Last summer, I resumed freestyle lap swimming after a hiatus. I’m purely a rec swimmer and will never be super fast, but I still want to cut my 1000-meter time, 25 minutes. “What’s a ‘decent’ 1000-meter swim time?” I asked my yoga student who does triathlons.

Here’s her paraphrased answer:

It depends. A fast swimmer will take 15 minutes or less. A slow swimmer will take 30 minutes or more.

Most of us have a comfortable speed. Swimming is not like running (at least to me). The time difference between my fastest and slowest swims is about two minutes, but I am ‘out of breath’ and ‘suffering’ by then.

Don’t worry about your time. You probably will improve quickly in the beginning, and then you will reach a plateau that demands more drastic changes in your stroke techniques before you can notice a significant change in speed.

I underlined her last sentence, simple, true, and universally applicable. Yes, I could do the obvious: kick and stroke harder. But it would take fundamental changes to transform my freestyle.

The same holds true for any big change. If you want to be significantly better at anything–including being a better parent or sibling or friend–it will take more than an extra half hour here and there.

What about my yoga practice? To the casual observer, I’m working hard, sticking to my home practice, attending weekly classes, taking workshops with senior teachers, and training toward more complex poses (“the next syllabus,” as they say in Iyengar yoga).

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But will this take me to the next level? What is the next level?

I know, more or less, what it will take to perform the next syllabi. In other words, I know my physical strengths and weaknesses and “homework” in terms of hatha yoga (asana and pranayama). For example, I must allocate more time to pranayama and specific asanas (see Supta Virasana) that cultivate the quieter, subtler aspects of hatha yoga.

While I have my work cut out for me, the work is straightforward. I suspect that my real challenge lurks in the yamas and niyamas, not in looser hamstrings or longer headstands. Making “drastic changes” to freestyle or to Supta Virasana is demanding, but approachable and doable. Changing mental habits is more elusive.

What if I reach a point where I’m the best I can be (as a human being) and it’s not all that great? How long can one be a “work in progress”? Maybe, as with physical feats, we reach our personal peaks and then we are who we are.

Time will tell.

In swimming, in yoga, and in life, there is a vast difference between marginal improvement and real transformation.

Video: Shinji Takeuchi, Total Immersion instructor (read about him here)

Image: Supta Virasana, Yoga Journal

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