Water Workouts

For Body and Mind

By Shirley Vanderbilt

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, August/Winter 2005.

When Cynthia Bialek could no longer practice yoga on land, she decided to try it in water. After several years of suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, this 38-year-old woman was determined to move beyond the limitations of her symptoms and regain her active lifestyle. Water helped her do just that. Bialek found that the supportive buoyancy and slight pressure of the water enabled her to once again enter yoga poses that brought strength and stability to her body. The water’s energy also instilled a sense of oneness with nature and enhanced the “letting go” of relaxation in her body.

Through the experience of her personal journey, Bialek, now 50, developed an innovative class in 1993 called Yoga Afloat and has since taught workshops throughout the country.

Yoga Afloat is just one of a growing number of water movement practices that incorporate the elements of Eastern bodywork, such as yoga, qi gong, and tai chi, with the soothing environment of warm water. These routines, once learned, can be performed in a variety of water settings, alone or as part of a class. As with the Eastern practices on land, there is a commonality of emphasis on breathwork and mindfulness as one goes through the movements.

Bialek says if you’ve never done yoga before, a good place to start is in the water. “Some people cannot participate in yoga on land for many reasons,” she says. For instance, individuals who are overweight or suffer from arthritis may have a difficult time with standing or seated yoga poses. For those who are not as flexible on land, water provides the support needed in a comfortable, no-impact environment. You don’t even need to know how to swim.

“The buoyancy actually opens the joints and helps to get more range of motion than on land,” Bialek says. “Another thing is the comfort of being either in a reclining, floating, suspended, or standing position where the body is supported by the water, as compared to being seated. And there’s a comfort factor of being submerged in water because that’s where we come from. Someone in extreme stress will find it a more enjoyable experience in the water.”

The Yoga Afloat routine includes standing Hatha Yoga poses in chest-height water, suspended and floating poses with the aid of “noodles” or hand buoys, and wall-assisted poses, with traditional breathwork incorporated throughout. Ideally, the water temperature should be at least 86 degrees and a quiet environment away from other swimmers is preferable.

Bialek credits a complete recovery from her illnesses to the floating yoga routines. People with other conditions, she says, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, can benefit as well. “There are huge differences in balance and coordination. They have better stability, and improved stability in the water can translate to improved stability and more comfort on land.”

For anyone suffering from emphysema or other breathing problems, Bialek cautions against being submerged in the water for too long a period of time because of compression on the chest. With adjustments, such as standing with the water level just below the chest wall, the person can still benefit and the work may actually strengthen the lungs. If there are health concerns, she suggests discussing the activity with your physician.

Similar to Bialek, Jill Coleman’s decades-long struggle with severe back pain led her to develop water-assisted yoga routines to restore her health. In her book, WaterYoga: Water-Assisted Postures and Stretches for Flexibility and Well-Being, she offers a series of workouts that can be done just about anywhere, from the pool or lake to tub or shower. Coleman combines elements of Iyengar yoga with postural stretches to address conditions ranging from back problems to disabilities due to aging, arthritis, and stress.

She notes four characteristics of water that account for its effectiveness in the healing benefits of WaterYoga: weightlessness for freedom; hydrostatic pressure for aid in remaining in position; a slight resistance for ease in movement; and controlled warmth for relaxation and improved blood circulation.

The flowing movements and breathwork of ai chi, another water exercise and relaxation program, is like an aquatic qi gong, says ai chi instructor Cameron West. Created by Japanese swim coach Jun Konno to combine elements of tai chi, shiatsu, and Watsu, the practice has been popularized by Ruth Sova who offers workshops in the United States. As with Yoga Afloat and WaterYoga, ai chi promotes both calmness of mind and flexibility and strength of body.

“Ai chi is excellent for learning how to work with the breath,” West says. The slow, natural movements emphasize roundness and continuity, bringing the body into a meditative state. “It helps the body to find a balance point. In our fast-paced American lives, she says, “There isn’t as much focus to bring us into a natural state. It’s very helpful when you can find something that gives you strengthening and quality fullness of breath, so it doesn’t feel so anxious and driven.”

In ai chi, water should be shoulder level so the whole body is immersed with a feeling of being supported at all times. Water temperature is critical to achieving the maximum potential of the movements. West says 92–96 degrees Fahrenheit is best, as this comes closer to matching body temperature. ”I’ve seen it done in less than 90 degrees, but it really depends on the temperature of the day. Once a body gets cold, it’s distracted by getting cold.” Caution is urged for those who cannot tolerate warm water, especially if it causes dizziness or is medically contraindicated.

Whatever workout you choose, remember that being immersed in water can dehydrate your body. Always carry a water bottle and drink up just as you would on land. Water inside and out — it’s good for your body and mind.