Strong Core

Swimming is one of my favorite things. I used to swim 2 to 3 times per week with a Masters swim program (don’t be impressed, it just means I am old). I was in super swim shape this year right up until, oh, March 10. And then it all stopped.

Let’s face it. During a global health crisis, many things we might love – and even things we didn’t know we loved but suddenly now miss (I am thinking of my kids and how they unexpectedly longed to go to school) – just aren’t a priority. So we shift gears and adapt. Personally, I did more crossfit, and I tried kickboxing and yoga (all on zoom). I made stuff up on my own, rode my bike, went running (sorry, joints, desperate times call for desperate measures). I just kept moving. The school thing is still a conundrum I have not yet solved so I am not going to dive into that one.

Anyhow, it’s summer now, our case count is low, and the ponds are no longer freezing or frozen, so I can swim again. And it feels SO good because I missed it (a lot) and my hamstrings were really, really sore (too many squats? I have no idea, but, as usual, swimming fixed it.)

As I paddle along, I have these moments of philosophical inspiration (oxygen deprivation can do that, apparently). Not only is swimming great exercise, but it has a lot of important life lessons to teach.

When I first got in the water, it felt familiar but my body was like, wait, what the what? Oh, we are doing this again suddenly four months later? And my mind was like, oh my gosh, was that a turtle? It was chaotic and ugly and, at times, terrifying (I prefer my swims wildlife-free). Yet it was also divine to bask in the soothing weightlessness of water again.

Life lesson #1 – It doesn’t have to be pretty; if you love it just get out there and do it (turtles welcome, ideally from a distance).

And then my lower back started to hurt. And I thought, huh, that’s odd. It’s a low-impact sport, after all, which is the whole point in my case. What the heck? So I mentioned it to the friend who I swim with and he said, “Are you tightening your core?”

BOOM! Right then I had this huge a-ha moment. I’ve been told to tighten my core many times before, but then I forget and need a reminder again. Sure enough, as soon as I tightened my core, my stroke became more efficient and less chaotic. I felt stronger, more whole, less floppy. And I realized that having a strong core matters more broadly as well. Sometimes I forget to engage my core in life – too often, really. When that happens I feel blown about by the shifting sands of time and public opinion. I am so non-confrontational that I will adapt like a chameleon so I don’t attract attention or get attacked. It’s a survival strategy (classic, in fact, if you’ve been bullied), just like it is for a chameleon. But in those situations, deep in my unengaged core, I am filled with misgiving, chaos, and confusion. When I remember to engage my core, I immediately feel stronger and more empowered.

Life lesson #2 – Engage your core! Live your values. Find your voice and speak it!

Once my core is engaged, I remember that I am supposed to stretch my body long with each stroke (or as a good friend told me when I got back into swimming several years ago – “You are not tall enough for this sport. You need every inch you can get” 🙂 – which means that the Olympic dreams of my childhood were pure fantasy, it turns out. Glad no one told me that then!). When I consciously stretch my body long, I suddenly realize that I tend to spend much of my life sort of shrunk. There’s a cool inch or two gained if I just stand up straight, or stretch all the way through all of my muscles, especially in my hips and spine. It feels so good to open those joints that mostly spend their time being compressed by my slouch, or by my lack of awareness that I am not reaching, stretching, extending, growing, lengthening. Like in life, a reach doesn’t necessarily feel good at first. And it requires conscious thought to make it happen. But once you start doing it, once you find that groove and stretch yourself, your stroke becomes much more efficient and so much more beautiful. You begin to glide across the water instead of battling against it.

Life lesson #3 – Stretch. Reach. Grow. Stand tall. Glide with the water, don’t fight it.

I can’t talk about swimming without talking about gratitude. Swimming is what brought me back to life after several years mired in emotional and physical pain with my RA diagnosis and my mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When it was taken away, as with so much else during the height of our state’s efforts to curb the pandemic, I could have been angry or sad. And maybe I was those things a little bit. But mostly I accepted that that’s what needed to be done for the greater good, adjusted my stroke, and found some other way to channel my energy. Now that I am back in the water, I am filled with gratitude – for an accessible pond nearby, for a break in coronavirus infections, for summer, for my health, for the ability to swim. I know this time in the water is fleeting because summer is fleeting and indoor isn’t an option for me until the coronavirus takes its leave of us. So I am conscious of this gift and I cherish this time while it lasts. Which leads me to:

Life lesson #4 – Gratitude is powerful. Live and love consciously.

So many of us spend so much of our lives on auto-pilot, unconsciously moving through the world. We miss so much of the nuance, so much of the good in the simple things this way. The coronavirus has created a unique moment in history (and I am definitely looking forward to it being history!). If we take the time to be conscious and reflective about what’s going on in our world, in our communities, in our lives, it can be an opportunity. This period has pulled back the veil of what we have accepted as normal and revealed so clearly how abnormal, unjust and inequitable “normal” was. I think a lot about the notion that “if you win the rat race you’re still a rat.” Where are we racing to? Is it somewhere we actually want to be? A life we actually want to have lived? And at what cost?

finding-dory-movie

WE ARE THE SOLUTION.

Wear a mask.

BREATHE.

Stay well.

You will be alright.