The 5 Circles Teaching Method

The 5 Circles Teaching Method is a model of learning based on the concept that we are spiritual beings living in physical bodies. Whereas most teaching addresses the mind or the body, little instruction takes into account that each of us is spirit first. There are ways in which we as spirit behave that are different than the ways physical bodies behave; for example, spirit is not confined by time, distance, or gravity. The 5 Circles Teaching Method builds upon this truth: people need to be “here,” not “gone”— daydreaming or panicking— to learn a new skill. The 5 Circles system was developed by Miracle Swimming in 1983 out of the urgency to succeed universally with afraid-in-water adults.

Though it’s obvious that people can’t learn a new skill when they’re “not here,” The 5 Circles method is perhaps the only system of teaching whose #1 Priority is comfort and presence—a state of being here—rather than the physical actions of doing. We are human beings rather than human doings. The method has shown that when being comfortable—and therefore able to be “here”—is the primary goal, remarkable learning is not only possible, but unstoppable and easy, even though many attempts to learn previously have failed. This was first demonstrated with adults who were terrified in water who had tried for decades to learn to swim using traditional methods of practicing physical skills without success; who, with ease, joy, and speed learned to swim freely and become reliable for their safety in deep water by using The 5 Circles. In the same way, anything can be learned if teaching centers around attention to the part of us that’s spirit.

Gracie never thought she could enjoy the water, until she learned to use the 5 Circles.

To date, the “laws” of the 5 Circles Teaching Method have been applied to “everyday people”. However, it’s likely that they’re applicable to all people as well as animals.

The two requirements for certain success with adult students are an understanding of The 5 Circles by student and instructor, and an instructor who teaches people how to keep spirit and body together. With children or special needs students, only the instructor must understand the The 5 Circles.

If all teaching were based on The 5 Circles, we believe that the foundation of teaching and Education would be lifted up. Some instructors, unfamiliar with the workings of the 5 Circles, are uncertain about using the word, “spirit.” However, with a little practice, instructors find their own words and deliver the concept clearly. Upon hearing the explanation of the 5 Circles, thousands of students taught by Miracle Swimming since 1983 have said, “These swimming lessons can work for me.”

Now they ask, “Why isn’t all swimming taught this way? Everything should be taught this way.”

What Are The 5 Circles?

The 5 Circles refer to a set of 5 simple diagrams that depict levels of presence of mind we all find ourselves in at one time or another.

The 1st Circle: Comfortable

“Centered, grounded, poised, self-contained, collected, solid, comfortable, calm, has his feet on the ground.” The stick figure represents the body. The circle represents the self or one’s focus, attention, or spirit. This is where a student must be in order to trust an instructor, to ask questions, to feel safe about trying new things, to have fun, learn, and to say no. As instructors, we want students to be in the 1st Circle all the time. We want them to say no to anything that would cause them to go to the 3rd circle (below) or higher.

The 2nd Circle: Nervous

A person in the 2nd Circle is a spirit beginning to leave his or her body. He would say he feels “okay, but not great.” He can proceed, but he’d rather be in the 1st Circle. An instructor should not try to teach him anything in this stage unless the student is having fun. In the 2nd Circle, he’s not “at home.” If he’s having fun, then he’s just in control enough to succeed.

“Cold feet.”

“Weak in the knees.”

3rd circle

The 3rd Circle: Scared

This person is no longer having fun. He has left his body further and is therefore less connected to internal feedback, memory and faculties. He’s still present enough to move and to be in control of some actions, but can’t choose any action he wants. He’s not thinking clearly. He’s partly “gone.” Frustration is also the 3rd circle.

“Butterflies in the stomach. Knot in the stomach. Clammy hands and feet.”

The 4th Circle: Terrified

He is very troubled but he can’t do anything about it. He feels no connection to his body. He cannot move. In everyday language, he is “paralyzed by fear; scared stiff.”

If he leaves his body just a little further—above his mouth—he won’t be able to speak.

This person is panicking and is not safe. We could look at him and think he’s in no immediate danger, but he is not in control. If he’s in the water or driving, he’s in danger.

The 5th Circle: Panic

Panic: body in one place, spirit in another. In everyday language, this person has “lost it.” He is “not home, gone, out of it, freaked out, not there.” This person hasn’t died, but he’s not in control of coming back. Just a thin thread of energy connects him with his body. He knows something is very wrong but he’s not in control of returning. Returning happens by chance.

Panic looks like this:

The instructor’s job is to present only the steps that will keep students in the 1st Circle at all times. The student’s job is to keep him/herself in the 1st Circle at all times and to speak up if he needs help.

If students are excited about trying something new, it’s likely that that excitement is the 2nd Circle. However, since the student wants to try it, it’s not a violation of the 5 Circles goal. An instructor will know something is not too much to ask if students want to try something with him or her there. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t  try it. The entire “game” is for instructor and student to make sure they stay in control, in the 1st Circle all the time. If they do, then the inevitable and guaranteed outcome is a new understanding or skill.


When students have never heard of a topic and have no understanding of it at all, a diagram of the lack of connection between one’s body and awareness of the topic is the 5th Circle.

When a student begins to get an idea of what the topic is about, a fitting diagram of this awareness relative to the body is the 4th Circle.

When the student begins to learn about the topic in a way that he can sense it and use it just a little bit, a diagram that depicts this relationship between him as spirit and his body is the 3rd Circle. In the 3rd Circle,

he’s beginning to “get it:” beginning to make a connection with it. 

When he almost “has it down,” the 2nd Circle shows where he is, relative to his body, learning.

When he’s “got it down,” the 1st Circle depicts his spirit and body in the same place for that skill or idea.

Learning looks like this:

“It cannot and does not fail.”
—Mary Alice Yund, Berkeley, CA, Miracle Swimming graduate, chemist

—JS, Business owner, NYC

There are other conditions under which we as spirit leave our bodies to varying degrees—common daily occurrences which are not dangerous, like daydreaming, falling asleep, meditation. The 5 Circles are traversed safely all day long as we “go in and out” of our bodies.

When students understand The 5 Circles, they begin to focus on the key ingredient to learning: being in control of themselves. With their attention in the “right place,” learning cannot possibly fail. The 5 Circles diagram is a new definition of mindfulness. It’s holistic learning, meaning that movements and ideas arise from within the student, emerging naturally and spontaneously with scant need for instruction. The speed of learning is optimized.

In addition to panic, examples of a relationship of spirit to body that isn’t functioning at full potential may be dyslexia, temper tantrums, and violence, among others. Every human being is a work in progress, learning to be in the 1st Circle at all time, though few are aware of this. Teaching the 5 Circles would be time well spent as a core teaching of Education.

Every Instructor wants to use the 5 Circles >