Next up in our series is Steven Shaw’s approach, which uses Alexander technique principles to put you at ease with the water
The blurb says: “Traditional swimming teaching methods are derived from a competitive swimming model. The Shaw method draws its inspiration from FM Alexander‘s powerful method of rediscovering natural balance and poise.”
What does that actually mean?
The Shaw method is the only method of learning to swim based on the Alexander technique. It was created by Steven Shaw (hence the name) 25 years ago. A former competitive swimmer, he began to apply the principles of the Alexander technique to swimming and found that greater body awareness transformed his pupils’ relationship with the water. The emphasis is on a quality of experience rather than distance or speed.
Why did you choose to have a go?
I’ve got very little confidence in the water and can’t really swim. Their info says that this method of learning is especially good for building confidence, learning new strokes, improving performance and learning to enjoy the water. Perfect for me, then.
So what did you do in your lesson?
Before we even started, Steven checked how scared I was of the water and talked through what we’d do in the pool. Once in the water, we walked the length of the pool to warm up and he explained how we can move with or against the water and then we did lunges against the side of the pool. This was a familiar warmup and I began to feel much calmer. He was in the pool with me – “Even if you were an Olympic champion, I’d be in the water with you” – and could check my back, neck and shoulders were aligned. He explained the science of the oral seal: unless you inhale or suck, water cannot enter your mouth. By making a noise I could control the rate I exhaled under the water, so we made yoga-style “om” noises on to the surface of the pool and then we exhaled oms under the water, just for two seconds. From there I moved into gliding and floating, and then I learned how to stand up from a horizontal position without flailing my arms, inhaling and swallowing a load of water.
Why did he come up with a different way of teaching swimming?
Most swimming programmes are aimed at children and adapted to adults, but his is purely for us grownups who don’t swim. He explained that there are four core principles to his method:
1) the alignment of the head, neck and back – this relationship is a primary factor affecting performance;
2) what he calls “smart swimming” – understanding that before every propulsive movement there is a non-propulsive, preparatory movement;
3) breathing, of course – not gasping for air, but allowing in-breaths to be passive;
4) learning – the methods states that the greatest obstacle to learning is trying to get it right instead of enjoying the journey.
As well as the Alexander technique element, Steven also talked about the importance of being empathetic towards people who struggle to swim, rather than competitive. His priority seems to be to get you at ease in the water, rather than to get you to move through the water.
Did it work? Did you panic?
Go on …
I found the carefulness of the explanations very calming, and the lack of hurry prevented me from feeling panicked. Although I have a vague memory of it from school, learning about the oral seal was a revelation that made me feel much safer and much more confident. By the end of the session I’d not done any swimming or made any obvious progress with strokes, but for the first time I felt that swimming and enjoying the water might actually be achievable for me. I felt extremely relaxed, as you might after a yoga class or a massage.
Who is it good for?
People who are terrified of water might find this a safe way to learn. People with back and neck problems will also find that the focus on posture keeps them safer, with the water supporting them properly as they move.
Where can I have a go?
There are instructors all over the country, and if you’re keen to do some intensive work on any of your strokes, you can sign up for an Art of Swimming minibreak too. Shaw’s written a couple of books – The Art of Swimming and Master the Art of Swimming – and there are DVDs demonstrating freestyle, breast and butterfly strokes.
Read the piece as it appeared in the Guardian here