Swimming is probably the best possible exercise: it’s aerobic, so it gives you cardiovascular fitness; you use your whole body to do it, so it works and tones all your muscles; and because the water supports you, it’s kind to the joints. For the first time in her life, Verne Maree learns to swim breaststroke properly.
These pavement-pounded knees of mine are not going to last forever. Swimming is one of few vigorous exercises that you can continue doing well into old age, and as I approach my twilight years it’s time to look seriously at alternatives to running.
The main reason I don’t swim with my face in the water is because I can’t wear goggles – or I think I can’t. After 20 minutes or so, they leave panda-eye bruising that takes more than 12 hours to fade, and until then I look like a well-beaten wife.
Accordingly, I’ve developed a dodgy breaststroke with my head held up. I also do a self-taught backstroke that apparently looks all right but leaves me panting stertorously after just one lap. Crawl? Forget it. A series of school PT teachers – harried souls responsible at any one time for preserving the young lives of 30-plus children, each intent on drowning – never succeeded in teaching me the crawl breathing technique.
But this is Singapore, where the water is warm year-round and every condo has a lap pool. If I can’t crack my swimmer’s badge here, I’m never going to. Here goes: my first swimming lesson ever.
I have really lucked out: not only is Maria Hussain a born teacher with a gentle approach and a gift for clear instruction, but she’s qualified in teaching the brilliant Shaw Method. First off, she’s going to teach me the breaststroke.
About Maria Hussain
Maria’s exotic looks – the legacy of her Indian father and English mother – are rather at odds with a Mancunian accent that hasn’t been one bit affected by her 20 years away from Manchester. And there’s another thing: how did someone from England’s chilly north become a swimming teacher?
“I’ve been a swimmer since I was little,” she says. “It’s one of the few things I was good at – in spite of having being thrown into the water to sink or swim at my first swimming lesson, when I was just three or four. Maybe it’s something to do with being born under the water sign Cancer.”
It didn’t put her off for long, and 15 years ago, when Maria found herself living in Hong Kong with her banker partner Mark, she decided it was time to do something she was passionate about. “So I did the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) teacher’s accreditation course and set up my own little swim school. I also became a qualified massage therapist – another of my passions.”
Ten years ago, Maria went back to London to do the six-week Shaw Method course in crawl. After the first lesson, she says, she was convinced that this was it: “I’ve always had neck pain, and had wondered if it was to do with my swimming posture. After only a few lessons I could feel a huge improvement – that really wowed me!
“I signed up for a butterfly lesson with Steven Shaw, and he invited me to join the teacher’s training course. Since then, I’ve assisted him at a number of his ‘swimming holidays’ in the UK and overseas, including a week at a UK spa and another in Marrakesh, Morocco.”
What she’d really love to do, says Maria, is organise this sort of event at appropriate venues in the region – say Bali, or Phuket. Even better, she’d like to work with a good friend of hers who teaches yoga in Hong Kong to offer swimming and yoga retreats: you’d spend a few hours a day perfecting your strokes in the water, and a few more practising your asanas in peaceful outdoor settings. Bliss!
She doesn’t teach children anymore, says Maria. “I only work with adults now. The Shaw Method of swimming ties in perfectly with my clinical and remedial massage work with athletes. Sometimes, I have to tell a runner that his or her running days are over; their knees are shot. For them, swimming might then be the best alternative.”
Private lessons from Maria in her Geylang condo pool cost $80 for an hour-long lesson; a lesson in your own pool starts from $100, depending on where you live. She provides her massage services at two venues: The Moving Body at Robertson Quay, and the Ufit studio in Amoy Street, Chinatown.
Lesson 1 – Arms
In her condo pool at The Waterina, I show Maria my pathetic breaststroke while she videos it on a little Olympus waterproof camera. How mortifying – I had no idea that my right leg did that peculiar screw-kick!
Even worse, swimming with the head held up out of the water is one of the direst things you can do: it compresses the cervical vertebrae, which affects the whole back. If the head is out of alignment, says Maria, the rest of the body will be too. “With the Shaw Method, the head leads the stroke.”
