• People have long been drawn to the water, finding being immersed to be a soothing and healing experience

  • Bonnie Tsui, in her book Why We Swim, explores why swimming is more than a physical activity

In her new book Why We Swim, writer Bonnie Tsui explores our curious human relationship with water and swimming through the themes of survival, wellbeing, community, competition, and flow. One story, featured in this extract, she shares has to do with the history and tradition of samurai swimming – a.k.a. Nihon eiho, the Japanese swimming martial art – and how the skills and techniques once used by samurai in battle can be a lens through which to examine the self, both mind and body.

The ideals of samurai swimming have a clear philosophical resonance today. In his book How to Think About Exercise, the philosopher Damon Young revives the ancient idea of exercise as something that takes into account one’s whole humanity—and not just what he calls “the bodily machine.” Young observes that the tendency to think in dualism—jocks vs. nerds, sporty vs. bookish—is a false divide when it comes to physical and mental exertions.

Swimming’s benefit, he argues, has as much to do with intellectual enhancements as it does the achievements of the body. The ideal modern swimmer focuses on the whole experience rather than the perception of exercise as a “tune-up.”

Important, too, is the pride we feel in the well-exercised body. “The fuller sense of self we have,” Young once told an interviewer, “the more responsibility we take for it.” Over time, swimming has shifted from mere mechanics and survival—a military skill, practiced by men—to achieve a more intangible significance: a form of recreation, a pleasure, something that can sharpen your spiritual as well as physical health. This idea of swimming for wellness, emotional resonance, whole personhood, rings true to me. The physical is intertwined with the psychological.

In Japan, Sawai Atsuhiro is a bestselling author who writes about mind and body unification principles that develop ki, or life energy. He has also written about his experiences of studying to be a master in Nihon eiho. The technique that impressed him most was shusoku garami, which allows someone to swim with both hands and feet bound together. There aren’t many of us who will face the possibility of breaking out of an enemy prison, having to swim across the castle moat to escape, but there’s a lesson here. “Astonished, I watch a man with hands and feet tied swim across a pool with a motion that is a cross between a swimming frog and an undulating eel. He is able to swim on his front or on his back, head first or feet first,” Atsuhiro writes. “And my teacher surprised us by saying, ‘You believe you swim with the arms and legs, but you’re wrong. You can swim without them. Look at a fish. Real swimming is using the whole body.’”

In my mind, the salmon surfaces again, that elegant example of adaptation, tenacity, and stamina. We are not fish, but from them we continue to take inspiration. In this case, the fish reminds us that swimming can be something to engage your whole self. From the rigor of swimming competition comes a devotion to swimming as holistic self-betterment.

The emphasis moves from body alone to body and mind, together. Think of a stream flowing into a river, a river flowing into the sea.

These waters run together in a way that helps me to understand why I swim.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of Why We Swim:

Further reading

The mental health benefits of cold water swimming

Therapeutic landscapes: how natural environments boost wellbeing

Working with the body in counselling