Guest blog on @saltyseabirds by Salty Seabird Claudine
January, hey? It gets a bad rap. “New year, new you”, Dry January, Blue Monday. Not much fun and joy contained in those words. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A couple of years ago when I first discovered the body positive movement, it became so much more than a transformation of how I see myself when I look in the mirror. I did an exercise called “taking the blinkers off”, and it opened my eyes to the nonsense I’d been fed by the media for so long. Not only the societal ideal of beauty which for the most part was airbrushed, unrealistic and certainly not what I was ever going to look like, but also to other media bias. I mean, I had of course known about this and been somewhat mindful of what I chose to read and watch, but suddenly I saw through the lies I’d been blind to before.
One of them was about how depressing January is, and in particular the concept of Blue Monday, the third Monday of the year. As well as being a song of my youth, it is a concept apparently made up by the travel industry to make people feel particularly low so they book a holiday to escape the grey drudgery of a British winter. This is despite being “depressed” (obviously, some people actually suffering depression and others just feeling pretty down for a while) and having the Christmas bills coming in whilst waiting desperately for January pay day.
But it doesn’t have to be all bad, does it? I have the joy of seeing my girl turn another year older each January, always scraping together a party for her after the madness of Christmas. Although I haven’t made new year resolutions for years, I like to use the start of a fresh year to take stock, think about what’s happened over the last 12 months and give some thought to the 12 months ahead – how I want to be, and how I can achieve that. And now for the second year, I’m looking forward to swimming (or at the very least dipping on the coldest of days) in some of the lowest water temperatures of the year. It’s a pleasure to have something to look forward to through winter, and for us cold water lovers and to the confusion of the rest of the population, the colder the better.
At the event I curated for iSWIM, entitled Reclaim Blue Monday, we heard from a range of panellists and experts in cold water immersion and blue space. The discussion was about why and how we benefit from this crazy (as some people see it), pastime of wild swimming, in terms of socially, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually and environmentally. What does the sea give us; and in return, what can we give the sea?
We heard about the stimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, enabling us to cope better with stress – physically and mentally. We heard about the transformative, connective and re-orientating power of a swim, especially a chilly one. We heard about the power of awe, and how immersion in freezing water and being in nature contribute to positive wellbeing. We heard of the value of the beach and the sea as a therapeutic landscape, and the idea that the more we use the ocean and gain some benefit from it, the more likely we are to care about its wellbeing and take action against water pollution. It reminded me of the short film, Nature is Speaking, with Julia Roberts voicing “mother nature”, a powerful message about how nature doesn’t depend on us but we depend on it. Nature has existed for billions of years before us, and will exist long after us, she will evolve no matter what our actions. But we need to evolve as well if we want to carry on as a species.
All this means much more than the things we might be encouraged to do every new year: cutting out alcohol, stopping smoking, becoming fitter, faster and slimmer, or setting ourselves goals of achievement, smashing our PBs. It means being mindful of what is around us, of separating the truly important things from those we are told to believe are important. And for me, this begins in the sea. It’s a place where I can be myself, get what I need, and take nothing away (apart from plastic I find on the beach). The sea is a place I can feel free, forget the stresses of the day, week, month, and reset.
Every swim is different and gives me something the last one or the next one may not. It could be a purely physical refresh, a wake up, a shock to the senses by the prickling of the cold water on my skin, bit by bit as I get in. It could be the sense of achievement of getting in a bouncy sea, assessing from the shore when and where to get in, whether the waves are too big, how often they are breaking. Watching the waves break with such power and force, working out where the shelf of the beach is, and how likely it is I’ll get “washing machined” by the shore break. On these swims I barely notice the cold, too busy trying not to drown. Once I’m in, I’ll enjoy the swim, but with a little part of me feeling anxious about how difficult it will be to get out, whether I’ll time it right or get knocked over by a wave, and pummelled by stones.
Once I’m out after a swim like this, I feel like I can take on the world! Or it might be the conversation or uplifting support of fellow swimmers. I’ve had such a vast range of conversations with people whilst bobbing along beside them, hearing and sharing such profound and personal stories with people I’ve just met, or sometimes sharing my own struggles and letting the overwhelm and anxiety wash away, with my tears, into the salty water. Other times, it’s the hysterics of the after-drop, the not remembering exactly how to get dressed, the giggles about a risqué comment from another swimmer, or just the fits of laughter that come out of nowhere and are about nothing.
Whatever I get from a swim, whether it’s the things I consciously feel and think, and whatever unconsciously going on in my brain and my body, I always get something good. Even on the very rare occasion I feel like it wasn’t much fun, I didn’t really enjoy it, felt rubbish as I went in and far from ecstatic coming out, and I got battered with wind and rain trying to get dressed, I’m still convinced I come out feeling better than if I hadn’t gone in. It’s sometimes hard to put into words what I get from it. But every time I get in, once I get over the breathlessness of cold shock, I find myself taking a deep inhale, and as I exhale, I always find myself saying, “ahh, that’s better”. Discovering cold water swimming and meeting the incredible community of i-swimmers and seabirds has certainly cured anything blue about January for me.
Note on the Author; The life-changing film Embrace is being screened again by BoPoFitCo – Christine Chessman and Claudine Nightingill-Rane – a body image coaching duo from Hove. For both of us, and for many more who have seen our previous screenings, it has been a catalyst for a hugely positive change in the way we see ourselves, treat ourselves and the work we do to help others do the same