The joy of each breath
The joy of each breath

I have been swimming most of my life which means I have been learning how to breathe all my life. Growing up in East London, the ocean was always in the background marking time. Summer holidays were nothing without Eastern Beach and the pools at Orient Beach. School days in summer were punctuated with phys-ed lessons where the joy of swimming was always mixed with the dread of a snapping swimming cap or baby powder residue on the hair after a swim (those who know, know).

I was never a team swimmer. I only swam at the inter-house gala once: in my matric year. If you had told my younger self how central swimming would become in her adulthood, she would have rolled her eyes. 

When I was a student I returned to regular swimming. A friend was teaching at one of the private schools in town and she told me the new indoor, heated pool was open to the public in the mornings. And so began early morning laps.

All these years later, I have come to relish early morning swims in the ocean and occasional evening swims at the gym. And with each stroke, I am not only reorientating my body but I am also changing my relationship with time. There are quick in and out swims and there are leisurely swims that require at least an hour. 

These days my life revolves around a few things: writing, reading, teaching, travelling, gardening, swimming and being in community (in no particular order). Depending on which day you ask me, swimming might be at the top of the list, especially in summer. When I moved back to Cape Town, I was determined to live near the ocean. I have since joined a swimming group (an experience which deserves its own essay) and I am constantly trying to figure out the best time to go to the gym when the pool isn’t too full. 

Swimming has changed my relationship with time because a decent swim requires a good stretch of time. At first I swam for 30 minutes and alternated between the pool and the ocean. I’m surprised at how my body has acclimatised to the colder water in Cape Town (even though I live on the warmer coastline) which means I have a warped sense of what is a normal temperature when I talk to my family, who live on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. 

When I first started swimming laps I swam breaststroke. It is a comforting stroke where breathing is a seamless part of the movement. Even while I learned freestyle at school, it has always felt counter-intuitive. So breaststroke became my default stroke. I don’t have to belabour the breathing. When I first forced myself to swim freestyle it felt like an act of courage. It was a promise to myself that I needed to stretch myself and teach my body a new skill. I learned by observation. For years I could only breathe on the right side after four strokes. My body eventually eased into this groove until recently when I began open water swimming in the ocean. 

Beyond the health benefits of swimming... I think I am chasing the unmatched joy of disappearing into the water and losing a sense of time.

Open water swimming forced me to change my breathing and get more comfortable with freestyle. I began open water swimming intermittently. A friend would invite me to the swimming groups of which she was part.

Finding the right swimming group is like finding the right hair stylist or the right church. One day I decided to join a group swim; thankfully it wasn’t a race. I swam freestyle and on my second lap back to the shore I developed a headache. The water was sublime so I knew the problem was not the temperature, as had been the case when I swam on the other side of town a week prior and the water had been 9.5°C. I knew I wasn’t breathing properly in order to sustain myself even for the short distance. I’m also a slow swimmer so the headache was not because I was over exerting myself. It was my body signaling that it needs more oxygen. 

A few weekends after the headachy swim, a friend suggested we go for a swim at Silvermine. It was a busy morning at the dam with a few swimmers. I watched closely and counted as one of them glided past me: one, two, breathe to the left; one, two, breathe to the right. I decided to try the new rhythm. I was clumsy at first. If I stopped counting I would default into my usual rhythm. Eventually the new rhythm became a habit. This is how I learned bilateral breathing. 

Beyond the health benefits of swimming — the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing that comes with swimming in a group are underrated — I think I am chasing the unmatched joy of disappearing into the water and losing a sense of time. I have learnt that the enjoyment in breathing is tilting my head enough to get new air but also giving myself enough time to enjoy each breath.

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