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Water Yoga

6 unusual ways to use a swimming pool for therapeutic exercise

1,400 words, published 2009, updated 2012
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer, the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for sassy, skeptical, referenced analysis and a huge bibliography. I am a runner and ultimate player, and live in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. • full bioabout SaveYourself.ca

There’s a nice little pool in my building, and I use it regularly for “yoga” rather than for swimming — a casual and unstructured yoga, but yoga nevertheless. Using the buoyancy of water to aid rehabilitation is a well-known and excellent idea. Less widely appreciated, I think, is the potential for your pool to be an excellent place to breathe, stretch and move.

These exercises are not going to work for everyone, especially if you don’t have access to a private or semi-private pool. But, for those who have the resource, they’re great to try.

Here are five examples of exercises that make good use of the water:

ZOOM

The physics of water breathing

Water pressure resists expansion of the abdomen uniformly on all sides — and therefore it resists diaphragm contraction.

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing. Water pressure is surprisingly strong even just a couple feet down. This provides strong resistance to abdominal expansion, and 30 deep belly breaths while submerged to your chin is an amazingly good diaphragm workout. After a bit of this, you’ll also be more hyper-oxygenated and ready for the next couple exercises, which require breath-holding. And you can seriously dial up the diaphragm workout by adding a snorkel or longer breathing tube and sinking just a little further into the water, thanks to the magic of pressure math.1 Note that there are some safety issues here, so please be sensible.2 A nice variation is to do an abdominal lift or lock exercise (uddiyana bandha).
  2. Floating forward bend, a watered-down version (ha ha!) of the big toe pose (padangusthasana, similar to the better-known simple standing forward bend or uttanasana). Simply take a deep breath — your head will be underwater! — and fold in half at the waist, grasp your big toes, and pull your head down towards your knees. You will bob like a cork as you stretch!
  3. The bow pose (dhanurasana) is much more comfortable in a pool than when you are fighting gravity — the strength required to get into and sustain this poses can make it unpleasant. In the pool, you can enjoy the best sensations the pose has to offer … and you can be even more bow-like. (Bow-ish? Bowly? Bowed?) Take a good deep breath — you will probably need hold the air in to float high enough in the water — reach down and pull one leg up behind you by the ankle, then the other, and then arch your back. Let your air-filled chest keep you afloat. Although I mostly hold my breath to stay afloat, I find I can take quick breaths to sustain the pose. If I let out too much air for too long, though, I sink! Your mileage may vary.
The bow pose<br> (landlubber’s version): Or <em>dhanurasana</em> in Sanscrit. Thanks to <a href="http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/875">YogaJournal.com</a> for the image. They have <a href="http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories">a well-presented selection of yoga poses</a> — though none of them is in the water!

The bow pose
(landlubber’s version)

Or dhanurasana in Sanscrit. Thanks to YogaJournal.com for the image. They have a well-presented selection of yoga poses — though none of them is in the water!

The bow pose<br> (landlubber’s version): Or <em>dhanurasana</em> in Sanscrit. Thanks to <a href="http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/875">YogaJournal.com</a> for the image. They have <a href="http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories">a well-presented selection of yoga poses</a> — though none of them is in the water!

The bow pose
(landlubber’s version)

Or dhanurasana in Sanscrit. Thanks to YogaJournal.com for the image. They have a well-presented selection of yoga poses — though none of them is in the water!

  1. Dead float. Nothing beats floating for deep relaxation. A watery version of yoga’s corpse pose (savasana), floating as quiet and still as possible is lovely. Of course this works best if you’re nice and warm after a session in the hot tub, and a really great refinement is to have a partner slightly support you and move you around in the water. Warning: be aware that someone may think you are drowning! Reader George Ingham, formerly a lifeguard, tells me that “sometimes people would do a dead float without telling me about it,” resulting in embarrassing “rescues”!
  2. Sinking meditation. Okay, perhaps I’m kinda weird — undoubtedly I am — but I think it’s really neat to sink to the bottom of the pool and meditate while holding my breath. Yes, I really do this. No, they aren’t long meditations! But I’m a busy guy and I don’t like long meditations anyway. Pool bottoms are peaceful places, and slowly sinking to the bottom is a strong metaphor for descent into an altered state. For the best results, you have to do something counterintuitive: you have to exhale most of your breath, and hold your breath at the bottom (in two senses). This may seem alien at first, but it works better than you think it will: just hyperventilate a little before submerging, and you’ll be fine for at least 45-60 seconds. I’ve been practicing this for a long time, and it’s no problem for me to do a couple minutes, as long as I’ve done about three to five minutes of deep breathing first.3

A couple other short points to close.

