New Book on Swimming Self-Transcendence
Recently, Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team member Abhejali Bernardová published a new book in Czech entitled "Until the Water Runs Out?" - it tells of her spiritual journey through long-distance swimming. After the book release, she was interviewed in a podcast where she explains in more detail about her swimming, her inspiration of Sri Chinmoy and the use of meditation to help in her personal self-transcendence.
Transcript of Interview with Abhejali
After the book was published Abhejali was interviewed for a podcast, "Tough Girls Podcast" This is a selected transcription of some of the questions.
Could you tell us about yourself?
I am forty-four years old and I am from the Czech Republic, which is a landlocked country. But I love swimming in the ocean. I was the fourth woman to finish the challenge called “Oceans Seven.” And just recently I did an ultra-triathlon that included swimming the English Channel and then biking and running all the way to the Czech Republic. I just love challenges, and I’m so happy to be able to share my adventures with your listeners.
Why is the book titled Until the Water Runs Out?
It is a theme of the book, based on advice from Channel General Freda Streeter, mum of former “Queen of the Channel” Alison Streeter (Sri Chinmoy lifted both of them). Her advice to swimmers is to swim until there is no more water, until you get to the other side. There is no use in stopping and looking around, no point in asking how far to go still—you just have to swim until the water runs out. And we also should live to the fullest until the water of our life runs out.
I would like to know more about what self-transcendence means to you?
It means trying to do more than I did before and have goals that can be maybe a little bit scary and then finding ways to achieve them. One side is the sports side, but also for me, it means being a better person than I was before. I think these sports achievements help me in achieving that because so much that I learn during the swims or the runs is transferable to my day-to-day life. Not only everything goes according to plan and stuff like that. You have to find a way to go around and just keep going until you get there. I remember even for my first English Channel swim: It never happened to me during the training, but after I started swimming—maybe forty-five minutes into the swim—I got seasick. Everything else was going fine, but I just couldn’t eat or drink anything, and I was feeding the fish every twenty minutes or so. But I remember you just have to go and keep going. As long as you give it your all, then you are happy and you are making progress.
Tell me a little more about the meditation? How and why did you get into meditating? You mentioned a name, could you repeat that name?
I started meditating with Sri Chinmoy when I was eighteen. There wasn’t any outside reason for me to start meditating. I had a happy childhood. I was happy, and everything was going well, but somehow maybe—not really consciously—I felt there was something missing in my life. So I saw this poster for a meditation class and I went to see what was going on. I really liked this feeling that I felt in my heart during the meditation exercise that we did that evening. Somehow it made sense for me to continue doing these exercises and trying to find something deeper within me. I guess it’s also why I started doing long-distance swimming and running. Just to know myself better, to get more outside of my comfort zone and kind of dig deeper to see what is there. I think we are just really limiting ourselves with what our mind tells us we can do or we can’t do. With the meditation, I’m calming my mind and opening my heart and then I can see that there is so much to explore and so much more to do. So, it somehow made sense to put all of this together.
Tell me about Oceans Seven? What is the Oceans Seven challenge?
The Oceans Seven challenge involves seven swims around the globe that are difficult in some way or another. One of them is the English Channel. Then the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, which is even colder than the English Channel. I never really wanted to swim this one. Then there are some warm-water swims like Hawaii’s Moloka’i Channel, which is really long. It is more than 2k, which is a marathon distance. Then there is Cook Strait in New Zealand, Tsugaru Strait in Japan, Strait of Gibraltar which is from Europe to Africa which I really loved. And there is Catalina Channel, which is from Catalina Island to Los Angeles. So, those are the seven swims and there are tides, there are waves, there are swells, there are some marine animals that are kind and not so kind. So there are different challenges in the swims.
Tell me about some of your magical moments during the ultra-triathlon.
When I was planning the event, I wanted to show that we are one world-family. That even though England is 1,000 kilometres away, we are still very much alike. And then during the swim and the bike I was just so grateful to have people around me that were fully there for me. The teams were so great, they worked so well together. I was just so proud of them. I liked the sunrise during the event, definitely my favourite part of each day when I do these ultra distances, the new promise and looking forward to what each day will bring.
