Day 1 – 9:30am, 5c.
So I’m not entirely new to cold immersion, I’ve had a few weeks to acclimatise, if you like. Through building up time in a cold shower each morning I have, in recent days, reached the heady heights of four whole minutes under acqua freda. Not easy. Lots of counting and focus. Built up over weeks, beginning at 15 seconds a day I felt like I had achieved something. But I wanted more. Something natural.
The river near my home has been calling me for a long time now. Driving over the Craig Bridge, I have looked longingly at the weir and the peaty water that laps and spills over it with such calmness. I have long wanted to be part of it. To relax in that water and to let it flow through me. That was always the plan. I had always assumed that relaxation would take the form of a little summers dip on a bright, sunny day, maybe with the sun’s rays reflecting on the water and family close by. The Lanarkshire fields and hillocks around us a radiant, luminous green.
To start in December then, is quite a departure from that idyllic scene. The river maintains its steady presence, bolstered by days of rain. The fields look somewhat washed in grey.
The idea behind the Wim Hof method is one of immersing your body in the cold and, separately, breathwork that focuses on breath holds and expelling the carbon dioxide from your body. Said ridiculously simply, it’s about putting your body under stress in order to develop resilience and to strengthen the mind. To achieve things through trusting in the body and the mind. Standing on the riverbank I am joined by my friend and, I think it is fair to say, fellow seeker, Bill. It is important to have a partner and support in endeavours like this, especially when putting your body through experiences it may rebel against. Plus, Bill’s chat is pretty good too.
Wearing a hoody, hat and puffer jacket my upper torso is ready for the 5c temperature of the rural countryside just days before Christmas. My lower half, less so. Wearing shorts and flip flops it looks only ready for a Spanish beach. With additional warm clothing in our rucksacks we sat at the water’s edge and prepared ourselves. This prep took the simple form of a gentle meditation, which was quite centring – lasting only a few minutes. With eyes opened I watched the water and welcomed the connection I felt with it. I was ready. Taking off my top layers, I headed in.
The Avon Water as it is known is only a couple of feet deep at the point we had entered. Wading out we found our spots, the cold creeping up my legs and shocking my toes.
When immersing yourself up to your neck the cold quickly envelops you.
So many of my showers up until this point (the cold ones I mean), had taken my breath away. Your body gasps involuntarily as it reacts to the stress of the cold. I had been expecting that, and worse, upon entering the river. My mind had worked overtime in the days running up to this; worrying about how my body might react. Would I run straight back out? Hyperventilate, maybe? But, in reality, nothing like this took place at all.
At first I actually felt a sense of relief in the river. I felt welcomed and happy to be there. Then, as the cold took hold and I could feel the sting of the plummeting temperature on my skin – a slow deep ache even – my mind found itself in a fantastic place of calm. Maintaining my focus on my breath I felt at ease, the ripples of the water worked in time with my breath: continuous, regular, soft. Like a caress. The grand tree on the other bank swayed gently in the wind above me, a slow but mesmerising movement. Excepting my awareness of this, my mind was very empty indeed. The cold was sharp enough to stops any thoughts from arising. How pleasant and vast an experience.
Aiming for one minute in the water the time both flew by at one moment and meandered the next. I felt very comfortable when the time had passed and something quite deep and nameless inside of me wanted to be there longer. This would be my aim for tomorrow. We exited, dressed and had tea on the bank. A gentle warmth slowly emanated from my core to fill both my body and spirit. Apart from my toes of course. The warmth shape-shifted to a soothing energy, then remained throughout the day.
And so to the rest of my day. I was uncharacteristically present and content throughout. I had a desire to achieve more and to exercise when I returned home and when I did, I found my workout easier than normal, the sound of the music clearer. I heard lyrics in songs that had passed me by on countless occasions before. Maybe I just had the music up louder than normal. It’s possible. Flying my hawk, Willow, later was noticeably more successful than usual too, borne I think, out of the sense of calmness that I brought to the field. I look forward to tomorrow, and hopefully more of this positivity.
Day 2 – 9:45am, 4c
Trying to be a clever clogs, I had been up early this morning to get a brief run and meditation in whilst it was still dark. Being in the habit of finishing my showers with cold water each day I felt compelled to continue with my routine. I know from experience how quickly things fall apart when I allow my routines to falter. So I completed 2 minutes of cold water exposure only an hour or so before my trip down to the river. This, unsurprisingly, meant I turned up riverside with already frosty digits. No amount of warming hands on radiators or in front of the car heater could reverse it. Ambling toward the river I talked to Bill, all the while a little consumed by the potential mistake I had already made.
The Avon was gentler today. A deep, treacly, peaty brown, it had a marble sheen as it passed by unhurriedly. The surface gloss was physically attractive.
