Swimming has a lot in common with yoga, especially vinyasa yoga, because the movement is synchronized with and fueled by the breath. The repetitive cycle of movement and the heightened awareness of the breath, coupled with the total quiet underneath the water, can create a meditative atmosphere, conducive to repetition of mantras.
It took me quite a while to learn how to swim, because I spent the first 10 years of my life resisting it. I used various methods to avoid swimming lessons. I remember one experience was when I was about 6 at a summer day camp in Michigan. I was only there for one day to spend time with a friend who attended Camp Ra’anana daily. Summer camp activities often center on water and swimming. I soon found myself in the shallows being questioned by a counselor about my swimming abilities, so that they could slot me into the appropriate swim class. I lied and told him I could swim. “Show me” he said.
My mind whirled and I came up with an idea. I would fake swimming, by going through the motions with my arms and alternately placing my hands on the floor of the lake to hold myself up, all the while kicking with my feet. To my surprise, the camp counselor seemed to accept this demonstration of my swimming prowess. OK, he said, and left me to hang out in the shallow water by myself, while others went to swim class. He seemed to say I didn’t need swimming lessons. I was relieved, and even a little proud of my trickery. Some years later, a little older and wiser, I thought back to that day and suddenly realized that the counselor must have known exactly what I was doing. I hadn’t tricked him at all.
My perception of that experience was radically altered. The counselor must have seen my fear and felt compassion for me. In that moment, he had exchanged himself with me. He left me alone, which was all that I really wanted at that moment. When I realized this, a great wave of love for him filled me, even though the interaction with him lasted only a few minutes and I never saw him again. We all have such moments — when a stranger enters our lives and does something kind, compassionate and profound. It has a lasting effect.
When I finally learned how to swim (around age 10), there was such a joy to it. And when I allowed myself to open my eyes underwater for the first time, it was so freeing.
Water and swimming have long been recurring themes in my dreams; I’ve had many dreams of swimming through the air, floating on water, and fully immersing in water; but there have also been dreams about avoiding going into the water. In my dreams, and perhaps it‘s the same for others, entering a body of water has been a metaphor for participating fully, immersing completely, rather than sitting on the sidelines as an observer. Often we might avoid participating or acting because of fear, a sense of low self-esteem or attachment to results — success or failure.
Yoga philosophy teaches us that a powerful path towards attaining enlightenment is the yoga of action–karma yoga. The word “karma” means action, though it is often mistranslated as fate. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, karma is an essential creative and active force that we wield. Karma is our ability to change ourselves and change our world through our actions and our engagement in the world.