Open (or close) your eyes and see as never before.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 12th, 2011

John shared an exciting discovery about breathing on the TI Discussion Forum: I’m a bit reluctant to admit it took me a year to come to this insight, but perhaps it will help others. I’ve always struggled to find the right head position for breathing. Sometimes I feel I need to nearly submerge my head to feel balanced, but in that position I feel I can’t get air.

I had an ‘aha’ moment last week, when I finally noticed that I close my eyes while breathing.  I began to consciously keep my eyes focused through the breath and it has made a world of difference. Now I can see precisely how far to rotate, when to inhale and when to stop. With my eyes closed, I would turn my head too far, lose balance and then need to recover.

Now, as I rotate toward air, I see the tint of the water change, watch one goggle clear the surface, begin inhaling and close my mouth just as the water closes over it. Suddenly I feel as if I have far more time to breathe and I stay better aligned and balanced. With eyes closed, I didn’t know what I was missing.
Too bad it took me a year to figure out. Doh!

John, congratulations, on your invaluable ‘insight’ – which came over 30 years quicker than it did to me! I can precisely recall the day I had a similar discovery.  I was swimming at Lake Minnewaska  Labor Day weekend around 2003.  It was chilly – about 54 degrees – and raining steadily.  Dave Barra and I were the only two people swimming.

After we’d been swimming about 10 minutes, looking for diversion, I began ‘scanning’ with my eyes as I rotated to breathe. First I noticed that the underside of the surface was dimpled by the rain and found that almost mesmerizing.  Then I kept my gaze keen as my eyes and mouth broke the surface. Like you, I immediately realized this helped me sharpen the timing of the breath and make small adjustments to head position. That has stayed with me ever since.

One Goggle Out

While your insight will be of value to many, I think you also make a larger point  — The Value of Being Observant.  Paying attention, and consequently noticing things that usually escape your attention is relatively rare among swimmers. This is a result of the common focus on yardage totals, repeat times, intervals, etc. Tuning out to get through it also results when workouts are tedious, or lack a clear purpose beyond “getting the yards in.” The fact that it took me 30 years to notice what you noticed after one is evidence of how pervasive inattention can be.

Be Observant is just another way of saying Swim Mindfully.

And here’s the flip side to your discovery of the value of keeping your eyes open. Have you ever noticed yourself closing your eyes when trying to intensify your focus, usually on a subtle or elusive aspect of technique?

After I began swimming more mindfully, I noticed that during moments of especially keen focus I would instinctively close my eyes. It’s well known that people who lose their sight become far more attuned to sound and feel. For the rest of us, taking away visual input has the effect of making your sense of feel a lot keener. In water — which is literally a sea of sensation — anything that sharpens kinesthetic awareness is invaluable.


9 Responses to “Open (or close) your eyes and see as never before.”

  1. Burlygrl says:

    How timely a post! I had a similar but opposite discovery the other day. My breath is the longest part of my stroke, so I had been intent on exhaling fully so that when I turned my head – to not waste time exhaling, only inhaling. But nothing changed. 1, 2, 3, breathe, 1, 2, 3, breathe, interrupting balance, etc. Observing more closely, I realized that I would not inhale until the water drained away from my goggles after turning my head out of the water. The momentum left me with both goggles out and trying to go under before inhaling. So, I played with closing my eyes while breathing. Instead of waiting for my eyes to confirm I would get air, not water, I let the exposed skin of my face and mouth tell me it was okay to inhale. I had many water fears to get over when I started TI last year, drowning/choking not the least of my issues. Trusting another sense (touch) to cue my breath may help me gain further comfort, and all the subsequent improvements of balance and rhythm. The observation was key to understanding.

  2. I read this article in this morning and had a big aha!!! Because I have been having same issue since starting to learn TI free style.

    I went to the pool today and tried what John described. It was BIGEST aha!!! in my swim life. My breath became really smooth and I didn’t need to recover my balance!!! I felt great confidence to chalenge my 1st Olympic distance triathlon race in this May.

    Coincidentally, I have started Zen before going to bed everyday since having big quake here. I am getting understanding about observation and mindfulness.

