The Power of Touch

 For the last 3-weeks I have been working with an extraordinary young adult. Shivan was born at just 24-weeks old. He developed cerebral palsy due to a lack of oxygen during birth. He has autism and is blind.

Shivan’s mother contacted me as she wanted her son to potentially learn how to swim. She also realises that the benefits of exercising in the water, would improve Shivan’s health and well-being. Shivan’s family have always encouraged him from a young age to enjoy the water.

I first worked with Shivan when he was 14-years of age. My first meeting with him was memorable. He was sitting in his wheelchair, listening to classical music through his head-phones, and he had this wonderful peaceful look on his face. Shivan loves music!

My first session with him in the swimming pool was also memorable for me. When I first held Shivan I was very conscious that he didn’t know who I was. I smelled differently, he didn’t recognize my voice, or my touch, and I’m sure his senses were on high alert. For the first half of the lesson I spent time moving him through the water in a horizontal position. This is normally the first step in my process with children as it allows me to get a feel how the body responds to gentle movement, touch and how buoyant they are.

As we progressed through the lesson, I sensed maybe he was ready to explore the feel of water on his face. There is a particular move that I practice that gives me an indication of how comfortable children are with water on their face. I gently turned Shivan, but HE wasn’t ready. He responded by pinching me, which caught me off guard. I could make all sorts of excuses, “he was confused, he didn’t know me” etc. The problem wasn’t with Shivan, it was me. I was not listening to his body language. I took note of that, and found the less I did, the more open I was to receiving the signals his body was giving me. I could start to feel the difference in him. I could feel him relaxing, which was a sign that he felt safe. He did submerge, when HE was ready, and not when I thought he was ready. That was my last lesson with Shivan until 4-weeks ago.

My specialised work with Shivan came to a halt as I had the opportunity of working and living in the United States. Shivan is now 18-years of age. I have been teaching swimming for over 25-years, and with that experience I have melded the 3-disciplines that I practice; The Shaw Method, Watsu and Ai Chi, and created my own unique method; Learn to Swim with The Mind/Body Awareness Programme. In essence my method is about touch, relaxation techniques, and adapting my swimming method to suit the individual, which has more of an impact for Shivan, than voice or facial expression. Shivan has been blind since birth, so touch is an important feedback for his sensory awareness.

My second session with Shivan took place recently in the hydrotherapy pool at his school, which is a Specialist Sensory and Physical College. As I waited in the pool for Shivan to be hoisted into the water, I couldn’t help but think “he looked unsure”. When the hoist was removed, his body was coiled up in the foetal position, so rather than trying to encourage him to stretch out, I brought him closer to me, I connected to his breathing pattern, and listened quietly to what his body was telling me. I gently moved his body from side to side, which is very calming for children and adults who are unsure where they are. Shivan slowly reached up and touched my face. Could he remember me after 3-years, the answer is I don’t know. But, what I do know, that it was a very tender touch, which spoke volumes.

During that second session Shivan slowly started to unfold, it was like watching a flower open up. I could sense his body ‘letting go’, it became lighter, and more relaxed. The more his body ‘let go’ the deeper he stretched, and the more he stretched, the freer he became. That freedom of movement not only released the tension in his neck, spine and muscles. But, was also a time for his mind and body to connect to the natural, rhythmic movement that flowed through his body.

With session 3, I felt Shivan was learning to trust me, there was a bond of “You’re safe, I’m here.” His water confidence was growing, and on several occasions he took the initiative in exploring being under water. I could see he liked the “stillness” of being under water. During those sessions my hands never left him, and at all times he could feel the reassurance of my touch, which gave him the confidence to discover and explore for himself the freedom and joy of being in water.

After Shivan’s water therapy, his mother can, not only see a difference in her son’s face, but can also feel the difference in his body. He’s more relaxed, calmer and more focused. From my perspective; Shivan is more water-confident, he’s exploring movement, which is helping his balance, muscle strength, mobility, and he’s happy. That initial experience with Shivan has stayed with me. I may be the swimming teacher/therapist in Shivan’s life, but its not what I’m teaching Shivan, its what he’s teaching me.

As a swimming teacher/therapist it’s my job to listen, encourage, and to help my pupils achieve freedom of movement in their bodies. I am in this job because I want to make a difference to my pupil’s lives. Whether one receives, or gives, as a therapist, carer or parent, and the only language is touch; touch fully expresses what we feel, and how we feel.

“Change your thoughts, and you change your world.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993)

Stephanie Dutton founder of ATSSI (Aquatic Therapy & Specialised Swimming Instruction) is a specialised swimming teacher, Watsu and Ai Chi Practitioner. She trained as a student in 1999 with Steven Shaw. This new method of swimming applies the principles of The Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique works on the relationship between the mind and body, helping us to unlearn automatic patterns of thought and action, which can have a detrimental effect on our health and well-being. It helps to develop co-ordination, allowing greater ease, and freedom of movement.

Stephanie also trained with the founder and creator of Watsu in 2005, Harold Dull. Watsu is a unique form of bodywork that combines shiatsu, massage, and gentle stretching.

Stephanie specialises in fear of water, disabilities, sporting injuries, meditative swimming, and relaxation techniques for children and adults. She has earned an international reputation for positive results from her unique, and gentle method. She is passionate about Learn to Swim with The Mind/Body Awareness Programme because it works.

About Stephanie Dutton

I'm one of a few specialised swimming teachers in the UK that applies the principles of the Alexander Technique in learning how to swim mindfully, calmly and gracefully. My blog is to create a way of introducing people to a different way in how they view the water.
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