Yoga and cold water swimming

Open-water swimming from a yoga teacher’s perspective: Two life-changing passions with close similarities. By Peter Campbell-Starkey

As I open the car door and step out, there’s a crunching under my feet that tells me it’s cold, sub-zero cold; the puddles in the car park, that has become a second home, have frozen overnight. There’s a sense of dread, mixed with excitement, as I proceed to change hurriedly into my trunks, don my swim cap and goggles and blow up my tow float.

There’s a reassuring familiarity, as I mindfully walk the path to the get in point, well-trodden and muddied by many that have gone before me. Sometimes there’s a jovial interaction with regular dog walkers or runners that remark incredulously that I must be mad. Deep inside though, I know this is not madness, but the complete opposite, and that they are the mad ones for not experiencing this.

As I walk into the water, which by my thermometer, is hovering at about 5 degrees, my breathing becomes slightly ragged. It’s a feeling I have had for many days before, in fact, for the last 150-odd days that I have dipped into the water consecutively. It’s a feeling of coming home, familiarity, safety even, as the cold water envelops my body in a reassuring way. Everyone is different, but for me, now, that feeling as I enter the near-freezing water is truly amazing. It is a moment of coming into the here and now – of mindfulness of this very moment.

My yogic breathing now becomes second nature, slowing everything down, pausing between in and out-breath. Very soon the cold water shock has come under my control. In yogic terms, I have yoked my body, mind, and subconscious response – it feels good, reassuring and, in my sometimes currently mad world, it is one of the things I can control.

The similarity between cold water swimming and yoga has never ceased to fascinate me. Coming to my mat has always been a moment of calm in a hectic life; no, let’s be truthful, a hectic world. My yoga practice has always given me a respite where I can press pause in my mind and come back into my body, reconnect and, dare I say it, connect spiritually in some way to myself and the universe. Yes, through yoga, I have come to connect in some way to a wider sense of self; not just the little me, but everyone and everything in it.

Small group of young sporty people practicing yoga indoors, doing Mountain pose or Tadasana exercise, standing in spacious studio against bright window

And that is exactly what I have found in my wild swimming; a real and deep sense of connection and oneness to the natural world. When I wild swim I am not just experiencing the natural world and universe – I am a part of it. The swans, geese, ducks, reeds, water lilies surround me.

“My yogic breathing now becomes second nature, slowing everything down, pausing between in and out-breath”

I feel the stones and mud beneath my toes as I enter and the cold water envelopes my body. And, after a few minutes in the cold water, the pin pricking sensation on the surface of my skin makes me innately aware of the feeling in my body; of being present in myself. This is a connection that I believe we are all yearning, subconsciously beneath our modern-day bravado and exterior face.

Beneath the smart clothes, flash cars and designer kitchens. It’s the same connection our cave man/ woman ancestors felt every day. During their daily fight for survival, they were intrinsically connected, by necessity, to their environment. And it’s a feeling we are increasingly removing ourselves from, through over-use of technology and social media.

And as I teach my students to connect to earth in their Tadasana (mountain pose) and really feel the connection under their feet, I am doing the same thing – I am getting them to reignite that deeply hidden connection to this planet (and their bodies) that most of us have, through modern day living, buried deeply, so much so, that many of us are not even consciously aware of it anymore.

During our regular Monday morning group swims, several sounds can be heard above the noise of the geese. At first, it’s the expletives and screams as people enter the cold water; everybody approaches it in different ways, but invariably it’s the sound of “wow..amazing..beautiful,” or just gentle sighs of satisfaction, as the sun rises over the beautiful stretch of river we now all consider second home. That rising of the sun and connection that brought about yoga’s sun salutation sequence; giving praise for all that the sun gives us.

And my swimming friends, made almost accidentally on the banks of the river, have become my community. We share something that we are keen to spread and share with others. And only once you experience it for the first time will you understand. Rather like that close-knit community that builds between those who attend a regular yoga or meditation class.

The water, like my yoga mat, is always there. Even for those difficult times, it washes away any vestiges of gloom, doom or anxiety and leaves a vacuum waiting to be filled with positivity and possibility. As we move into the summer, the river is beginning to burst into life and a whole new story is awaiting for me.

Peter Campbell-Starkey is a yoga teacher, gardener, and avid open water swimmer based in Windsor

Open and/or cold water swimming can be dangerous/fatal, Before considering beginning this activity please seek relevant advice from an organisation such as The Open Water Swimming Society, or join a local group, and consult medical advice or your GP where necessary. Never swim alone.