systems, we need to drink it in sufficient quantities every day. Water is a universal solvent, allowing us to assimilate the minerals and vitamins that are vital for strength and health. Insufficient liquid intake even affects the development of bone tissue, ultimately weakening the skeletal framework, reducing its plasticity, and bringing on conditions such as osteoporosis.

The restorative powers of water have been recognized and acclaimed for millennia. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, emphasized the importance of drinking for health and had a high regard for water’s curative powers. The Greeks prescribed bathing in natural springs as a cure for disease and as a way of increasing vigor and vitality. They filled their town centers with springs and fountains, to give pleasure both to the eye and the ear. Their great medical sanctuaries dedicated to the god Asclepius were established around healing baths and fountains. The Romans went even further, seeking out natural springs wherever they ventured and erecting over them beautifully designed buildings, so that the Roman Bath (like its historical successor the Turkish Bath) is associated with opulence and tranquility to this day.

Nowadays, water therapies of all kinds are widely used and increasingly popular throughout the world. Spas and hydrous are centers for health breaks and convalescence, used in the rehabilitation of a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. Activity in water helps the recovery of wasted and injured muscles; patients who are too weak to move an injured limb without aid may be able to perform a full range of movement in a hydrotherapy pool. Warm baths can help to restore mobility, treat digestive problems, relieve insomnia and promote general muscular relaxation. Cold water is used to lower the body temperature, relieve muscular pains, boost poor circulation, treat skin conditions and reduce inflammations. Alongside therapies, there has increasing emphasis on recreational exercise conducted in water, such as the techniques of Ai Chi and Watsu. Whether associated with calmness and tranquility, or strength and vitality, water has powerful effects on the human mind and spirit. It’s well known that the sight and sound of the ocean, of a flowing river, or a cascading waterfall, elicit positive feelings. This is in part due to the actual physical properties of flowing water. At the sea-shore or by the side of a waterfall, there is an abundance of negative ions, which has been shown to have a beneficial effect on mind and body. The molecules of the air we breathe carry electrical charges which affect the functioning of cells throughout our body. An excess of positive ions, such as is found in most cities, has a fatiguing and debilitating effect.

Even the sound of water – a running river or the lapping of waves – produces a measurable effect on our organism. Research has shown that when we listen to the sound of flowing or rushing water, wave patterns in our brain alter in a similar way to when we relax or meditate. Longer exposure to such sounds is used as a way of treating anxiety, tension and depression.

Why analyze and treat in isolation all these benefits that water has to offer when water is so abundant? Learn to be alive to the sound, sight and feel of water in all its natural, invigorating and life-enhancing wholeness. Become aware in the water of the inner rhythms of your body. Listen in the silence to your heartbeat as you float motionless. Celebrate the rhythm of your limbs as you swim. Learn to trust water, play with it, and appreciate its tremendous strength. Seek out the currents below the surface, rock gently in swelling waves, feel the water’s silky caress on your skin, and submerge yourself in its embrace. In these ways you can discover for yourself the healing power of water.

Swimming – the force of habit 1 Dec 2009, 10:02 pm

Everything we do involves a complex interaction of conscious and unconscious actions. In practice the Alexander Technique (AT) tends to work with relatively undemanding, commonplace activities, like standing, sitting, and walking. The effort of performing more complicated activities is likely to furnish distractions from the initial task at hand, that of learning to be aware of ourselves. Krishna-murti once remarked ‘There is more to life than getting in and out of a chair!’ Equally, one could say that there is more to playing the piano than just pressing the keys; but to be able to do so with the appropriate amount of weight and balance is the foundation of all further learning of the instrument. In the same way, even sitting and standing with a new mindfulness can bring enormous benefit. It is the basis of a self-awareness that can be extended to all activities.

The decision to rise from a chair is often accompanied by a contraction of neck muscles which pulls the head back. This is followed by an unnecessary downward pressure on the legs. These responses are so habitual that we don’t notice ourselves making them. But are they necessary or desirable? The small backward movement of the head, part of the ‘startle pattern’ mentioned above, creates a strain on the neck and a contraction of the spine. Put simply, we are doing too much. Note the lightness and grace of a cat jumping up onto a wall, or a monkey springing from a branch: because it is oriented upwards, it exerts the minimum necessary downward force. Its head and body function as an integrated unit. Similarly, what is needed for you to rise from your chair is for your body to be well oriented in an upward direction. All the relevant muscles are then engaged at the right moment, working together in harmony to take your body upwards.

In this way, even getting out of a chair requires a lot less effort than we normally use.

When we get up or sit down in our habitual, unthinking manner, the unnecessary muscular tension that we have engaged in our body and limbs persists. Our muscles stay taut, our spine remains contracted. Our body becomes effectively locked in a state of unnecessary strain, which in turn affects our thinking. In subsequent actions – walking, driving, climbing stairs, we labor under the disadvantage of already lacking the basis for dynamic poise and flexibility. The constant repetition of such actions in the course of a day compounds the strain we unwittingly place on our musculo-skeletal structure, sapping us of freshness and vitality. The cumulative effects of misuse thus affect both bodily and mental functioning. No wonder most people feel drained at the end of a working day.