Do you have a mantra or a motto that you apply to your challenges and events?
I have one that I really like and it’s “I can do it; I have already done it.” It’s actually what Sri Chinmoy advised people when they were swimming the English Channel, to really use the imagination even while training, to tell yourself “I can do it.” “Imagine that you are swimming to the French shore and I am there. And just visualise it and then make it a reality.” That’s my favourite. And I use mantras and singing when things get tough. There is a song that Sri Chinmoy composed, “I am swimming the English Channel today.” So I was singing that song quite a lot during the swim.
Would you mind sharing a little more about what your main goal is in life?
My main goal I would describe as really knowing myself, what I am, why I am here, what I am supposed to do and just being me. Being the best version of me and getting better every day, becoming a better person.
You said that “I can do more” and you were wanting to challenge yourself, to push yourself, tell me more about swimming the English Channel. Because you heard about it through your sports club, what happened then? Did initially you not sort of decide to take it up straightaway? Did it come back a few years later?
So the motto of our team is “Self-Transcendence” so in a way I was looking for things where I would transcend myself and my friend was inspired to swim the English Channel and since I had the connection with swimming she asked me to be on the boat as her support team. So, of course, I said yes but then that solo swim changed into a relay and I already had holidays booked so I said, “Okay, I will be part of that relay.” But then I remembered because it was kind of a last minute change to a relay we came to Dover to train and the water as you know is very cold in the English Channel and I was really, really skinny and a runner and it felt really cold. And we waited maybe for three weeks for good weather and I remember telling my friends that I never really wanted to do the Channel because it’s just so cold and to remind me if ever I have the idea to swim it that it is really cold but two years after that I was there standing on the British shore ready to swim solo. So I guess the philosophy of Self-Transcendence was so much in me that I just had to do it.
How long did it take to do the seven swims?
I did the English Channel which was the first of the seven swims in 2011 and I finished the Cook Strait in 2018. So basically, eight years.
Eight years, wow. So almost like one swim every year?
Yes. 2011 then 2012 I actually swam around Manhattan. I didn’t really plan to do the Ocean Seven so I just liked the idea of swimming around Manhattan because New York is where I did my six-day race and I did a marathon there so I liked the idea of seeing Manhattan from the water. The next year I did Gibraltar Strait which is the shortest of the swims. Then I never really wanted to do Catalina Channel because there are sharks there. When I was a teenager I saw the movie Jaws then, of course, you still have this vivid image of the shark trying to eat you. So I had to get used to the fact that if they are home and I’m there on a visit and they are not there to eat me but they just live there. Kind of things were coming my way. I had a friend who lived by Catalina Channel, you can use my kayak. There were different things kind of pointing for me to do the Catalina swim. It was really beautiful, it was just like this magical swim where the conditions were really nice. There was the bioluminesence in the water. There were dolphins swimming with us, it was like this beautiful, magical experience and I knew I had to do some more swims. It was kind of evolving and I really was resisting to do. I heard about Ocean Seven but I knew about the cold North Channel and I was totally resisting, I can’t do that it’s just too cold.
How did you change your mindset around that, especially with the North Channel and to change your mindset to overcome the doubt, the worry, the fear or just the fact that do I really want to do this? Do I want to put my body and my mind? I’m getting cold just thinking about it. How did you change that perspective?
It was changed for me, it probably doesn’t make sense but what happened after Catalina I was really thinking what swim do I want to do next? And I knew about this swim in South Africa for quite some time that I wanted to do it to swim from Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was in prison for quite some time to Cape Town. It’s only seven and a half kilometres so it’s not a long swim but it is very cold. So I thought now is probably a good time because I’m used to the cold water to do this swim. When we got to South Africa the water was extremely cold. None of the local swimmers were swimming when we were there. We knew the water was okay, we could swim. And even though I knew it was really cold it felt weird not to give it a chance, to give it a try. And then the water was like nine or ten Celsius. Which is colder than the North Channel. Even though I was getting hypothermic towards the end we were almost there so it was okay and it was much colder than it usually is. So I thought maybe I just shouldn’t be worrying too much about the North Channel. And I love swimming so I somehow thought okay, let’s do it.