Want to try something new? Get off your yoga mat and into the water
While awaiting the birth of my second son, I swam. So, too, did a wiry old man who shuffled into the water every day at around the same time as I was lowering my beach-ball-sized belly into the pool. Hunched over, leaning heavily on his walking stick for support, he winced with every slow and measured step. But, as soon as he was submerged, a transformation ensued.
The benefits of hydrotherapy ... include enhanced circulation, improved balance, increased core stability and reduced pain.
Surrendering to the support and buoyancy provided by the water, his movements became graceful and effortless. He swam like a fish. A seal. A dolphin. For those 20 laps or so, he was young again, free of pain and the physical constraints of an ageing body. I shared his reluctance when the time came to climb the pool steps and return once more to the heavy, gruelling embrace of gravity.
More recently, I’ve discovered yoga is another way to reap the benefits of working out in water. The benefits of hydrotherapy have long been recognised. They include enhanced circulation, improved balance, increased core stability and reduced pain. Now yoga teachers, too, are beginning to unlock the benefits of practising in aquatic environments.
So are you looking to delve deeper into your yoga practice? Master balance poses that have thus far eluded you? Sink into challenging stretches without straining muscles or joints? If so, then aqua yoga might suit you, too.
Water is the most ubiquitous substance on Earth. It also makes up 60 to 78 per cent of our bodies and 80 per cent of our brains, says Wallace J Nichols, founder of Blue Mind (bluemind.life), a collaboration of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, marine biologists, artists, conservationists, doctors, economists, athletes and urban planners, all devoted to studying the links between water and wellbeing.
Water is capricious. It is unusual because it comes in three distinct forms: solid, liquid and gas. There is a belief — controversial in some circles, but underpinning the practice of homeopathy — that water has memory; it retains traces of substances once dissolved in it, no matter how dilute. It is both accommodating and uncompromising, at once yielding to the contours of the land, yet possessing the power to erode shorelines, rocks and even mountains.
We spend our first nine months breathing underwater, floating in the primordial sea of our mother’s womb, the sound of her breath and heartbeat our constant companions. At this stage of our development, we more closely resemble aquatic than land-dwelling animals, with studies of embryos revealing startling similarities between disparate species. “The muscles and cranial nerves we use to swallow and talk move the gills in sharks and fish,” writes Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish. Some believe hiccups are a vestige of this amphibious past, as our lungs and non-existent gills battle for supremacy to breathe.
Could it be that this evolutionary heritage is the reason newborn babies instinctively revel in the blissful return to water? Two days after my first son was born, I agreed to a midwife’s request that he be the demonstration model in a baby bathing class. A gaggle of pregnant women and their partners gathered around, faces eager. As if responding to the pressure, my son began to wail. But the second the midwife immersed him in the deep, warm water, he relaxed completely — head back, arms loose, legs akimbo, wearing the blissed-out expression of an enlightened sage.
Unlike land-based yoga, which demands you recruit your muscles to maintain challenging postures, water-based yoga is completely different, offering both support and resistance.
As we grow, however, it’s easy to fall out of step with water’s easy intimacy. When you were a child starting swimming lessons, you needed to overcome your fear and re-learn how to move through a medium utterly unlike air. Later, you might have grappled with the practical discomforts associated with a dip in the pool: cold water, chilly wind, damp togs, wet hair, swimmer’s ear.
Later still, you may have even confronted the mammalian breathing reflex, a phenomenon that can paralyse novice scuba divers. Preparing to descend into deep water for the first time, for instance, I fought a rising tide of panic — not at the thought of the sharks or stingrays beneath me, but at the prospect of suffocation. My instructor guided me gently, explaining that no matter how sophisticated the scuba gear, the simple fact is that diving “goes against every instinct we have of not breathing in water”.
A reclamation of water
To reclaim your relationship with water, aqua yoga is the perfect place to start. Engaging with water’s special properties allows your practice to be as much about mindfulness as movement. Take slow, deep breaths as you move your limbs; revel in the sensation of the water on your skin. Practise pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) by venturing under the water, or by floating on the surface.
Unlike land-based yoga, which demands you recruit your muscles to maintain challenging postures, water-based yoga is completely different, offering both support and resistance. Water’s buoyancy also lends a certain playfulness — you can roll like a crocodile, flip like a dolphin, twist like an eel.
Dipping into cool water is refreshing in the summer months and this, too, can be a big part of its appeal. But some aqua yoga practitioners recommend practising in pools warmed to 30–35°C instead, because this temperature helps soothe aches and pains, particularly for people with conditions like arthritis or fibromyalgia.
Immersed in water, a conductor of both emotion and electricity, you might find other people’s actions creating physical or emotional turbulence. For instance, if you’re at the local pool, you might be wrenched out of contemplation by the screams of children, or a nearby couple’s squabble, or perhaps the splash from an energetic swimmer. Rather than become ruffled by such distractions, reframe them as opportunities to embrace the challenges you’ll inevitably confront in an imperfect world.
Aqua yoga is a restorative practice that lifts the spirits as much as it relaxes the body. You won’t think you’re getting much of a workout because the usual cues like sweat, breathlessness and fatigue will be absent. You might even feel guilty that you haven’t “earned” your rest time in savasana (corpse pose) when the class reaches its conclusion. But rest assured your body has been working against the resistance of the water, even if your monkey mind argues otherwise.
Postures for the pool
Although inversions such as sarvangasana (shoulder stand) present obvious practical difficulties in the aquatic environment, most asanas (postures) performed on the mat can also be attempted in water.
Tadasana (mountain pose) and vrksasana (tree pose) require little modification amid the stabilising and supporting effects of the water. Other postures can be practised by reorienting your usual perspective and treating the pool wall as the floor. For example, the flow between marjaryasana and bitilasana (cat-cow) can be performed by holding onto the side of the pool; as can virabhadrasana II (warrior II) and ardha chandrasana (half moon). Other postures including navasana (boat pose) can be accomplished with your lower legs up on the edge of the pool.