But today it’s all about the arms. After taking me through a few postural exercises in the pool, she patiently demonstrates each aspect of the arm movement: gliding with the head and neck in the correct position, opening the arms, scooping the hands back to the breast.
“Now go home and practise,” she commands. Being an obedient girl, I do.
Lesson 2 – Legs
A week later, I’m back in the pool with Maria. Today, she teaches me the leg movement: drawing the feet up to the buttocks, turning the feet out froglike, kicking directly downward, then the all-important pointy-toed glide. Once I’ve got it, we put the arm and leg movements together; only one or two strokes at a time, because at this stage my face stays in the water.
As for the goggle dilemma, I’ve been trying Maria’s spare set of Aqua Sphere goggles, which have soft silicone pads and feel quite comfortable from the get-go. In the end, I find that the marks aren’t too fearsome as long as I release and adjust the goggles every few minutes so that the vacuum doesn’t build up too much or for too long.
Lesson 3 – Breathing
After several practice sessions at home, I feel confident that today’s lesson – coordinating the arms and legs with breathing – will be a cinch. To the contrary, my limited coordination skills completely desert me. Instead of the smooth, comfortable and graceful style we’re aiming for, I can feel I’m smacking my face into the water and then gasping for breath as I come up again.
Maria is unfailingly patient and encouraging, however, finding new ways to explain and show me what I need to do and using hands-on guidance techniques where necessary.
Lesson 4 – Becoming a fish
Alone in my own condo pool – apart from three hysterically giggling teenagers one afternoon (I wonder why?), and the next day a languidly lovely crawl-swimming Frenchman who’s obviously spent his whole life in the piscine – I try to put Maria’s instructions into practice.
Today, she’s full of kind praise and says I’ve made excellent progress. Now she teaches me to incorporate a fish-like undulation into the stroke, a little like the butterfly wiggle. It’s led by the head and followed by the shoulders and the rest of the torso, and feels great once I get the hang of it. Finally, the whole stroke is coming together.
That said, getting it right once or twice with Maria to correct and advise me doesn’t mean that that’s it. I’m going to need a lot of practice sessions on my own in the pool – and a few follow-up lessons, too.
What’s more, this is just the start of my swimming journey. I have a sneaking suspicion that crawl is going to be a whole lot more difficult to master.
The Alexander Technique (AT)
Developed over 100 years ago by Frederick Matthias Alexander, the AT is all about awareness of balance, posture and coordination. As an actor who was losing his voice, he realised from looking in the mirror that his head was out of alignment with his body. He developed a series of re-alignment exercises, got his own voice back and then started to help other actors, eventually developing a number of UK schools to teach his technique.
The AT teaches you new ways of sitting, standing and walking that put less strain on the bones, muscles and joints. This releases unwanted muscular tension throughout your body that has accumulated over many years and can lead to arthritis, neck and back pain, migraines, hypertension, sciatica, insomnia and even depression.
The Shaw Method
More than 25 years ago, competitive UK breaststroke swimmer Steven Shaw devised his Shaw Method, based on the AT, to overcome his own swimming-related back problems, Maria tells me. “He studied people in the water, how they moved, and developed an ideal teaching technique for each of the four strokes – crawl, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly.”
The AT is all about moving with grace, she says, instead of strain. “It looks at how you move now, then takes you right back to the start to show you how to move correctly. And that’s exactly what we do when we teach the Shaw Method of swimming.
“Swimming with the correct technique means that you get out of the pool with relaxed muscles. It can even be compared to meditation. Because you’re focusing on getting every little movement right, you’re able to switch your mind off other things.”
The Shaw Method is fully supported by the British Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Register of Osteopaths, Chiropractic Association and Pilates Foundation.
9001 7462 | artofswimming.com
The Moving Body
6235 1051 | themovingbody.com.sg
UFIT Urban Fitness
6225 5059 | ufit.com.sg