The Zen of Swimming

Just watching the video made me anxious. I was sitting in my warm, dry home but I started to feel panic — water entering my lungs, struggling, choking.

I was watching a demo of Total Immersion Swimming (TI), given to me by Danny Peleg, my TI instructor, a former Israeli navy seal. The video showed a man swimming freestyle in a graceful, steady rhythm, barely raising his lips out of the water to breathe so you could hardly see when he was taking in air.

“I can’t do that!” I thought.

Danny Peleg – “Yes, you can.”

But this story is a testament to the fact that it’s never too late to learn something that scares you, and learning a new skill is the best antidote I know to depression and the blahs.

I grew up by the ocean, had swimming lessons and was constantly in the water, but I was never comfortable doing what was then called the Australian Crawl. Breast stroke, side stroke, backstroke—no problem. But with the crawl, I couldn’t manage the breathing. I’d suck in water, gag, sputter and after one lap I was exhausted.

In my 20s I took up snorkeling—where you have constant access to air—and after that, I’d only swim with a snorkel, even in a pool.

A year ago, I was swimming in the Caribbean with friends and even using a snorkel, I was the slowest in the group and the first to get tired. That’s it, I thought, I need lessons.

I found a woman coach who watched me swim and said I was doing everything wrong. Especially kicking. When I held onto a board and kicked as hard as I could, I didn’t move at all. In fact, I went backwards. The coach said I should use my hips, buttocks and thighs to kick but keep the knees and ankles relaxed while the toes should be pointed. Huh? I tried to point the toes but relax the knees and ankles and still couldn’t get any forward momentum.

In our third lesson, I broke into tears. “I can’t seem to get it and I feel like you’re irritated and frustrated with me,” I said. She apologized, saying she was stressed, teaching too many hours, and I should forget all the instruction and just swim. She looked in my eyes and said, “You LOVE the water.”

“I do,” I said. I love it and fear it, but it’s the love that’s driving me to want to swim better.

We made progress after that. I learned to shift from side to side instead of lying flat and I was finally ready to let go of the snorkel. Then I hit a wall. After months of exercises and trying different strategies, I could not swim one length of the pool without panting and nearly collapsing.

I was resigned to sticking with the snorkel when, by chance, I went to a lecture and sat behind a man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Total Immersion Swimming. We turn struggles into skills.” I’d read about TI, which claims to transform people who have fears and problems in the water into relaxed, confident swimmers.

Two weeks later, I had my first TI lesson with Danny. He was encouraging, patient and clear, breaking each teaching element into small steps that could be easily mastered. He took videos of me swimming which we watched instantly so it was easy to make corrections.

Danny with another student

After one lesson, I swam four lengths of the gym pool without stopping. After three lessons, I was swimming nonstop for 15 minutes and now, after finishing six lessons, I can swim as long as I wish and emerge from the water feeling nourished and exuberant. Look ma, no snorkel!

How does TI work? It was created by Terry Laughlin, who’d discovered that only 2% of Americans can swim a quarter of a mile continuously. TI is based on relaxing and gliding, with minimal leg movement, rather than wind-milling the arms and kicking hard. The focus is not on speed but flow — “fish-like swimming that’s streamlined and easy.” It’s also called “mindful swimming,” a form of meditative movement like yoga. With TI, I was using minimal energy, I didn’t get as winded and was able to take in all the air I needed. Plus, it’s great as we get older because swimming is low impact and tones the entire body.

My only problem is getting into the cold water. So… I swim in a shorty wetsuit. I look dorky but hey, I tell myself, “Get over it.”

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: What do you want to learn or have you learned recently?

CONTACT Danny Peleg or find a coach in another city.

WATCH Total Immersion video.


Joan Borysenko has a terrific new book, “Fried,” about burnout and how to revive from it. She says burnout is different from depression or being overworked. With burnout, one’s life force seems to have vanished. You feel emotionally exhausted, void of motivation or hope. But it’s a state that can prompt you to create a more authentic life.

What’s unique about the book—and this may be a first—is that Joan wrote it drawing on ideas and stories contributed by her Facebook friends. They even came up with the title. To read more, click here.



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25 thoughts on “The Zen of Swimming

  1. Eve

    Hi Sara – My husband purchased the video and book when he trained for his first Tri-atholon. He has Parkinson's and swimming is great for him but he never learned how to swim properly. This was a great tool!

  2. Jasmyne

    Thanks for this, Sara. Your struggle sounds similar to mine. I’ll have to see if someone teaches that in Maui. Aloha, Jasmyne

  3. jane adams

    Especially since you love snorkeling, now you're ready to try scuba diving…it's the second best thing you can do with (most) of your clothes off. i took it up at 45 and at 70 am still doing it – for someone who never used to do anything she couldnt do in 32 inch heels, it was not only fabulous but empowering, too!