    Terry’s words “Be Observant is just another way of saying Swim Mindfully.” was also BIGG aha!!!

    Thank you very much both of you for giving great inspirations to me.

  3. Yamaoka-san We have been so impressed by the humble resilient spirit of the Japanese people. Their example of working for the common good is an inspiration. Tonight in New Paltz NY (the HQ of TI), we are doing a Smart Speed clinic as a benefit with all proceeds to be donated to the Japan Society relief fund.
    Thank you for sharing your own moments of insight and ‘swimming joy’ with us. I am so gratified to know that Mindful Swimming Practice can help provide a calm space in the midst of external turmoil and uncertainty — even while being observant helps your breathing mechanics.
    Please do share your experience on the TI Discussion Forum.

  4. Wonderful. You also paid attention – using the second method mentioned in that post. The point is really to notice things you may have ignored before.

    In a previous post here or on the Forum I wrote that many people have found it much easier to breathe when they realized they could both inhale and exhale just enough air, and didn’t need to either fill or empty their lungs.

  5. Doug Alt says:

    Regarding eyes opened/closed:
    This past week I was having a somewhat “off” day, mostly due to a strenuous physical schedule I had been on for the two days prior to going to the pool. So “far off”, that I forgot to take my goggles with me. Upon discovering this I decided to just go in and play around in the water for a few minutes, primarily to loosen the muscles and joints, more or less as “therapy”.
    Once in the water, swimming with eyes closed, I had a major advance in the quality of my stroke – due to having to rely only on FEEL as the primary sensory input! I was FEELING the mail slot entry, FEELING the stretch position, FEELING my torso twist, etc.! By eliminating the “distraction” of all the underwater scenery (if you can call lines and tiles “scenery”), I was able to concentrate on other nervous system input.
    It reminded me of an old gymnastics coaching “trick” wherein I would blindfold certain students who had a prohibitively high fear component while trying to learn back handsprings. In most cases, removing the visual dependence worked like a charm.

  6. Richk says:

    When I figured out how to breathe properly, it was the single biggest AHA I had which led to enormous gains in distance. When I started swimming in September, I used to hold my breath under water, then tried to exhale and inhale when I turned my head (as opposed to rotating my body toward the air now). In the short period of the breath, exhaling and inhaling felt more like gasping for air which made me extremely tired very quickly. I found that by swimming UNDER water AND exhaling while under water, I was able to complete half a breath while under the water. When I did come up for air, I only had to inhale, as I had already exhaled everything under the water. When I got comfortable getting air by rolling my body, I realized I could stay in that “air intake position” as long as I wanted just by keeping my body rotated. After I realized I could come up at will, and stay up as long as I wanted, I became much more relaxed in the water. Not being afraid helped me to realize that I was also able to rest in between strokes. The longer I reached, the longer the glide, the longer the rest. In September I couldn’t swim two laps. I have swum as far as 3 miles continuously without tiring using this technique. Breathing was the key for me.

  7. Max says:

    On this subject I´d like to comment on my experience to breathing. First I never close my mouth completely during the underwater phase of the stroke I keep it split open concentrating to keep balance staying low in the water during the whole stroke not turning my neck at all while inhaling after rolling. and second just initiating to roll back to the other side I release a puff of air through my mouth then exhale ritmically blowing air through mouth and nose the rest of the underwater phase. By now I breathe as described just espontaniasly at any speed without drawing water into my mouth not even during an open water race start. With googles on I keep my eyes open all the time during the whole cycle. During open water events I adopt a two beat kick together with bilateral breathing. I don´t roll all the way to my side probably no more than 45 degrees to eather side. When speeding for short distances even less so. I´m not as fast as I used to be but following the TI instructions practicing the lessons made me a swimmer really beautiful to watch and enabled me to hold pace with many swimmers 20 years younger than me ( I´m 78 .)

  8. John McGuire says:

    I haven’t learned how to breathe yet but reading these blogs provide inspiration to keep trying.

  9. Max
    I’ll bet the beauty part is just as satisfying to you as the speed part. Am I right?

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