by Verena Hess
"How did that feel?" Melon Dash asks her students after they try something new, be it letting go of the wall, swimming across the deep end or jumping from the side of the pool. The students respond with disbelief at their own accomplishments, encouraged by the growing realization that the water really can help them float instead of drown.
Regardless of the degree of fear they had on the first day of her swimming class for hydrophobic adults, almost all leave feeling more comfortable than when they came. For some, this means they can snorkel on family vacations or swim laps. For others, a jump into the pool is a mark of achievement.
At a beginners' course, now in progress at the Betty Wright Swim Center in Palo Alto, a woman came to the class comfortable only in water where she could stand, and even then needed to hold onto the side of the pool. Five weeks into the eight-week course, she stroked across the deep end. Music playing at the pool lent to the drama of the moment, while Dash and the rest of the class slapped the water to recognize the milestone.
Formerly a collegiate swim coach, Dash founded the Transpersonal Swimming Institute (TSI) 12 years ago when she moved to Berkeley from Michigan, where she attended graduate school and earned a master's degree in education. Using an approach that focuses on comfort above all else, Dash has taught swimming to more than 1,200 people afraid of water.
The key to her teaching method is contained in her oft-repeated words, "Be in your body," a phrase each aspect of her course comes back to.
"When you are afraid you are anticipating all of the bad," said Sandy Reagan, who knows well what she is talking about.
For years Reagan has tried to push herself to become comfortable in the water. She has taken swim classes, and even tried to snorkel and water ski. But she has never been comfortable in the water. Until now.
"Believe me, it works," she said, noting Dash's 99 percent success rate.
She first heard about Dash's swimming classes on a radio show a year ago, and became determined to overcome her fear of swimming, which she has had since she was a child in Calgary, Canada.
"In some ways her words are hard to comprehend, but it's a combination of relaxation and concentration all rolled into one. It's about keeping your mind on what you are currently doing and feeling, not what you will be doing and feeling," said Reagan, 53, a Los Gatos resident.
"It all comes down to what Melon says about staying within yourself. To just say 'Take your time. Relax. You're OK,' rather than straining and pushing to learn."
As Dash explains to her students, who range from 17 to 77, the phrase "paralyzed by fear" comes from forgetting where you are. "The spirit moves in and out of the body all of the time, like when you're daydreaming about being in Hawaii when you're at your desk."
The same fluctuation in presence is Dash's focal point in her courses, taught throughout the Bay Area as well as on travel excursions to watery destinations like Cozumel, Mexico and Kona, Hawaii, which Dash describes as "a thrilling 12 days of going from terror to freedom."
"Her approach is not traditional," said a man taking her course who asked not to be named. "There's almost a counseling component."
For him, the approach is a difficult concept to grasp, but one which has worked when he's been able to retain his focus. "I'm not really sure why I'm afraid of the water," he said, "With me it's been real slow, but I've learned a lot. My goal is to be comfortable in any situation."
Yet being "paralyzed by fear" is a real threat to those who view the water as a dangerous element, Dash explains. Often swimmers are thinking about their proximity to the wall, rather than their presence in the water.
"The key is keeping that thought of being in the present, not thinking 'what if . . .'" said the middle-aged male student.
He plans to continue taking courses through the institute after the two-phase, six-person beginner course wraps up in Palo Alto. More classes will be held there in August and September, although Dash also holds classes in San Francisco, Berkeley and Calistoga.
"I target people who want to learn about themselves, who want to overcome their fear of water and change their lives," said Dash, 40.
A competitive swimmer since age 10, she has coached around the nation, at Keene State College in New Hampshire, the University of Michigan and Harvard University. Before starting TSI, she was the assistant swimming coach at the University of California, Berkeley.
There are similarities between coaching accomplished collegiate swimmers and those who are afraid to venture into the deep end, Dash said.
"In competitive swimming you come up against the pain of working hard and the fear of competition, so dealing with those fears is the same as dealing with the fears of people who are afraid of the water. It's all fear and it all works the same way."
Her classes are a dialogue about the basic fear of being in the water, which is perhaps incomprehensible to those who swim without concern.
"Panic doesn't happen in my class," Dash said, "because I start by saying 'Your job is to have fun.' It's not that they need to learn how to tread water, they need to learn how to be here."
It was while teaching for a Red Cross course years ago that Dash realized that students were being taught the mechanics of swimming in a series of steps, none of which addressed being scared.
"I want this course to be taught in every town in the country where there is a swimming pool. I want it to be taught everywhere in the world," she said. "In the line of (swimming) classes, this should come first. (Because it's comfort that's important."
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