Mindful Exercise in the Pool
Water fitness is ideal for mind-body movement.
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, programming for mind-body classes in the pool is 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). (To learn more about this practice, see “What Is Mindfulness?” in the September 2016 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.) 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.
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.
Yoga continues to lead group fitness growth, and water-based yoga classes are surging in popularity. Aqua yoga pioneer Françoise 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 (see Resources).
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).
Julie Twynham, educational director for WaterART Fitness International Inc. in Toronto, notes that pool Pilates often requires fairly advanced water skills, as exercises can require significant balance and core control, especially when the feet are not grounded.
STANDUP PADDLEBOARD YOGA AND MAT PILATES
For facilities that have outdoor access or want to invest in indoor flotation boards, paddleboard yoga and Pilates attract younger to middle-aged participants eager for a challenge but also seeking a more mindful experience. In 2012, Jessie Benson, in Baltimore, founded FloYo®, a paddleboard yoga program she describes as a workout that utilizes the core while connecting mind and body to create a strong physique and a clear mind. Similarly, standup Pilates classes feature mat Pilates exercises performed on a floating board.
Benson says, “More and more people are coming to the water for the meditative aspect. They want to be someplace where they can’t take their phones. I’ve even created a morning silent meditative SUP class where we focus on nature sounds and enjoy the complete peace that being in nature on the board offers. [Not everyone can do] a regular sitting meditation practice, and water attracts a broader range of people who want the clarity [that meditation can offer]. I also offer Slow FloYo, in which we take time with each posture, and people really want that. Initially, we started with more of a paddleboard boot camp, but the yoga and more meditative options are always the most popular.”
Benson notes that, since its inception, FloYo has enjoyed strong and steady growth. Today, the program has more than 200 certified instructors, classes are offered globally, and teacher trainings are available on several continents (see Resources).
Outdoor classes encourage present-moment awareness with enhanced sensory stimulation from the sun, water, waves, fresh air, natural sounds (such as birdsong) and ever-changing environment. These classes also offer all the benefits of “green exercise.” (To learn more, see “Green Exercise: How It Benefits Your Clients” in the March issue.) Participants note that they can momentarily tune out when they’re in a studio yoga or Pilates class, but if they’re not paying attention on a paddleboard, they’re likely to fall into the water. SUP classes, therefore, demand not only mindful concentration but water safety skills and freedom from fear of open water.
TAI CHI AND AI CHI
Water-based programs inspired by tai chi and qigong serve people of all ages seeking restoration and recovery but are especially good at meeting the needs of older adults with special conditions. Ai Chi is a globally popular program created by Jun Konno, president of Aqua Dynamics Institute in Japan, in the mid-1980s and formally called Ai Chi in 1993. The class is based on three principles:
- Deep diaphragmatic breathing. Ai Chi’s original name was “water breathing.” Deep inhalations and exhalations coordinate with each of the 19 movement patterns and nine partner stretches to calm the autonomic nervous system.
- Concentration on form and body awareness. Each posture consists of coordinated total-body movements that require attention to control and stabilize the trunk while allowing the body to move with fluid grace.
- Acceptance that “how it turns out is the way it’s meant to be.” Konno believes that every person should learn the original Ai Chi moves, but since individual needs vary, each person will use the program differently, and that is as it should be (Archer 2006).
Ai Chi practice includes visualizations and affirmations. Each posture has a name: contemplating, freeing, soothing, gathering, etc. Clinical Ai Chi, based on Ai Chi, is a specific form of aquatic therapy that has proved beneficial in research studies. (For training information, see “Resources.”)
Emily Dunlap, PT, chair of the Certificate in Aquatic Physical Therapy Clinical Competency program of the Academy of Aquatic Physical Therapy, in Austin, Texas, says, “Ai Chi is used in aquatic rehabilitation to improve balance, pain and function in people with a variety of diagnoses or conditions. Evidence exists to support use of Ai Chi with people who have Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, osteoarthritis and balance/fall risk. The technique is best delivered in a shallow warm-water pool (88–94 degrees Fahrenheit) by someone with proper training and credentials.”