You might also be surprised to find how accessible some balance postures, such as natarajasana (dancer’s pose), become when you’re no longer fighting the pull of gravity. As for end-of-class relaxation? With birds wheeling and clouds floating overhead, savasana (corpse pose) takes on a whole new dimension.
Becoming acquainted with having your hips higher than your head in the safe, supportive environment of water ... can boost your progress in the studio, too.
Spending time in the water practising more challenging asanas can also build your confidence before you transition them to land. Fear of falling is a frequent obstacle to inversions like adho mukha vrksasana (hand stand) or sirsasana (head stand). Becoming acquainted with having your hips higher than your head in the safe, supportive environment of water, however, can boost your progress in the studio, too.
I still remember edging towards that sweet spot during my first aqua yoga class, where my entire bodyweight was suspended over my hands, my legs extended to one side, in a modified form of parsva bakasana (side crane, or crow, pose). It was a thrill to savour the sensation of weightlessness, experiencing an arm balance that, if attempted on land, would certainly see me fall flat on my face.
Eager to try this new and expanding modality? Many public swimming pools and fitness centres now offer aqua yoga as well as a range of other water-based classes. If you have a pool at home, you might prefer to gather some tips from books such as Camella Nair’s Aqua Kriya Yoga or Jill Coleman’s WaterYoga: Water Assisted Postures & Stretches for Flexibility & Wellbeing. The US-based White Crow Yoga (whitecrowyoga.com) offers a DVD that runs a few minutes shy of an hour, as well as instructor training courses if you find that aqua yoga really resonates.
At the end of the day, though, all you really need to transfer your practice from the mat to the pool is a pair of togs, a towel and some sunscreen. So go on — dive in deep!
Gain your water wings
Aqua yoga isn’t the only option if you want to work out in water. This cooling, nurturing, healing element will provide you with a supportive environment no matter what. Here are some other water-based activities to try.
Dragon boat racing
The superstitious origins of Australia’s fastest-growing sport aren’t hard to spot. Both the elaborate decorations on the boats’ side and the drummer who presides were traditionally designed to scare away evil spirits. Today, dragon boats are powered by up to 20 paddlers sitting in pairs on benches, plus a “sweep” who steers and shouts instructions. With so many limbs, paddles and people involved, timing and communication are crucial, making this the ultimate in team sports.
Deep water running
Deep water running involves strapping a flotation belt around your ribs to maintain a vertically upright position in the deep end of the pool — no toes touching the bottom. Then, with the earnest, slow-motion deliberation of an astronaut, you’ll jog, sprint, kick, twist and paddle. It doesn’t feel like much is happening at the time but deep-water running involves every major muscle group so, as a kilojoule-burner, it’s equivalent to cross-country skiing.
Paddling a kayak might offer an upper-body workout, with biceps, triceps, shoulders and back all targeted. But, better still, it’s a way to embark on a journey of discovery. Kayaking allows you to play the role of tourist in your own backyard.
Stand-up paddle boarding
It demands strength, flexibility and balance, so no wonder stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP, is a popular activity at yoga and lifestyle festivals like Wanderlust. If you’re looking for a laid-back experience, take the paddle board out on an inland lake. You’ll be so busy cruising, catching glimpses of wildlife and chatting to other paddle boarders that you won’t even notice the workout you’re getting. Add some yoga or Pilates moves afloat to mix it up.
Making a splash at the pool doesn’t have to be about counting laps and watching the clock; grab accessories like a kickboard or flippers to vary your pace and practice. Don’t overlook the meditative benefits of lap swimming, either. In Swim: Why We Love the Water, Lynn Sherr writes that swimming offers “an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation” that allows her “to work things out without the startling interruptions of human voice or modern life”.
As a competitive sport, and as a recreational activity, ocean swimming is rapidly increasing in popularity. With changing wave patterns, sea temperature, tides and currents, the ocean offers a dynamic environment. This is about confronting nature at its most elemental. No two swims are ever the same.
Confession time: I’ve never made it to my feet on a surfboard. Yet those who do surf describe it as one of life’s incomparable pleasures. In her memoir That Oceanic Feeling, writer and surfer Fiona Capp explores not just the lure of the sea, and the pursuit of the perfect wave, but the universal yearning to be at one with the natural world. First coined by French mystic Romain Rolland, and popularised by Sigmund Freud, the term “oceanic” Capp uses refers to a sense of oneness, or union.
Depending on how hard you’re willing to work, this enjoyable, low-impact workout stealthily builds strength, muscle endurance and cardiovascular fitness. Aerobics-style moves are performed in waist- to neck-deep water, making aqua aerobics suitable even for those who can’t swim. Experiment with exotic variations such as aqua Pilates, aqua cycle, water pole dancing, aqua Zumba and aqua kickboxing.
Named after Japanese scientist Dr Izumi Tabata, this popular form of high-intensity interval training offers fitness and weight-loss benefits. Twenty seconds of gut-wrenching effort followed by 10 seconds of recovery over eight rounds is the foundation of the so-called Tabata “revolution” — and these principles work just as well in water. Actually, they work even better because you get all the intensity with none of the stress, strain or sweat.
Snorkellers’ aquatic adventures typically bring a deep sense of peace, calm and relaxation, with the controlled breathing techniques required soothing frazzled bodies and fractured souls. Snorkelling also encourages your brain to switch into a less goal-seeking state that’s supportive of daydreaming, creativity, memory consolidation, mindfulness, insight and introspection.
A Q&A with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre
We sit down with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre, based in Byron Bay, New South Wales.
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