Terry Laughlin, Total Immersion

How to Swim Like a Yogi

Swim coach Terry Laughlin has revolutionized swimming for people everywhere, particularly Tim Ferriss, who featured him a year ago in his book “Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World”. Terry passed away last year from complications of cancer. He leaves behind a large body of work with the Total Immersion Swimming system, and an upcoming book entitled “Total Immersion: Swimming that Changes Your Life.” We share this timeless interview about the amazing power of mindful swimming.

Parvati Magazine: What is the inspiration behind Total Immersion?

Terry Laughlin: I was a hard-working but unsuccessful competitive swimmer in high school and college, but discovered I had a knack for helping others achieve their potential when I began coaching. After coaching young competitive swimmers for 17 years, I began working with adults, most of them new swimmers, in 1989.

They taught me that swimming is an intimidating and non-instinctive skill for nearly all of us. I had to learn an entirely new way of teaching for them. When we taught our students first to minimize drag (by making the body balanced, long, and slippery) then to stroke with fluent, core-driven movements, they made stunning progress—but so did experienced swimmers. It was ‘fishlike’ swimming adapted to human bodies.

PMAG: You talk about “Total Immersion as Swimming that Changes Your Life.” How so?

TL: Since most TI students are self-taught, using our videos and practice guides, we designed our learning sequences to be simple and nearly foolproof. The techniques that worked quickest and best in teaching humans to be fishlike were all counter-intuitive. It was clear that we had to teach targeted and tireless focus as much as movement. TI students, in great numbers, said that mindful swimming was so much more satisfying than what they’d done before, that they found it almost addictive.

That stimulated my interest in cognitive and behavioral psychology, including books like “Flow” by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly. That led us to advocate practicing in a yoga-like spirit. And, like yoga, people said it was life-changing. So we adopted it as a kind of motto.

PMAG: It seems as though there’s a process of surrender that a swimmer has to undergo to stop trying to get through the water by brute force, and move more like an aquatic animal. Could you comment on this?

TL: There is a kind of surrender that most people make happily because they’re pretty dissatisfied with old-school swimming. It starts with changing your “mental model” of how swimming works. We tell TI novices “Everything you ‘know’ about swimming is wrong.” That refers to both our primal instincts (to churn the arms and legs and hold the head high) and most of what you hear about swimming.

Our very first drill—gliding face down with arms extended at shoulder width, and legs streamlined, literally emphasizes surrendering to the water and gravity, rather than fighting them. [In other words,] release your head’s weight until you feel the water—instead of neck muscles—support it. [Swimmers] enjoy the sensation of effortless gliding so much that they’re primed for everything that follows. Before long, they’re instinctively working with, not against, the water.

PMAG: Who can benefit from the Total Immersion approach?

TL: TI students have taken their first lesson as young as four, and as old as 94 (Dr. Paul Lurie who swims 20 lengths every morning and is still improving his efficiency and speed!) We’ve taught beginners as well as people who have already swum the English Channel. Anyone who has a human body and human instincts can move through the water with more ease and enjoyment by learning the Total Immersion method.

PMAG: What is your advice to someone who wants to get started with Total Immersion – or even start swimming in the first place?

TL: The most important principle is to approach every swimming session with a primary goal of improving your swimming. Having human DNA means we’ll have limitless lifetime opportunities to learn and improve at swimming. All it takes is to shift your thinking: Instead of swimming to get in a certain number of laps, or only to get exercise, practice in a way that makes it likely you’ll be a better swimmer when you get out of the water, than when you got in. The exercise still “happens”.

For over four decades, the late Terry Laughlin worked with swimmers of all levels to develop smooth, efficient technique leading to effortless speed. He founded Total Immersion in 1989. His book “Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier” has been the top-selling swimming book since its publication in 1996.