Wallace J. Nichols takes his ‘Blue Mind’ approach to Lake Austin Spa

12:00 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017 Lifestyle
Wallace J. Nichols, right, talks about the physical, emotional and social benefits of healthy oceans and waterways before a paddleboard yoga class at Lake Austin Spa. Erich Schlegel for American-Statesman

If you’ve ever cannonballed into a lake on a day so sizzling you need oven mitts to handle your car’s steering wheel, you know the pure bliss that water brings.

It cools, comforts and eases what research scientist and marine ecologist Wallace J. Nichols calls “red mind,” that frazzled, hamster-on-a-wheel feeling of day-to-day life, with a soothing splash of blue.

Dedicated lap swimmers know this innately. So do passionate surfers, paddlers, scuba divers and fishermen. Something about getting in, on or near water makes us feel like Mother Nature has wrapped her arms protectively around us, and it feels good.

But why?

Nichols espouses the science behind the physical and emotional benefits of water in his book “Blue Mind.” He recently stopped by Lake Austin Spa Resort, which has designed a menu of water-themed activities around his writings, to share his thoughts. The resort, situated on the banks of Lake Austin, offers yoga classes on stand-up paddleboards, boot camps in kayaks, spin sessions on floating bicycles, meditation sessions on a lakeside dock and myofascial release — a type of massage — in a swimming pool.

Nichols has long preferred to unwind with water. As a high school student, he took his canoe onto the lake late at night, nothing but a box of Pop-Tarts and a boom box blaring Tchaikovsky to keep him company. Come Monday morning, his friends on the football team would ask him, “Why weren’t you at the party?”

Looking back, he had already embraced the therapeutic qualities of water. Now he’s spearheading what he calls the Blue Movement to get other people to do the same.

“We spend our days bathed in information — sounds, voices, emails, texts, screens. It’s how we live,” Nichols said during his Austin visit after some yoga on a stand-up paddleboard and a swim along the shoreline of the river. “But you need to de-stress and step away. Water is the most instantaneous pathway to break out of red mind.”

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The rhythm of gliding down a lake or paddling a kayak, the pulsing of waves or even the spray of a cold shower or warmth of a hot bath can put us into a mildly meditative state, he said. The sound of water relaxes us because it doesn’t carry information or language or need-to-know stimuli like an alarm or horn or voice. Water can send a surge of natural, feel-good endorphins and adrenaline through our body.

“That feed of information — the tether — is broken,” said Nichols, who also points out that electronic devices don’t last long in the water. “Those distractions fade away with every stroke, every paddle.”

Swimming in particular provides all-over benefits, including some surprising ones. Even just submerging in water can promote well-being, studies show.

Bruce Becker, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, wanted to know why nearly everyone gets the same sigh of relief after sinking into a hot bath at the end of a tough day, so he studied the primary regulators of mood.

“The central nervous system has a motherboard that regulates subconscious functions like heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate, plus a bunch of cognitive things,” he said. That’s divided into the sympathetic system, or the flight or fight response, and the parasympathetic system, its slower, more relaxed counterbalance.

Becker found that when you immerse in water, the sympathetic system plummets, allowing the parasympathetic system to dominate. That means you feel more less stressed and more relaxed.

Immersion also produces a drop in blood pressure and an increase in blood flow to the heart and lungs, Becker said, and the weight of water on the chest also means the heart and lungs have to work harder to breathe. That translates into a significant training effect, along with the fact that swimming strengthens and lengthens the large, smooth muscles of the body. Becker worked with Olympic and collegiate track athletes and found that water training boosted lower extremity endurance and reduced risk of injury.

There’s just one thing: Intense or regimented exercise done in the water, like competitive swimming, can take away some of the mind-freeing benefits that water provides. So it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to simply float at the end of your workout if you want that chill blue mind effect.

“Train hard, bust that record, but make time to flip over, breathe, turn the timer off and enjoy it,” Nichols said. “Enjoy the hell out of it.”

Athletes are taking note. An increasing number of elite athletes, including Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and J.J. Watts of the Houston Texans, incorporate float therapy — floating in a shallow tank filled with warm, hyper-salinated water in the darkness — into their training program.

The message here? The brain on water is more creative, relaxed and happy.

That’s why Lake Austin Spa Resort held its first 100 Days of Summer promotion this summer, complete with “Blue Mind” themed events. It plans another from Memorial Day to Labor Day 2018, according to Cindy Present, director of fitness and activities at the resort.

“When I get people on the water, mentally they release, emotionally they connect and physically they move,” said Present, who grew up on Lake Austin and rides a stand-up paddleboard 15 minutes upstream to work every day. “Great things happen.”

Nichols hopes people who join his Blue Movement are also moved to help keep the planet’s waterways clean, because pollution can erase the Blue Mind benefit. “That massive source of mental health, stress release and romance goes away if we wreck the place. You need water and water needs you,” he said.

Nichols carries around a pocketful of blue glass marbles, which he hands out to people he meets. You’re supposed to take yours and pass it on, to remind the next person of the Blue Movement, and the value of water.

“All I really want to say is this: Get in the water,” Nichols writes in his book. “Walk along the water. Move across its surface. Get under it. Sit in it. Leap into it. Listen to it. Touch the water. Close your eyes and drink a big glass.”

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