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Cold water meditation

(8 minute read)

Every day each January, Gilly McArthur swims in the Lake District’s icy tarns, lakes and other water bodies to raise money and awareness for mental health and homeless charities. A climber, illustrator and mental health advocate who helps run Wonderful Wild Women, she’s also an open water swim coach with a deep joy for that “cold connection”.

She shares her tips for embracing winter in a new way – including a simple five-step meditation exercise to try overlooking the water (before you think about taking the plunge…)

Gilly McArthur cold water swimming

The Wonderful Wild Women community are passionate about the positive effects of being active in nature, their aim to inspire women no matter what their age or ability.

I don’t wear a wetsuit in the water. Most days I will have a swim but sometimes it’s just a small dip in a waterfall; every time I enter the water it’s truly wonderful. For me, I am seeking that cold connection and the feeling of the cold water on my skin. Swimming in a wetsuit will prolong your time in the water, but you’ll still get cold eventually – and for me, the extra time getting changed is a faff. Though on a moonlit night, a longer swim in a wetsuit under the stars is magical.

My daily watery baptisms release high levels of endorphins that set me up for the day. It has really changed my life, as it has done for many swimmers I know. There has been a huge increase in the evidence that being connected to blue spaces, to the cold and to practise some form of meditation all have great health benefits. The mainstream scientific community and media are now extolling the array of positive outcomes, and the best bit is that finding this connection is generally free for everyone, no matter ability, body shape or age. People who normally would not consider themselves “outdoorsy” are now finding their own place outside in nature – in winter!

Like the best pill you can swallow to remedy all ills, the cold has become my friend. My immune system has been rebooted since I took up cold water exposure and as someone who was wrapped in wool for 363 days of the year, I can’t believe how I have adapted, it often still seems very bizarre to me that in the depths of winter I will be seeking out water for an icy dip semi nude!

All of this comes with an ‘apprenticeship’; it is certainly NOT advisable to head into a cold body of water at this time of year if you don’t have previous experience. It’s far better to catch the degrees as they drop in the autumn, join a group of seasoned winter swimmers, and, if you can, join an open water swim coach for those first tentative steps. There is a plethora of incredible books, podcasts, magazines and societies where you can find more information. If you’re in the Lake District, Another Place’s open water swimming specialist Colin Hill has incredible experience cold water – and ice! – swimming all over the world, so you couldn’t ask for a better guide.

The margins of error in the winter are far slimmer than summer, and cold water can be very dangerous. But learning and serving an apprenticeship to the cold will deliver so much more, can liberate the mind, reduce stress levels, boost our immune systems and circulation, increase libido and genuinely make us happier people. What’s not to love? It’s a sharp focussed meditation and can calm down our fear-driven minds, to be better people for ourselves and others.

Simply starting with a few cold showers a week can help open a doorway to the cold. Along with meditation and breathing exercises, you’ll soon be able to see the changes for yourself. There really is nothing like starting your day down at the lake with some friends, floating in millpond-flat water, the sun breaking above the trees and the sound of wild geese overhead.

Gilly McArthur swimming on a ice covered lake
Gilly McArthur under the lake surface

For me being in or near the water is really a meditation, and mindful acceptance of the cold allows me to see that there are choices. Mindfulness is not about making your mind ‘empty’, it’s about being fully present in this moment, something we all possess as humans but have, along the way, forgotten thanks to phones, screens and just life stuff pulling our attention. It’s a moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts and senses with a soft gentle lens.

Now here’s the secret: you actually don’t need to get into water at all to have a beautiful meditative experience WITH water. Simply sitting beside a body of water has been proven to calm our amygdala and soothe our anxieties to lift our moods.

Gilly McArthur lakeside in the snow wearing a dryrobe

Mini cold-water meditation

This is a really simple meditation that can be done anywhere. It allows you to pause when thoughts might be falling out of control, helps regain balance and provides a stopgap to rest a while and to make a choice. Treat yourself to some present moment joy…

  1. Stand or sit by the shore, adopting an upright dignified posture, retake a few breaths to arrive at this moment and if you wish, close your eyes turning your thoughts inward to what is going on in your mind and just acknowledge these as mental events.
  2. Next, turn your attention to what feelings are here and just accept that they’re here, observing body sensations, scan your body from top to bottom noticing perhaps the wind on one side of your face, the sound near or far away, the sound of the water and wind. Try doing this without judgement, just observing the sensations as they arise and fall away.
  3. Now gather and focus your attention onto the physical sensations of just your breath in the abdomen, in the back of your throat, in your nostrils or wherever it feels vivid – and just let the breath breathe. Simply follow this breath all the way in and all the way out again; your mind will wander but that’s ok. Anchor back to the breath and start over with kindness.
  4. Finally, expand your attention to include the breath and all the senses in the body and wider environment. Befriend any sensations which might feel intense rather than trying to alter them.
  5. Gently, when you’re ready, open your eyes.
Gilly McArthur climbing from a hole in the ice after cold water swimming

I recently swam with a psychologist who works with children and water in the Lake District and we talked about the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ which are:

  1. Connect
  2. Be active
  3. Take notice
  4. Keep learning
  5. Give

In my direct experience all of these pull together beautifully when we are on or near water.

There’s a lovely heartfelt connection with the tribes of swimmers and dippers, and we are active (some more than others!). When we are in the water, observing the small changes as the leaves turn from green to golden or as the first sprouts of spring arrive lifts our moods. In terms of learning, I have loved to learn about the eels that weave from the sea to our rivers and how the Arctic char that live on Windermere seek the coldest spots. Finally the ‘giving back’; as a swim coach, I can really see the five elements for wellbeing flow together.” By aiming to improve these five elements in life we can be happier.

I’ll be mostly in water from now through winter, well, that and by a fire with a lovely Malbec!

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Gilly also runs free introductory sessions to open water for those seeking the cold to boost their mental health. Discover more at:

GillyMcArthur.co.uk

@gillymcarthur

Meet fellow Wonderful Wild Woman, Winnie Poaty, telling us about the Cumbrian wild swimming community and why the lake will always be her happy place.

Discover more

Blue Spaces by Dr Catherine Kelly

Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Williams and Penman

Outdoor Swimmer magazine

The Outdoor Swimming Society – particularly its COLD section

Cold water swimming with Colin Hill

Stay at Another Place and swim in the lake right from our hotel jetty. Borrow a wetsuit and boots from the Sheep Shed or join one of our guided swims with open water swimming expert Colin Hill.

Try an introduction to cold water swimming, a wild swim adventure to Kailpot or, for the more experienced, a cross lake swim or a technical lesson in the endless pool.

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