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How Swimming can be Meditation

By Rachel Long (Muktakiran)

Lap swimming has been my exercise of choice for most of my adult life. I love that high, clear body-mind sensation after a session of swimming laps. That sensation is undeniably an endorphin hit, but it’s also something else. I believe that ‘something else’ is very similar to what we experience after a yoga and meditation practice.

Entering the state of mind we call meditation doesn’t just happen by sitting down, being still and closing your eyes. The internal conditions need to be set, and the mind needs to be gently and systematically guided inward. The wise yogis who have walked the path before us have described 3 crucial steps to guiding the mind inward to the meditative state. Those 3 steps are:

1. Pranayama  breath control
2. Pratyahara - withdrawing the senses from the outside world
3. Dharana - concentration.

Swimming laps can be seen as a meditation because it comprises those three steps: breath control, withdrawal of the senses and concentration. If you add to those elements an attitude of cultivating awareness, your swimming can become a practice in moving meditation.

According to the Australian Olympic Gold medallist Murray Rose we also swim faster when we swim with awareness. In his book Life is Worth Swimming he says:

‘I have found that when I pay attention to the sounds and feeling of my body moving through the water, it makes me swim faster, but when I think about other things or try to solve an intellectual problem, I swim slower. I have experimented with this phenomenon many times and the result is consistent.’

Let’s look at the 3 steps which take us to the meditative state of mind and how they relate to swimming.

In its simplest definition Pranayama is control of the breath. Yogic physiology tells us that inherent in the breath is the life force or prana. When we manipulate and control the breath we’re changing, balancing and increasing the frequency of prana or life force throughout the body-mind.

All pranayama techniques have a focus on one or more of the following stages:

• inhalation

• holding the breath inside (in yoga we call that kumbhak)

• exhalation

• holding the breath out (we call this bahir kumbhak).

When we swim laps, we are concentrating on, controlling and manipulating the breath the entire time. Swimming laps is a practice in pranayama.


The next step in guiding the mind to the state of meditation is Pratyahara. It is defined as the withdrawal of the senses from the outside world. In the state of pratyahara the sense organs are no longer streaming information to our brains and nervous systems from 5 directions.

Swimming is similar to pratyahara. Underwater the sense perceptions are reduced to seeing just what is in front us, the touch of water, the sound of our breathing, taste is reduced to the body of water we’re in, and smell is completely eliminated.

When we reduce the amount of stimuli entering the senses, the brain becomes quieter, there is less processing to do, and the body-mind has an opportunity to do some replenishing. Being underwater results in a definite reduction of incoming data, similar to being in a state of pratyahara.


Before slipping into a meditative state we make an effort at Dharana: concentration.
In a yoga class, firstly we do asana or yoga postures to stretch and relieve physical tension. Then we do breathing practices: pranayama, to balance and regulate the brain, nervous system and energetic pranic body. Next we do a little yoga nidra or a shavasana to guide the mind inward a little more. This is followed with a practice in concentration. It may be gazing upon a candle flame, it may be concentrating upon a particular internal point or passageway, or it could be concentrating on a mantra.

When all the conditions and variables are right, this effort at concentration becomes effortless and there is nothing else except the object of concentration, the act of concentrating, and constant, unbroken awareness of both. Here we’re in the zone; we’re in a state of meditation.

Swimming laps also requires concentration; if we’re not making an effort at concentration we become bored or lose count of our laps. There are so many points of awareness we can focus on in lap swimming.

We can concentrate on:

• Making our arm stroke long by finishing every stroke next to the thigh above the knee, rather than pulling out short and finishing the stroke near the hip.

• Keeping our kick even, continuous and from the hip, rather than just from the knee.

• Maximising our glide after each stroke.

• The breath. Some would say the strongest magnet of all for concentration.



To make swimming a meditation all you need to do is cultivate a relaxed attitude and be aware of what you are doing, be aware of the sensations of swimming, be aware of your breathing. Be present moment to moment as you are swimming. 

Then just as in meditation, if the mental and physical conditions are right, you’ll move into the zone. Where awareness is effortlessly united upon the physical action of swimming, and the controlled synchronisation of breath. And this effortless, united awareness is a state of meditation.




My latest favourite swimming exercise was taught to me by Simon Fry, who facilitates awesome Squad sessions at Manly pool on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9am.
He calls it Hypoxic training. I call it underwater pranayama.
For those training for racing, this technique is used to help train swimmers to swim 50 metres, at top speed on fewer breaths.
For yogi swimmers like myself, it can be used as a practice in awareness and developing breath control and lung capacity.

The technique
Use a pull buoy with freestyle arms (remember no kicking when using a pull buoy).
Rather than doing 3 strokes breathe, 3 strokes breathe, do 3 strokes on one breath, then 5 strokes on one breath, then 7 strokes on breath, then 9, then 11 and so on until you either reach the end of the pool or you run out of lung capacity. If you run out of lung capacity, say when you’re on the way to completing 9 strokes – start again. The key here is regulating and slowing down your exhalation. Work out how many strokes it takes you to comfortably exhale, and over the course of the pool find a way to balance your breath retention (kumbhak) and your controlled exhalation whilst staying relaxed.

Please note this can be a little strenuous if you’re not used to holding your breath, so go easy. As with any other pranayama practice there must be no pushing or straining.



About Rachel Long (Muktakiran)

Rachel has been teaching yoga and meditation for over 10 years. She likes swimming, lying in the sun, pumping iron at the gym, hanging with her nephew, studying psychology, and downloading an endless stream of reading material onto her Kindle.