Yoga and stretching are not everything they are cracked up to be, and they probably fail to achieve much of what people are hoping for — such as preventing muscle soreness,4 or curing low back pain.5 However, I am not anti-stretching — not by a long shot. There’s no question that it feels good, and not only is that sufficient reason in itself, it also probably means it’s doing something valuable to the organism. For instance, a 2011 study showed that a program of static stretching alone — just pulling on muscles — had a nice clear benefit for heart rate regulation, a common way of measuring fitness.6 Bodies probably need constant sensory feedback for optimum function — use it or lose it — and this evidence is probably a nice demonstration of that principle.

The reputation and popularity of yoga and meditation is immense, almost oppressive, eclipsing other options. People feel that they “should” try them in order to reduce stress and contribute to a healing process, and often actually feel guilty for not trying them or for not liking them. I call this the “tyranny of yoga and meditation.”

For people on the fence, a little water yoga might be more fun and easier to mess around with.

About Paul Ingraham

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.

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Notes

  1. The weight of the water presses relentlessly inwards on every square inch of rib cage and belly, and the narrow diameter of the tube becomes the sole pressure outlet for the weight of all that water. Air whooshes out of your lungs and through the tube, unless you stop it. Put your tongue over the tube end, and you will notice a formidable suction. When you try to inhale through that tube, you have to first match the suction and then exceed it to get any air! It becomes well nigh impossible as you descend. For a more detail description of the physics, see the exercises at the end of the article The Respiration Connection. BACK TO TEXT
  2. Blazingly obvious, disclaimery safety warnings: I am not responsible for you being foolish in the water. Don’t do this alone. Don’t do this in deep water. Don’t use too long/wide a tube for too long. Don’t keep going if you feel dizzy or nauseous. Don’t inhale water. Don’t chew gum while you’re doing this. Et cetera, et cetera. BACK TO TEXT
  3. Almost unbelievably, as of early 2010, the world record for breath-holding was 19 minutes and 21 seconds. The previous record holder about 17 minutes before that. I had a client who was an elite free diver, who regularly held her breath for about 6-7 minutes, and hung out with people who were getting to 8. Wow. BACK TO TEXT
  4. A large 2011 review of all the available science to date concluded with a clear thumbs down: “The evidence from randomised studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.” See Herbert, or see my main stretching article for a lot more information like that: Quite a Stretch: Stretching science shows that a stretching habit isn’t doing much of what people hope. BACK TO TEXT
  5. At best, yoga is probably no more than slightly better than nothing as a low back pain treatment — and a pair of studies found that yoga classes conveyed no more benefit than ordinary stretching and exercise classes, which was a bit of a blow to yoga pride. See Sherman et al. BACK TO TEXT
  6. Farinatti et al. Acute effects of stretching exercise on the heart rate variability in subjects with low flexibility levels. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2011. PubMed #21386722.

    This study of stretching found that

    multiple-set flexibility training sessions enhanced the vagal modulation and sympathovagal balance [that’s good] in the acute postexercise recovery, at least in subjects with low flexibility levels. … stretching routines may contribute to a favorable autonomic activity change in untrained subjects.

    This seems like a fairly straightforward bit of good-news science about stretching. It’s not a surprising idea that movement would have some systemic regulatory effects (motion is lotion, use it or lose it), but it’s nice to see some corroboration of that common sensical notion, and it’s also nice to know that perhaps just stretching did this (to the extent we can learn anything from a single study). If true, it makes for nice evidence to support a general stretching habit, yoga, mobilizations, really any kind of “massaging with movement,” and probably even massage itself.

    BACK TO TEXT