BARRE WITH BUOYANCY
Capitalizing on its growth in popularity in clubs and studios, barre is now available in the pool, and while it mostly attracts an older crowd, some middle-aged and younger adults also attend.
Carrie Haines, medical exercise specialist in Truckee, California, offers “Aqua Barre,” a slower-paced program that focuses on strength, posture and alignment. “Clients love slowing down and focusing on conditioning instead of cardio training,” says Haines. “In water, barre is safer for those who’ve had joint replacement or are recovering from injury. Water helps with balance, so clients of all ages feel more successful. Slowing clients down to focus on form, posture and alignment helps them to be more successful in other classes and while doing other life activities. Clients tune in more with their bodies when you take jumping and splashing out of the workout.”
WATER FUSION FORMATS
Experts agree that programs blending multiple disciplines (such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi) are consistently popular, especially with active agers. Manuel Velasquez, movement specialist and department coordinator at Rancho La Puerta Resort & Spa in Tecate, Mexico, teaches “Hydro Zen.” “We blend elements of yoga for stability, Pilates for strength and core challenges, and tai chi for balance and flexibility. It draws a broad spectrum of participants, but the average age is 55–65 years old.”
Irene Lewis-McCormick of Des Moines, Iowa, offers “Gentle Aqua,” a class she introduced in 2002. “I had two women who were 100 and 101 years old in my class, and I needed to create a water fitness class experience with much less rebounding [than my regular sessions], but we didn’t have a warm-water pool. I created an experience where we kept moving enough to stay warm, but [we] limited movement selection to activities from yoga, Pilates and tai chi, which used water properties like drag and buoyancy, as opposed to rebounding. It was a huge success.”
Lawrence Biscontini, MA, mindful movement specialist based in the United States, Puerto Rico and Greece, says, “Water Yo-Chi, a fusion of 5-minute segments undulating between yoga and tai chi with special music . . . now has instructors globally.” A resident of New York, Jane Katz, MD, author of Your Water Workout: No-Impact Aerobic and Strength Training from Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and More (Broadway Books 2003), created a blend of mindful disciplines to help participants heal after the September 11 attacks. To accompany the training, she included soothing water music, nature sounds, chanting, candles and prayer to help people relax and find peace during that tragic, chaotic time (Katz 2003). Her workout improves strength, flexibility, balance, relaxation and aerobic capacity.
Ready to Add Mindful Water Fitness to Your Programs?
Like other fitness industry segments, water fitness programming has come full circle, offering a broad spectrum of classes that meet diverse participant needs. As people seek slower-paced, restorative movement styles, and as technology and programming boost water’s ancient healing benefits for everyday exercisers, athletes, active older adults and people of all ages with special conditions, the potential for creative programming is limited only by the imagination and by our understanding of how to work with water’s properties. As more and more people look for respite from everyday stress and turn to the water for peace, mindful-movement water programs can provide the haven they seek.
Archer, S. 2006. Ai Chi. Accessed June 15, 2018: ideafit.com/fitness-library/ai-chi-1.
Archer, S. 2018. Green exercise: How it benefits your clients. IDEA Fitness Journal, 15 (3), 54–57.
Archer, S. 2016. What is mindfulness? IDEA Fitness Journal, 13 (9), 72–75.
Hildenbrand, K., et al. 2010. Age-dependent autonomic changes following immersion in cool, neutral, and warm temperatures. International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, 4 (2), 127–46.
IHRSA (The International Health, Racquet & Sports┬¡club Association.) 2017. 2017 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report. Boston.
Kabat-Zinn, J. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
Katz, J. 2003. Your Water Workout: No-Impact Aerobic and Strength Training from Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and More. New York: Broadway Books.
Naumann, J., et al. 2016. Outcomes from a three-arm randomized controlled trial of frequent immersion in thermoneutral water on cardiovascular risk factors. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 16 (250).
Sanders, M.E. 2016. Splash! Infusing the flavor of Pilates into water exercise. The Journal on Active Aging (Mar.–Apr.), 72–80.
Sports & Fitness Industry Association. 2017. 2017 SFIA Tracking the Fitness Movement Report. Silver Spring, MD.