By proposing that we direct attention to the starting-point of the tension at the top of the spine (known as the atlanto-occipital or ‘nodding’ joint), the AT proposes a practical way in which we can become, and remain, alert to ourselves. In the AT session, divorced from distractions, our mind is sufficiently quiet to be aware of what we are doing when we start to rise from a chair. In our habitual mode this is likely to involve a host of extraneous, unhelpful movements and tensions – pulling back our head, hollowing our back, tensing our shoulders and so on. So the first thing we’re encouraged to do is to stop doing what we usually do. By consciously forestalling our habitual reaction, we can allow the relationship of our head and back to remain balanced and flexible. We remain in a condition of release, in which we are poised to choose how to engage ourselves most efficiently to achieve the desired result. The outcome is the continuous positive cycle, reinforcing both physical and psychological ease.

What emerges from this account is that the AT is first and foremost about breaking the force of habit. It is not intended as a method for replacing bad habits with good ones. Inasmuch as habits are unthinking, the AT shuns them altogether. In the words of the philosopher William James, who had a high regard for Alexander’s work, ‘The only habit to cultivate is the habit of giving up habits’. True awareness is thinking in the moment and not relying on habit. Only in this way can we approach any situation with a fresh and open mind. Greater awareness of our use brings with it the challenge of exploration and genuine discovery.

Exploring Swimming Orientation – Front Crawl 1 Dec 2009, 10:02 pm

The front craw (or freestyle) is potentially the most efficient and fastest of the swimming strokes. It is swum in a continuous, flowing action, with the head leading the body through the water like the prow of a ship. When you swim face-down (prone) you can allow your body to extend naturally and can use your arms with maximum flexibility for propulsion. This stroke offers a good opportunity to explore the experience of release and forward orientation in the water.

Efficient front crawl requires sensitivity to the changing point of balance along the entire length of the body. The alternate rotation of the arms allows the body and limbs to remain extended as they slice through the water. A useful image is that of a long boat moving forward without a break with a continuous rhythm of propulsion, rather than the push-and-release that gives the breast stroke its characteristic ebb and flow. Longer and proportionately thinner vessels are more streamlined than shorter, broader ones, and this principle applies equally to the way the body lies on the water. In the crawl, the arms, back, and legs are extended. The point of balance of this elongated figure is higher up the body towards the head, creating the potential for greater momentum.

Snatching back the arms in a hasty manner reduces the potential benefit of streamlining offered by the elongated body. To overcome this tendency, it helps to continue to direct the extended arm forward until the recovering arm enters the water. The arm should never become rigid. A slightly bent elbow in the underwater part of the stroke allows for greater purchase on the water, and therefore a more efficient use of effort in propulsion. As the arm breaks the water surface for the so-called ‘recovery’ phase of the stroke, the elbow should be released so that it bends naturally. You should not make a special effort to bend or pitch the elbow, which involves unnecessary muscle strain and is a cause of tendonitis in competitive swimmers. Free rotation of the shoulder with a released elbow activates the powerful back muscle (the latissimus dorsi) rather than putting strain on the arm and shoulders. A free elbow also allows for a smoother and more controlled entry of the hand into the water, which in turn enables a steadier underwater pull.

Breathing presents the main challenge to retaining good orientation in this stroke. Craning the head and shoulders back to inhale has a particularly adverse effect. Unhurried rotation of the head and hips is all that is required to lift the mouth sufficiently above the water to breathe in. A controlled combination of hip and head roll is the essence of a fluent, elegant front crawl. You may imagine that all you need to do to be in a position to inhale is simply to turn your head 90 degrees to the side. But can you do this, even out of the water, without feeling the pull on your neck-muscles? In practice, a hip-roll which initiates rotation of the torso gives vital assistance to the process. If the hips contribute half the body-roll, the neck muscles only need to rotate the head half as far. This creates more time and ease for breath to be taken without disturbing the balance of head, neck and back.

Explore the enjoyable possibilities offered by increased mobility of the hips in the following way. After swimming on your front for a few strokes, roll your whole body over onto your back. Notice how much easier this is if you treat the body as a unit. Imagine starting the movement from the hips, instead of twisting your head and neck and letting your torso follow. Incorporate the sensation of rolling your whole body unhurriedly into the continuous action of the stroke. You can remind yourself to start the outward roll from the hip, and the return roll leading with the head, by repeating rhythmically as you perform the action ‘Hips: – roll out. Head: – back in.’

The use of the arms in the crawl, as in the backstroke, also affects orientation. Excessive effort with the arms can force the head backward. Since propulsion is generated by the arm-pull beneath the water, crashing the arms down into the water is both a waste of energy and militates against the control needed to prepare an effective pull. If the hand enters at a wide angle to the body it disturbs the balance. Equally, a narrow entry – when the hand enters the water at a point within the width of the shoulders – causes the body to wobble unevenly. When swimmers with this tendency first try to bring their hands into the water at a wider point of entry than they’re used to, they frequently feel that their arms are entering the water significantly more widely than they actually are.

The problem of placing the hand correctly on its re-entry into the water offers a prime instance of what the Alexander Technique calls unreliable sensory appreciation. The faulty arm action may have become so ingrained that it feels right. When we come to modify it, to start with it feels wrong. Learning the art of swimming is a continuous process of development and refinement of motor skills. We should not, therefore, limit ourselves by relying solely on our feelings.

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