Mindful Water Fitness in the Pool

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Mar 20, 2019

Water fitness provides ideal mindful movement for all ages and ability levels.

The sensory-rich pool environment—soothing and simultaneously challenging—is an ideal setting for mindful movement and a welcome respite from digital stress. It’s also a place where people of all ages and ability levels can thrive. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that aquatic exercise posted the third-greatest growth among group exercise and training protocols in the 2017 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, with 12% facility member participation last year, up from 7% in 2014. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2017 Tracking the Fitness Movement Report also registered greater participation, showing a 14.6% increase among Americans.

As part of this dynamic, mind-body classes in the pool are on the rise, with offerings like paddleboard yoga, aquatic Pilates, Ai Chi and fusion options. Here’s a look at some of the current mind-body water fitness activities and which markets are being served. You may want to expand this programming for your clients.

What Is Mind-Body Water Fitness?

For clarification, use of the term “mind-body” in this context does not imply that other fitness forms are not mindful. Rather, mind-body indicates that the activity’s predominant objective is to intentionally coordinate breath with movement, to emphasize precise alignment, to challenge balance and centering, and to enhance kinesthetic and present-moment awareness, all for the purpose of creating a more mindful, meditative state, while at the same time conditioning the body. In a mind-body movement experience, the participant’s state of mind matters, and cultivating a mind-body connection is prioritized.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has defined mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn 1994). The trend toward more mindful movement or movement activities with heightened awareness is growing in all fitness modalities, especially in programs taught by leading trainers. In this article, however, mind-body water fitness refers to modalities like yoga, Pilates, tai chi, barre, fusions of these activities, and pursuits inspired by these traditional disciplines, taught with an emphasis on enhancing mindfulness, not simply moving with awareness.


See also: Sample Class: Aqua Jogging

Program Influences and Trends

Growth drivers in water fitness programs in general are fueling interest in mindful-movement modalities. The popularity of high-intensity interval training has stimulated interest in recovery training, and technological advancements have improved equipment options. Healthcare system pressure to meet demand for nonpharmacological treatments, as well as mounting scientific evidence of the benefits of water exercise, is also pushing growth.

Mary E. Sanders, PhD, adjunct professor at the Reno School of Medicine and at the University of Nevada, Reno, says, “In collaboration with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and with the Michael Phelps Foundation, the American College of Sports Medicine has formed a team of scientists, pool safety experts, medical providers and health/fitness professionals to promote safe and effective use of aquatics for exercise, rehabilitation and recreation.”

These influences, combined with a growing active-aging population, increasing acceptance of meditation and mindfulness practices, and the need for people of all ages to recover from stress and digital overload, have led to more demand for water exercise programs, especially those that embrace a holistic, integrated approach.

Here is a sampling of popular programs:

Aqua Yoga

Yoga continues to lead group fitness growth, and water-based yoga classes are surging in popularity. Aqua yoga pioneer Fran├žoise B. Freedman, PhD, author of Aqua Yoga (Broadway Books 2000) and founder of the Birthlight Trust, an educational charity based in the United Kingdom that has been offering aqua yoga for over 30 years, says, “Most asanas can be adapted to water, but to me this is not the point of aqua yoga. Through mindfulness, we gain awareness of our rhythms in relation to the water environment. As aqua yoga teachers, our role is more to design adaptations that are true to the essence of yoga, yet are accessible to beginners, most particularly for those with injuries or disabilities that prevent them from doing yoga on land.” Birthlight has been offering aquanatal yoga teacher-training courses since 2000.

Other combination yoga and water fitness instructors see water yoga as a chance to encourage participants to explore the self-discovery that water offers to those with mobility limitations on land. Connie Martin, MA, mind-body movement specialist, group exercise instructor and personal trainer in Aurora, Illinois, says, “[I encourage my participants to] move in the water with mindfulness to find whatever is real freedom to them . . . , to move within the exercise parameters . . . to get in tune with how their bodies feel and how the elements of water enrich their lives through movement.”

Pilates in the Pool

To attract both younger and older adults interested in muscle-conditioning benefits, more health clubs are offering aquatic Pilates classes that use noodles or flotation dumbbells to facilitate “planking” and other classic Pilates exercises. Sanders notes that concentration skills for precise movement control, proper posture positioning, and breathing that engages muscles during whole-body movements can translate easily to water but must be clearly cued. Adaptations are necessary because “each exercise challenges the body to respond to buoyancy, as well as swirling currents, [making] it difficult to maintain stability” (Sanders 2016).


See also: Rhythmic Water Warm-Up


For other types of mindful exercise in the pool, teaching tips and resources, see “Mindful Exercise in the Pool” in the online IDEA Library or in the October 2018 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at www.shirleyarcher.com.