Open Your Eyes and Breathe
I’m 5 with a penchant for climbing and wild, tomboy streak. My older brother has just joined the swim team after years of begging mom and dad. Every practice for me is wonderful romp on the bleachers which I treat as my own personal jungle gym. This lasts about a week. My exasperated mother grabs me throws me to the coach…”I prefer a clean drowning to blood on the bleachers” mom tells the coach as she passes me over the fence to him. And I proceed to do just that.
Coach tosses me into to the deep end. “Swim test”, he says. It’s my first time in 12 feet and I think it wonderfully cool. “I’m swimming with big kids.” Coach says “swim” and I do…until I don’t. I’m getting my swim on in the deep end it’s going great until I try to breathe. Like a teeter totter my head bobs up and my legs drop down. The harder I try to breathe the more I work myself down, down in the now bottomless pool. Panic takes over, I can’t think, my lungs burn all I want is air and the more I want it the more water I get. Suddenly the pool is a thousand miles wide. The wall is on the other side of the world and I can’t make it. I struggle blindly up arms reaching flailing and I grab salvation…I claw the cold plastic lifesaving rings of the lane rope and pull myself up hugging it with both arms for dear life coughing and sputtering, breathing the sweet, sweet air. The guard yells “off the ropes” and I think, “Never, I am never leaving this rope.”
Fear is a funny thing…or maybe I should say our human reaction to fear is a funny thing at least it seems so to me. We drown because we are afraid, not because of the water but because of our fear. Fear and I have a healthy relationship. You could justifiably say I make my living off of it. My job is simply to kick fears ass and get my students “off the ropes”. Everyone and I do mean everyone is afraid of the water on some level, at least until they can confidently swim. In this water is the great equalizer. I have taught CEO’s, babies, Doctors, triathletes, yoga instructors, cool kids and nerds alike, even the occasional guru. Every one of them has been afraid of the water. Their reaction to that fear is always the same. When someone who is new to water faces their fear and finally plunges their face into the water the CEO, baby and guru alike all close their eyes and hold their breath. It’s natural, it’s instinctual and it is absolutely …wrong … but we all do it.
Stop and try this for a moment. Squeeze your eyes closed as if you are afraid terrified even and hold your breath. How did that make you feel? Anxious, tense maybe a sense of unease even dread, did your muscles clench and tighten, maybe you felt a loss of control?
Now imagine doing this under water in a place where your feet can’t touch the bottom. You can’t breathe and you can’t see to make your way to safety. Suddenly your life is at the mercy of another, quite possibly a total stranger. There is a complete and total loss of control and you are powerless. The wall and safety could literally be an arm’s reach away but you can’t see it, so it might as well not exist. Terrifying, no air and no sight is a terrifying combination. And yet what do we do when we are afraid? We close our eyes and hold our breath. This as we all noticed before just increases fear and anxiety. It’s a wonder with all this fear, anxiety, stress and tension floating around in the water anyone ever learns how to swim.
And yet, the solution is simple. My first task in the water is getting you to open your eyes and breathe underwater. What?!? Impossible you say, no one can breathe under water. That in fact is only partially true. Breathing consists of both inhaling and exhaling. We must of course inhale air, inhaling water is dangerous and can be damaging. Duh! We can however exhale into the water. I like to tell kids that they have a superpower that they really can breathe underwater…exhale at least. And in fact this really is a magnificent super power. The simple combination of opening your eyes and exhaling out eradicates fear and opens up a new world water exploration and fun. With an easy exhale you can let go of tension, anxiety and fear. You can breathe it all out into the water and the water can wash it away. Teaching a person to swim is easy. The hard part is getting them to conquer their fear and put their face underwater. Once you get used to putting your face in opening your eyes and breathing you swim. It sounds like magic…maybe it is…the magic of conquering your fear. And for me it’s always magical…that moment when someone swims for the first time.
It works on land too! The simple act of breathing calms the nerves. Inhale light and energy exhale stress and anxiety. Breathe is the fear killer.
Like in the water help is often an arm’s reach away, but you will never know it’s there if you don’t open your eyes, reach out and breathe.
Don’t let your fear drown you. Go kick fears ass today. I tell my swimmers this everyday “you are bold, you are fierce you are brave.” And now I’m telling you “you are bold, you are fierce you are brave, breath open your eyes the world is waiting get out there you got this. Love you!