by Jane Ann Purdy

Since the early 1990s Steven Shaw and his fellow Shaw Method teachers have taught literally thousands of swimmers (and non-swimmers) to revolutionise their swimming strokes, and improve their relationship with the water.  But if you have never had a lesson you may be forgiven for wondering just what the difference is between Shaw Method swimming and the strokes you were taught as a child.

I have always loved swimming.  It was pretty much the only thing to do in the town where I grew up. As an adult I started to swim to keep fit, and at university I began to swim forty lengths three times a week. But the older I became, the more deficiencies I began to detect in my stroke of choice: breaststroke. By the time I was in my thirties I was leaving the pool with some discomfort in my neck and lower back, and did not really know why.

By chance, I read about Shaw Method in a magazine, and suddenly everything made perfect sense: I was swimming with my head pulled back. Even though I was getting my face in the water as I kicked, my eyes were very definitely on the end of the pool.  I met Steven Shaw in 2003 for a front crawl workshop, where the first thing we learned was to consider our body alignment and to learn to glide. It was a revelation.

Shaw Method starts with a glide (or a backfloat)

So what is gliding?  Gliding is all about learning to trust the water and, when it comes to floating, letting it do the work. To glide you essentially lie in the water face down drifting forward. Because your neck and back are in line and your arms and legs are lengthened you float without any effort at all. Next time you go to the pool, try it.  And then try lifting your head to look forward and see what happens.  You’ll find yourself sinking. That’s what happens when you swim with your body in the head up position: so much of your effort in swimming is on keeping yourself afloat. In addition, you are probably putting a strain on your neck and lower back, just like I was doing pre-2003.

All Shaw Method forward strokes (front crawl, breaststroke and butterfly) are based on the glide and the alignment of the head, neck and back is of primary importance.  Backstroke, by the way, is based on a backfloat that is equally concerned with good body mechanics.

Shaw Method uses the principles of the Alexander Technique

And this brings me to the second difference. The key principles that Shaw Method is based on, come from the Alexander Technique (AT). Gaining an awareness of your head, neck and back, and using your body (and mind) without strain are all AT principles that translate very well to the water.

Shaw Method swimmers never actively take a breath

When considering breathing in Shaw Method, the focus is on the outbreath. Swimmers are encouraged to avoid actively sucking in air at any point. If you concentrate on breathing out (gently) with your mouth in the water, you will inhale passively when the mouth leaves the water. If this skill is mastered your swimming will be transformed into a meditative experience.

Shaw Method teachers are accomplished swimmers

After one session with Steven in 2003 I was hooked, and so I spent the following year completing my Shaw Method teacher training.  This course was quite unlike anything I had experienced on my ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) teacher’s course.  Because the first half of the course was not dedicated to teaching at all, but to working on our own swimming.  ASA teachers get no teaching on this whatsoever, probably because they spend most of their time on the poolside barking instructions.  Shaw Method teachers must practise what they preach, and because they teach in the water they demonstrate all practices before asking their pupils to emulate them.

Shaw Method teachers offer hands-on guidance

When it came to learning to teach then, offering demonstrations to pupils was fundamental, as was offering hands-on guidance and support.  Like Alexander teachers we were taught to use touch as a vital part of the process.  For non-swimmers this offers re-assurance and support. For confident swimmers it offers a fast track to the correct alignment, and to new arm and leg movements. It is also a two-way communication process: the teacher knows when the pupil begins to relax (or tense up) and the pupil is reassured by the teacher’s gentle yet confident approach.

Swimming for all

Since 2004 my experience as a Shaw Method swimmer and teacher has opened my eyes to its incredible potential. Steven has re-structured the four main strokes – front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly – and made them available to all, whatever the starting point, ability or disability.  He has considered how the body moves through the water and ensured that all movements can be completed without straining the body (or mind).  And he has developed a method of teaching that is reassuring, totally without stress, and accessible to all. Many, many pupils over the years, even those who don’t consider themselves sporty or superfit, have discovered that they can excel in the pool with Shaw Method.

Steven Shaw is visiting Edinburgh on Sunday 17 April. Catch him while you can! He will be teaching half-day front crawl and breaststroke workshops at the Kings Manor Hotel (Milton Road East). To book please call 020 8446 9442 or email You can get more information from

Jane-Ann Purdy is the editor of

Some useful links:

Special offer on these courses

Front crawl workshop details

Breaststroke workshop details