  4. GBDavo

    Sara, yeah it is interesting to learn new things after 50. But me and swimming, I love it. When I was a kid growing up in central Illinois I would hang out at a nearby lake with friends till I was a black as Mike Jordan. I never had a problem swimming. I was the youngest kid as a Boy Scout in my area to swim a mile to get my swimming merit badge. I could tread water–forever. Now, as an old “kid” with MS I can still do it–swim that is. I love it! Thanks for the story–and good luck with your new-found love!

  5. Sean

    Thanks Sara for reminding me how wonderful being in the water can be. Last summer my niece who is a triathlete talked me into swimming in the Long Bridge annual swim, Sand Point ID. Well it's a mile & 3/4 across the lake, one lap without edges to grasp on to and rest. After not swimming very often for the past 10 years it was a great challenge. I managed to complete the swim, and even finished 2nd in my age group, (those over 70), but not without a few gasps, sputters, and pauses to question my sanity. But what an exhilaration to have completed the swim.

  6. Anonymous

    Just retired from the corporate world, and you reminded me that I wanted to swim again. Have not heard about this method. I may look into it as I am just south of Boulder! Thank you for this post! I love reading your thoughts and experiences—so similar to mine.

  7. Gail Storey

    Sara, what a fascinating technique and breakthrough for you! I'm having a similar experience trying to move from hip and waist hoopdancing to what's called chest hooping–moving the hoop up the body. It's eluded me for months, but I'm beginning to feel the flow of it.

  8. Joseph

    Hi, Sara. What a beautiful essay. I grew up swimming and have done it effortlessly all my life. I think that somehow I picked up the techniques you mention in your article.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful learning experience. I know something I didn't think I knew!!

    Joe Drew

  9. patricia collins

    I taught my daughter how to float this last summer. Just relax your lungs are full of air. She loves just to float in the water it is the essence of total peace. If I knew how I'd love to attach a wonderful photo of her floating.

  10. Debbie

    It's nice to see the joys of swimming described so well! I swam competitively during summers as a kid but never really learned how to swim properly until I had to swim for physical therapy after a car accident when I was 20. It also helped me quit smoking when I worked up to a mile without stopping. That was 37 years ago, and I'm still swimming and enjoying getting a rhythm going. I find that alternating crawl with backstroke and breaststroke allays boredom and am convinced that swimming like this is why my knee replacement of two years ago works so well. One doctor told me that, of his older patients, it's the swimmers who are healthiest! Great going and thanks for spreading the word!

  11. Anonymous

    Great story about your swimming victory. I grew up with a tiny hand dug swimming pool by the man who lived in the house before my parents bought it, so swimming came easily to me. The only real story for me was the night i snuck down through the ferns on the steps into the pool area which was forbidden to go in alone and I took off my clothes and went skinny dipping. i had never felt that sensation before. It was magic and sensual, though I didn't know that at the time. anyway , I loved your writing about this.

  12. Nancy

    I'm glad people are learning to swim like this,,,,I've done it all my life, and after all, we ARE water, so we belong in it!

  13. Anonymous

    Just when I was feeling like I was in a funk your email came in. I'm going to buy the book “Fried”. I took up riding 6 years ago, serious riding dressage but all of a sudden I find myself feeling all funked out. I'm newly retired and trying to figure out whats next. So this is good. thanks dd

  14. Malcolm

    Yes, isn't swimming an enjoyable and stress free way to exercise.

    To further enhance the experience…..I use & recommend SwiMP3 audio system by Finis. The system attaches to your goggles and provides music via your cheek bone. Very light – functional & reliable.

    Depending on your mood – you can program various forms of music or a book. It's a great way to clear the mind of counting laps….or looking at the clock.


  15. janatd33

    Like you used to do, I swim with a snorkel. Never figured out how to breath correctly but now you have given me hope that there is a way! Thank you for sharing.

  16. Anonymous

    Hi Sara. I love reading your stories and blogs. Thanks for this one, I am going to look him up (for the low impact excercise part the knees are shot and I need something to supplement yoga).
    I just took up cello at english riding at 54 so I get the fighting boredom and depression with new hobbies. Onward …

  17. Terry Laughlin

    I'm delighted to hear that TI has helped you connect with the healing and rejuvenating properties of water. My main suggestion is keep striving to improve continuously. There is no limit to how well you can learn to swim – or the enjoyment it can bring.
    Happy Laps,
    Terry Laughlin

  18. Eric


    I just read your blog post today, and I guess TI is a destiny for me. I found TI from a post on The Blog of Tim Ferriss about a week ago and called my local TI coach last week to schedule classes starting next week!

    I'm 54, live in Florida and love the water but don't really swim beyond what I need to get back from deep water to shallow where I feel safe with my feet on the ground. I love to walk for exercise, but have some knee and foot pains when I walk. My mother is 84 (going on 64), swims regularly and is in great shape.

    Thanks for your inspiration and motivation.

  19. jusme

    Don’t feel bad, I swim with not only a snorkel, but a full mask, flippers, and hand webs. Come to think of it, a wetsuit isn’t a bad idea…..

  20. Gail Storey

    Sara, this is wonderfully encouraging! Thanks for clueing me in to this, look forward to talking with you about it. And you look cute in your shorty wetsuit!

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