Dive in and flow with Total Immersion, the technique that takes the slog out of swimming

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire swimming
Water woman: Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire demonstrates the technique
REVIEW Total Immersion Effortless Endurance Freestyle swimming workshop with Susan Cheshire

Moving through water – being immersed in the same element that makes up around 60 per cent of a human body – is a deeply meditative practice for me, and swimming is one of the few activities during which the Babel of voices in my head quietens down. The fact that in addition to such mental health benefits it’s also superb for physical fitness is a tasty extra.

But while I’ve long enjoyed the mindful slog of getting 2,000m under me each time I hit the pool, my eyes lit up when I heard about Total Immersion, a method of swimming that sells itself with words such as effortless rather than slog. And watching YouTube videos of its practitioners in the water, it certainly looked that way: smooth, flowing movements that, for all their relaxed appearance, were clearly generating strong propulsive forces with barely a splash. I definitely wanted some of that.

So I worked through the free short introductory video course on the Total Immersion website and read a few articles online that explained the basic technique. In essence it’s about streamlining and using energy more efficiently by harnessing the rotational power of the body to propel yourself serenely through the water rather than vigorously pulling and pushing yourself forward with muscular arm strokes and strong kicks.

At ease: Note the smooth grace with which Susan moves through the water in this video

After a few days of theoretical studies, I dived right in and blew my mind. In terms of technique, my next swim felt like the best I’d ever had: strong, smooth, balanced – and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it effortless, it was much more languid than usual even though I covered a similar distance in my hour-long session.

Almost on instinct, I stopped counting lengths and found myself dropping deeper into the moment-by-moment flow of simply swimming. Connecting with the natural rotational energy of the body with such presence reminded me strongly of practising Pilates or some forms of yoga, except in the water. Like both of those practices, it was simultaneously energising and relaxing.

Perhaps inevitably, though, my next swims were not quite as extraordinary. They still felt great, and it was clear that I had transformed my style in an unbelievably quick time, and that my days of trying to develop stronger pulling and kicking techniques in the water were at least on hold. But the more I tried to intuit Total Immersion through my own practice and continued theoretical research, the more it became obvious that there was a lot more to it than met the eye. Time to get some expert tuition.

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire
Top level: Susan in her land-based form

And so I found myself at an Effortless Endurance Freestyle Workshop conducted by Susan Cheshire, a top-level Total Immersion swimming teacher based in North East London. These are limited to six participants at a time, which means you have to book a fair while in advance to secure a place. But the fact that the workshop is for such a small group is one of its best features, meaning you get to work very closely with the teacher. I’ve been to so many yoga workshops where the guiding principle seems to be to pack as many students into the room as possible, resulting in almost zero genuine personal engagement with the teacher. This was the precise opposite.

It was a full eight-hour day that began in a classroom with an in-depth look at some of the theory of Total Immersion and a few exercises to prime our bodies for the way we’d be using them in the water. Yes, it’s possible to practise some of this stuff on land! Susan’s instruction was supreme: clear, direct and very practical, delivered in a relaxed style that helped generate a chilled learning vibe in the group.

To the water, then, for a two-hour swim to put it all into practice. The session started with each of us being filmed swimming a length of the lovely 25m pool at Bancroft’s School for a before-and-after record of the day. Then it was straight to business.

Susan broke the method down into its individual components, starting with simply studying how a human body behaves in water – it tends to sink – and learning how to place it more effectively (streamlining and relaxing are the key). Bit by bit we moved through each area – how to hold the head well in the water, the best position for the arms and how to get them there, what to do with your legs and, most important, how to use the torso to generate the powerful torque that moves you through the water.

We practised each of the separate parts of the technique in isolation, really getting a feel for them as components. One by one we had a go under close scrutiny by Susan, who offered individual corrections and suggestions, before working solo for a while or watching what she was doing with the other students. This ability to observe our teacher offering individual adjustments to six different people was a significant benefit of having such a small group. We finished the morning swim being filmed again before a brief lunch break.

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire swimming
Effortless: Susan swimming at Derwentwater in England’s Lake District

After lunch, it was another session in the classroom analysing the videos recorded earlier. This was such a powerful learning aid. Swimming alone before this workshop, inspired only by videos and reading, I had thought I was getting the hang of it, then I saw myself in the water… and oh, OK, back to the drawing board. The second morning video showed progress had been made, but also highlighted in a precise way where work needed to be done. I can’t exaggerate the value of these video analyses, not just my of own swimming but that of my fellow students too. We also did a bit more land-based “swimming” to fine-tune some of the body movements, then it was back to the pool.

The next two-hour session in the water added a few more individual components of the technique, such as effective breathing, and polishing the stuff we’d worked on in the morning before we slowly knitted the separate pieces together and moved towards our expression of the Total Immersion Effortless Freestyle method. Again, Susan explained everything in the water with absolute clarity, including her own demonstrations of the right and wrong way to do it, while giving us constant individual feedback and adjustments to improve what we were doing.

There was a bit more filming of separate techniques, and the session ended with a recording of a final swim at the end of the day to compare with our first length. We returned to the classroom for a full summary of the method, as well as suggestions on how to practise it in crowded public swimming pools. There was time for a question-and-answer session at the end, but – a testament to Susan’s comprehensive teaching – none of us had anything to ask. I went home both physically and mentally exhausted, and very happy.

Total Immersion coach Susan Cheshire swimming
Perfect poise: Susan practises the torpedo, one of the alignment drills of Total Immersion

Susan sent the videos from the second swimming session, into which she had recorded detailed commentary, by email. I was so happy to see, in the “after” video, that we had all made huge progress over the day. And it was good to observe precisely where to focus attention to develop further. Continuing, lifelong learning with deep awareness, or kaizen, is a key feature of Total Immersion, and this workshop provided a solid foundation for that. I am enjoying my swimming more than ever.

Susan really is a masterful teacher: conveying huge amounts of practical information while engaging personally with six people at the same time is a serious talent, and it was such a privilege to be on the receiving end of that. I can’t recommend her workshops highly enough. They cost £225 for the day and are worth every penny.

To find out more about Susan Cheshire and book workshops or one-to-one tuition with her, visit her website here

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga and Pilates teacher based in East London, currently offering classes online or one-to-one in person. Details at yogayelvy.com

Published by Martin Yelverton

I'm a plant-powered yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance journalist.

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