Preparing, as with yesterday, meant a brief meditation – one where I was noticeably more at ease watching the water than with closing my eyes. I alternated between these two states and twice, when opening my eyes, could have sworn the water slowed as it became aware of me watching it. Like a movie being played from cinefilm, the first second or so was almost in slow motion before the movie kicked in and started to play at a proper speed.
Today we were aiming for 90 seconds in the water. Whilst this was a noticeably bigger ask than yesterday it seemed achievable. Mind calm, heartbeat slower, I entered into the murk, kicking up clouds of dirt as my feet sought stability on the soft riverbed. The temperature was, briefly, alluring and I happily entered deeper with a sense of positive enjoyment. This only took seconds to change. Yesterday’s ache was quickly replaced by a ravaging burn, starting once again in my toes. Markedly different to yesterday. The timer hadn’t even started yet and here I was wondering fleetingly as to whether I could do it. Then it started and I submerged to the shoulders.
This is definitely an exercise of mind over body. Quickly the body was telling me this was colder than yesterday and that the stress was greater. But, with my head just above the surface of the river I somehow felt very much at home; that I was where I was supposed to be right then. Slow, deep breaths brought me peace and I kept my eyes looking upstream.
The stately movement of the water, the stillness of the trees. The myriad shades of green. All of the thoughts came fleetingly, each a balm for the pressing, crushing burn in my limbs. My mind wasn’t so empty today as filled with the pains in my body. I made the mistake of looking at my arms under the water. Despite the brown peat hew I clearly see the battle that raged on my skin. It was taut, constricted; tight over muscle and bone. I took my mind back to the upstream, back to safety.
And then, my time was done.
The extra 30 seconds in my mind didn’t seem problematic today, but there had been moments where my body had disagreed. The hardest moments had been between 30 – 60 seconds, a place and time where I, when showering, had usually found myself settling in and beginning to relax. That relaxation, in the river didn’t arrive until at least the 75 second mark.
Getting out and drying off, my feet were shades and colourations I had never seen before. Oranges, pinks and purples across the top of my feet like a psychedelic paisley pattern. It caught my breath more than the cold temperature did.
My day thereafter has been peaceful. Mostly contented. The cold, it appears, brings warmth. A warmth I am not as familiar with as I’d like. Reason enough to continue and push ahead. As the weather changed in the afternoon I couldn’t get out to fly Willow. My mood remained regulated and at ease despite this change, and those that know me well would recognise this as an important shift.
Day 3 – 9:45am, 3c
Today was different. Pulling up on the bridge in my car, I eased to a stop next a large number of frozen puddles. The world a little quietened, hushed and still with the frost. Walking down to waterside I felt faintly ridiculous: whilst crossing the grass the ice on each blade I covered brushed my open toes and the thrumming ache of furious cold began talking to me before I even reached the water. The dusted landscape told of the sturdier assessment ahead.
The water today – darker, slower, more viscous, less inviting. The beautiful crashing sounds of the water cascading from the weir that had helped anchor my meditations the previous two days held more sinister undertones. Although not pleasant, these projections were a clear insight into my mind. A gentle, smirry rain began to tickle at my legs as I started my breathwork, yet it barely irritating the surface of water. The Avon was too strong and uncaring to be perturbed by it.
Once in, the difference was all too clear. What changes can be found in a degree or two! A multitude, it seemed. The cold today: powerful, stronger, forceful. Inexorable. My breathing for the first time was less relaxed and I needed it as a crutch, a stronger focus to maintain my drive to succeed, to overcome. The first minute I stared fixedly, feeling the attack, the internal scream. I quietened it with single pointed desire. A rock, below the weir downstream sat clear and proud of the water, maybe 60 metres away if not more. I held onto it lightly to keep above the waters. Feeling the build of tension by minute two, I needed a change of focus upstream. Careful not to look at the discoloured limbs below the surface I kept my eyes to the sky and amid this internal battle I was still struck by the pastoral scene. Whiter, sharper, browner, crisp and yet limp a picture that words don’t adequately describe. We were heading steadily for the 1 minute 45 target and I found myself acclimatising and growing noticeably more comfortable. As though the water was warmer, the aches, the stings, the pressure was dissipating. I was no longer under attack. With our target time moments away there was a steeliness in Bill’s eyes that told me he wasn’t moving. We were on the same page.
Pushing for the two minutes it became clear how much time can stretch, bend and contract. It simply unravels in extreme circumstances, somehow losing its power and grasp. An instant and an age.
Fully layered up and sipping tea a few minutes later we were joined by a local man and his three collies. Speaking only occasionally and in the languid dialect of Scots he was simply happy to stand with us and watch the scene. An older man, a different generation, with no need of dialogue to connect or to be at ease. The three of us together stood and watched a fox across the water canter uphill in the soft, emerging sunlight that helped warm his fur. The Avon now was hardly moving, reflecting the trees with detail and nuance. Our visitor told us of where the otters play nearby, expanding my fondness for this place further.
My feet, though, had never been colder. Walking on them back to the car was awkward. It was time for home and heat.