Yoga Lessons from the Masters Swim

This month, I finally faced my fear of failure and began attending the masters swim at UNC. While there have been some moments of failure, I’ve gotten in lots of yardage and received many good tips. I’ve seen improvement in my stroke, naturally, but I’ve also gained new insight into the finer points of being a yoga teacher and a yoga student.

Here are some of the parallels I’ve found thus far.

Knowing where to go and what to bring is key.
I enlisted my friend Alex to take me to the first practice, which allayed my anxieties about parking, meeting the coach, finding the locker room, and choosing a lane. My favorite yoga studios are those that clearly explain the logistics of getting there and setting up. These questions alone can frighten students off. Ask a friend to take you if you feel self-conscious; you’ll be much more comfortable from the beginning.
Play with equipment.
In swimming, equipment is used to pinpoint, exaggerate, or highlight part of the stroke. Similarly, in yoga, props can help you focus on a particular action. Sometimes, they make a pose accessible where it wouldn’t otherwise be. (Various teachers place different emphases on props. One of my clients calls an equipment-intensive workout I prescribe “Iyengar swim.”) In both swimming and yoga, you might as well haul out every available prop, saving yourself the trip to the equipment closet in the middle of practice. 
Be where you are.
I’ve written about the importance of not comparing your yoga with what you see on adjacent mats. This holds true in the water. If I felt like I had to swim like the three professional triathletes or the nationally ranked masters swimmers in the lanes next to me, I’d quickly blow up and sink to the bottom of the pool. It’s nice to see beautiful swimming modeled, but I have to work with the form I currently have, at the intensity and speed that are right for me.
Enjoy the beautiful design of a good workout.
It’s incredibly gratifying to see the structure and planning of these masters workouts. (Kudos, NCAC!) I put a lot of work into building themed, symmetrical, balanced sequences for my classes, and I adore dropping in on someone else’s class that uses the physical sequences to help crystallize a point. At the same time, it’s simply a treat to do a workout someone else wrote!
Listen for the right metaphor.
Coach Griff today described the “swim over a barrel” point by evoking a keg. Combined with a visual cue, this metaphor seemed to work. (“Beer. Got it.”) Listen for the words that bring a point of form or philosophy home to you—you’ll know you’ve found the right teacher for you when the metaphors ring clearly. (I enjoyed this experience yesterday in a fabulous yoga class with OM Yoga teacher Sarah Trelease, who used a great set of images to illustrate her points.)
You have to push a little to see change.
Every sport teaches us this, but it’s true at masters, too. When I feel my aversion to swimming 400 all out toward the end of a 3,000-yard workout (and I’m doing the B-level yardage!), I take a breath, let it out, take another, and see what I can do. Same thing goes on the mat. We need to recognize but not engage with that original recoiling from a pose—provided we are practicing it safely, of course—to see what progress can be made.
Learn perfect mountain pose alignment, and come back to it often.
Memorize and continually revisit mountain pose. Everything in swimming and yoga comes back to that original alignment: neutral spine, balanced distribution of weight, engagement along the long axis of your body.
Return to form and breath.
Of the three sports I practice, swimming places the most emphasis on form and breath. Cycling and running need it, too, but if you’re flailing in the pool without precise form and planned breath, the water will seem to gel around all your inefficiencies. Constantly scan your form in both swimming and yoga. Where could you relax more? Where is energy best spent? Be sure you fully empty your lungs in preparation for each inhalation; otherwise, you’re depriving yourself of the opportunity to take in fresh air quickly. (Pranayama, yoga’s breath exercises, are especially useful here.) If it starts to get too intense, stop and breathe.
Let it go if it is beyond your current skill set, but don’t be afraid to lay the groundwork for future progress.
I avoid butterfly like some of my students avoid arm balances. (Actually, folks who swim fly are usually pretty great at poses like crane/crow and handstand.) I’ve never had the coordination or the drive to learn the stroke. But by taking small steps that teach the form, I can get there someday. It takes some humility to do something that feels unfamiliar and looks foolish, but that friction is necessary for growth. Today, that meant two-armed backstroke. In the studio, it might mean asking for assistance or deciding that falling is OK.
Which leads me to my last point:
Keep your sense of humor.
I had an especially inglorious moment last week, when I tried—and failed—to heave myself out of the pool via the starting blocks. I tried to parlay it into a calf stretch, but it would have been obvious to anyone watching. It’s also probably been obvious every time I fell out of headstand or snorted or let other air escape from my body in the studio. We’re just human. Despite all the self-imposed intensity of training and racing, and despite all the lessons sport teaches us, it should be fun. Keep your sense of humor about it.