How I Found my Zen: Mind & Body

My first memory of swimming is that of inhaling chlorinated water, rising sputtering for breath while simultaneously trying to expel a blocked ear and sinus, and still, gasping for breath, lifting one arm after the other, pushing my head back down and powering through to the end of the line.

As a child of 6–7, it was not my definition of fun. I could indulge in a nice steaming mug of malted chocolate milk and warm clothes at the end of it, but waking up early in the morning during summer break and practicing on an empty stomach, or spending a few hours every evening after school and then smelling like bleach was not appealing.

Flash forward fifteen years. I have a membership at a gym with a pool in every location and it even influenced my choice of apartments.

For the past six years I have gone to the pool 4–5 days a week and planned schedules around my pool time. 25 minutes of throwing myself in a vat of water with a predetermined setlist to execute, and I leave happier than when I jumped in.

I disliked running because it killed my feet, biking in a Chicago winter was out of the question, so I gravitated to the one other exercise form on the fringes of my comfort to get back in shape. Why? Because in Fall ’09 I stood on the scales and weighed in at a charming 173 lbs. This is the most I have ever weighed in my generally chubby existence. I was never skinny, always teetering along the edge of healthy to overweight. This was a tipping point, quite literally.

By Spring ’11, just before graduation, I managed to bring it down to 165 lbs by watching what I ate, walking, and occasionally hitting the gym to run and stretch, to regain some semblance of the flexibility I had as a teenager when I indulged in tiring dance lessons, biking, playing football and cricket.

My first turn around the pool was a 50-yard stretch. I was gasping for air before the return lap and only managed a measly 250 yards.

Picture by Austin Chan on Unsplash

I knew my form was completely off — my knees were bending too much, my center of gravity to maintain a good float totally askew, my breathing off-beat. The next day, my entire body shut down. It quite flatly refused to function. I was that out of shape.

Every muscle and joint screamed as I moved gingerly, like a zombie learning to walk. My mind persisted. It was determined.

And there I went again, every day for the rest of the week, rewarding my weary self with a soak in the hot tub at the end of each grueling session. Eventually, I got the hang of it and my body complied willingly to the demands my mind made of it. I took extreme care in what I consumed as well, at the time. No more downing a Coke Zero or Iced Tea with lunch. Gone were the days of having a cinnamon crumb muffin and a 16oz Chai Tea latte every morning. I repeat, every morning.

Four months later, I walked into a clothing store in search of jeans to replace ones that had somewhat loosened. I picked up sizes 10 and 8 (having previously been on the 10/12 bandwagon). They were loose. Shocked, I walked out and asked a friendly associate to measure me and I was handed a size 4 and 6. I fit into the latter while the former wasn’t too uncomfortable.

This was approximately around the same time that my family began noticing it too — via Skype and Hangouts. “Are you eating well? Your face seems less round.”

Left: April 2011 @ 165 lbs | Right: Oct 2015 @ 120 lbs

My parents, when they saw me in Dec 2014, shrieked in shock — I was at my skinniest and healthiest: at 117 lbs with toned limbs and lined muscles (yes, swimming gives you amazing shoulders!), bouncy, fast stride, pretty good core strength. The slight, near constant, scent of chlorine (only if the pool was freshly re-chlorinated) on my skin right after my swim did elicit a comment of “you smell of a cleaning cart” from a work-colleague, “but at least it means you’re clean!” and is probably the only downside of my workout.

Now, almost 6 years since I returned to the pool (Jan ‘12), as I contemplate my size 2 dresses, an approximate weight of 122 lbs, I realize that while I swam I never thought of weight-loss. It might have begun as such, but somewhere down the line, it changed. I began to do it because I enjoyed it.

Dragging myself out of bed at 5 in the morning to shuffle in a swim before work was not an issue. I wanted to immerse myself in cold water because once I was in, all that mattered was my breath, the splash and churn of water around me, the rhythmic beat of hand and feet, the firm resistance and gentle abetment of water, the flow of bubbles with every exhalation, and the fascination of seeing your own reflection in the water for that one small instant as you rise back above it.

