Several years ago, after finding myself on my own for the first time in over fourteen years, I bought a townhouse. It was a small, two-bedroom townhouse, which was great because I didn’t want to have to take care of a lot of “stuff.” The HOA dues covered all of the outside yard maintenance, and that was fine with me. I wanted to think, not mow grass.
Now I am a reader, not a swimmer. But the townhouse development had a nice pool, and I found myself drawn there often, book in hand, sitting off a ways from the swimmers and splashers, enjoying the opportunity to observe human interactions from a safe distance behind my sunglasses. Young kids in their colorful water wings, awkward teenagers, middle aged sunbathers, gym rats, school swimmers, I saw a lot of different types of people there. I loved going to the pool in the mornings before the bright Carolina sun became too hot, forcing me to jump in to cool off. Like I said, I’m not a swimmer.
One morning while I was reading the latest Ken Follett book, I noticed a man I had never seen before entering through the main gate at the other end of the pool. He wasn’t very tall but was lean, sinewy, and almost bald. Serious looking goggles hung loosely around his neck, and his black, tight suit was much smaller than the knee-length “dad trunks” I was accustomed to seeing in the neighborhood. But I digress. He did a few shoulder rolls, moved his head from side to side a couple of times, then dove headfirst into the pool going entire length without coming up for air. When he got to the other end, he adjusted his goggles, then proceeded to teach me a thing or two about yoga.
What struck me at first was the beauty of his stroke. He swam freestyle the entire time, but it was almost as if he were moving in slow motion. His movements were controlled and precise. Beautiful, really. His “flip turns” at the wall were so perfectly timed that he never skipped a beat once he re-emerged. He continued at exactly the same pace he had set at the beginning.
As I continued watching this stranger I noticed that it looked like he never came up for air. His head turn was so slight and fluid that I had to look hard to see it. He didn’t raise his head, just barely turned it into what I would later find out was called the “pocket.” There were hardly any ripples as he glided gracefully through the water for thirty minutes straight, not once stopping or changing his pace. I was transfixed. Watching him became a meditation, for everything else around the pool disappeared that morning.
After exactly half an hour the man got out of the pool, picked up his towel, slipped on his flip-flops, and left. I never saw him again.
The next morning I rolled out my yoga mat in the kitchen (which doubled as my yoga room). I stood at the top of my mat with my hands in Anjali mudra, the prayer position, and closed my eyes. I remembered the calm serenity of the swimmer. The deliberate and delicate movements. The precision of his breath. How his physical movements seemed to be perfectly married to his inhales and exhales. I opened my eyes and began my practice.
I did nothing but sun salutations that morning, trying to emulate the smooth transitions the swimmer had demonstrated the day before. I imagined that the air around me had mass, providing me with a little resistance, like that of the water in the pool. I worked hard to match my movements to my breath, and even harder to keep my breath perfectly even. I slowed everything down, way down. And because I was moving and breathing so slowly I had a chance to really observe my form. Come to find out, I had gotten a little sloppy with a few things, especially my foot placement and alignment. I began to tweak a little here and there, and after about thirty sun salutations felt like I was finally in a groove.
Funny thing was, the longer I practiced, the stronger I felt. I did not get winded or lose my breath. I experienced a deep calm that I never imagined possible after working so long at repeating the same movements over and over. I realized that my practice that morning had become a beautiful, slow-motion meditation reminiscent of the swimmer.
One of the things I took from that experience is that teachers can be found anywhere if we are willing to recognize them when they present themselves. That swimmer dramatically changed more than my personal practice, he also changed the way I approach teaching. I’m sure he had no idea that his discipline affected me so deeply that morning, but that in itself was a bigger lesson. Never underestimate the power of example, for you never know who may be watching.
K. Kris Loomis is the author of the humorous travel memoir, Thirty Days In Quito: Two Gringos and a Three-Legged Cat Move to Ecuador. She also writes adult parables and short stories as well as books about yoga and meditation. Kris is a determined chess player, an origami enthusiast, a classically trained pianist, and a playwright. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.
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