Photo by Sam Austin on Unsplash

It was just me, my thoughts, my mind and the water around me. Every pressure point in my neck and head relax. They dissipate and flow through as a balm. It was my meditation. It still is. I go to the pool when I’m happy and when I’m upset. No other experience has come close enough to the consciousness and self-awareness I have when I’m in the pool.

I tried various avenues of cardio exercises and settled on the one I enjoyed. I never did it against my will. I listened to my body and to my mind because it’s only with both that you can execute anything. It’s about discipline and not just physical prowess.

Reading, trying, and talking to others that had fitness regimens helped as I then used that as a guideline to find my limits — walking in the heat for 20 miles results in exhaustion. Same with Cross-fit or weights more than 3 days a week. I have had painful injuries, taken time off to recuperate, but I test it all out and see what my body is capable of handling — listen to it, dead bits and all.

You do need to watch what you eat. I experimented with food along this time. I love eating out, have a sweet tooth and, thankfully, enjoy cooking/baking. I cut out sugar and 70% of carbs from my diet at the very start — I like bread and sweet things. I never really liked a lot of red meat anyway, so chicken was easy to work with. Fish, I eventually began to enjoy, but to-date it’s consume only when I dine out. Fast-food, greasy and fried food, I could never usually have a lot of, and it was easy to avoid them completely.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Throughout the process, I needed to first get my body used to smaller portions. Snacking every few hours on raw nuts or homemade bites, increasing consumption of water, and ensuring that near 80% of everyday meals were homemade became normal. Now, I even make my own ice-cream, bread, and marinades!

I tried juice cleanses, twice. The first time, since it was new, was a tedious test of patience. The second gave me migraines (it coincided with a milestone birthday and vacation) and I’ve decided never to do that again. It is truly self-induced misery.

I eat out often and quite enjoy my wines and cocktails. This is acceptable as long as it is in moderation. There is only that much I can do when I travel for weeks on end, but I know what I need and how much I can handle and stick to it. Every once in a while when I do over-indulge, I back-off for a reset. A tool I’ve used regularly to help here is MyFitnessPal — I track everything I eat, to some level of approximation.

It’s not about paying attention to exercise and food every second of the day, it’s about balance. Your own personal balance, to be accurate. What works for me might not work for you.

Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash

In a simpler world — materialistic, perhaps — I get a massage every month to becalm overworked muscles. This is a luxury but it helps me and I have invested in it. I had to replace all of my clothes — bras, swimsuits and all, and when you live in a place of distinct turns of weather, it really does mean a lot of time and money.

On the existential side, it’s more serious. It takes a symbiosis of mind, body, and soul to dedicate to a process. The outcome is bound to differ and I haven’t been perfect through it all either. It is a lifestyle overhaul, one that you ought to tread the way that is most comfortable to you. The decision has to be your own. Why and how you do it is your choice.

When I fretted a few years ago of having gone up a few pounds, my best friend berated me — “Why do you care so much? It’s almost like you’re torturing yourself.”

“I know what it feels like to have a stitch in your chest when you run up a flight of stairs. I also know how it feels to have been fat and unhealthy. I just don’t want to go back to it,” I answered.

It is not a sacrifice and it definitely isn’t agony. I started on this journey because I couldn’t do what was once easily doable — touch my fingers to my toes without bending my knees.

Yes, I am proud of the muscle definition of my shoulders and cheekbones as much as I am of my knobby knees and chicken legs. I’d lie if I said I wasn’t pleased with the refusals and excuses made and give to avoid a night out or events just to keep a gym appointment or simply rest.

I am also proud of my new-found love of baking and cooking — who wouldn’t be when you’ve managed to toss up, single-handedly, a four-course dinner for Thanksgiving?

Quite central to it all is the swimmer in me being born again. Self-taught flip-turns, perfecting butterfly, slicing 20s off the free. One that relentlessly pursues to maintain (and perhaps beat?) a personal best of 1’45’’ 100m sprint; or a 35-minute mile. Leave aside the fact that I feel energized, purposeful, clear-headed, strong-willed after every workout.

I achieved with it a sense of zen. The one true result that I can revel in. I also did it for no other person than myself, and that is definitive enough.

I learned to be comfortable with myself and now am bouncing along the path of never loosing sight of it.

Originally published at

City-dweller, swimmer, logophile, expeditioner, metal/classical music junkie, tea snob & career-technologist