Swimming and Yoga
I’m not a natural swimmer, although I had lessons and learned to swim when I was quite young I never enjoyed it. The two state primary schools that I went to both had open air swimming pools. It seems like a luxury nowadays but to me it was like torture, they were soooo cold and full of chlorine with dead flies floating on the top. I would take half the lesson just to get into the water. Indoor swimming pools weren’t much better, the smell of chlorine just made me feel ill. I wasn’t an adventurous active child, much more likely to be found with my head inside a book, I certainly had no desire to even get into any water let alone cold water.
I got into swimming (and eventually to yoga) through an eating disorder and excessive exercising in my late teens. It wasn’t a great reason to start, either swimming or yoga, but both things have changed my life.
I didn’t enjoy swimming to begin with and I was 25 before I could even get my head in but I gradually began to love the feeling of my body moving through the water. I didn’t particularly love the heat, the chlorine and all the people in swimming pools but began to love being in fresh water outdoors as soon as the weather turned hot.
In London the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond became my refuge. As soon as I walked on to the heath I would feel my shoulders drop, all the tension of the city would melt away and I could exhale. Swimming with the coots and ducks, surrounded by greenery, the hum of voices, the whole friendly atmosphere, felt a million miles away from the city.
Although I was always a country girl at heart, I moved to London in 2000 to study Ashtanga Yoga, in those days Ashtanga teachers were few and far between. I loved my time there, practising, studying, training and teaching yoga. I loved the intensity of the practice in that hot, sweaty, slightly grubby studio - nothing fancy, just the sound of the breath, the heat and the sweat and the super close friendships that were formed in that intense environment. I loved the post yoga breakfasts and chats, the freedom, the opportunities that arose from being in the right place at the right time.
I felt at home in London, it’s where my love of the practice became a way I lived my life, it’s where the opportunity to learn with the best teachers came along and ultimately the opportunity to teach - something that I’d never looked for but just seemed to happen to me. I got married there and had my two children but I always missed the north and the countryside in particular.
We moved up to Todmorden in the South Pennines in 2009, I felt that my children would have so much more freedom out of the city. I felt as if I could breathe again. We were surrounded by nature, your could escape into the hills, there was quiet. And there were streams and dams and waterfalls and all manner of places where you could go for a quick dip when the weather was hot.
I did my first cold water dip in February 2019- I remember it well. The weather was unseasonably hot for two days and both days I got into an icy cold pool, my skin was tingling and felt amazing but my hands and feet were in pain. Still I was on a total high afterwards, full of energy, that was it, I had to keep going.
I soon invested in neoprene socks which made all the difference. April was hot so swimming was fine - get in, a few strokes, get out, enjoy the sunshine. But May was grim - the weather was cold and the water was cold and suddenly it wasn’t so easy. I would start hyper ventilating as I got in the water, taking me straight back to those cold school swimming pools. I wanted to just dip, do a few strokes and get out - surely that was enough? I’d done it after all.
But my friend encouraged me to stay in, to get past the fight or flight response, to relax into it and to breathe. And suddenly the connections with yoga became all too obvious to me. It felt as if yoga and swimming were the same thing but I couldn’t put it into words. I just knew that they were.
That year I just carried on swimming, right through the winter, clearly remembering the first time I had to break ice, the first time I got out of the water and rolled in the snow - the burn on my skin - feeling so so alive! I’d always wanted to be one of those wild swimming women, I never thought that I could do it, now I was one of them! I felt so proud of myself, so invincible, as if I could do anything.
Swimming in the winter is a whole different experience and it was here more than at any other time that I realised how this was yoga. Learning to breathe and relax is so important, to overcome that fight or flight response, to trust, and when you relax into it you can do it. Just as when you master a new posture there’s a huge sense of achievement, that you can take off the mat or out of the water and apply to all other areas of your life - if you can do this then you can do anything.
To me each yoga practice is a journey, one that you ultimately take alone, just like a swim, you may be with others, have others supporting you, but ultimately that journey is your own. Swimming in temperatures just above freezing can be a very intense experience just as your yoga practice can, the people around you are there, supporting you on the way, there to hold you if you need it. Sharing any intense experience leads to deep connections to those sharing it with you. The post swim flasks of coffee and hot chocolate reming me very much of the post yoga practice coffees and juices - the shared experience, the bond, the chat, the laughter and tears.
Some days your swim, just like your yoga practice, may be a contemplative one or a solo one, some days you may just be having a laugh with friends, sometimes you just need to cry and release whatever you are holding on to but very rarely do you not feel better after a practice or a swim. Some days you may feel on an endorphin high afterwards, other times it’s just like a re-set but, just like a yoga practice, you never regret a swim.
When I am focused on my practice I am so in that moment, no thoughts of anything else, just present, not aware of the world outside or any other emotion or feeling. Cold water has exactly the same effect. Even in the summer when the water is warmer, swimming in a big body of water with a big open sky above me just helps me to focus on what really matters in life. At the same time you also feel so connected to the world around you, to something bigger than we are, to what really matters in life.
I’ve been teaching yoga for 20 years and running yoga retreats for a long time as well. We always go hiking up mountains and rock climbing on my retreats, getting people outside, into nature, embracing the elements, overcoming fears and trying something new. It felt natural to start including cold water swimming - really embracing nature whatever the time of year or weather, not separating ourselves from the world outside.
As a newcomer to yoga people are already taking themselves out of their comfort zones, even more so on a yoga retreat, many people come alone with little idea of what to expect. The postures can be a challenge, deeply held emotions and fears can be released, people learn how to breathe. This all makes yoga students the perfect candidates for trying out some cold water swimming.
There’s nothing that I love more than seeing the joy on someone’s face when they have tried a cold water swim for the first time - the joy, how proud they are of themselves, the feeling that they can overcome anything, the sense of achievement. And to see people inspired - I love it when people send me a photo of their holiday swim or tell me how they have become inspired to try for the first time.
Swimming and yoga are both so important to me, they have both changed my life in so many different ways, it feels that I need to share this with others. Now post yoga swims have become a regular social event - just last month 11 of us headed up the hill for a Tuesday evening full moon swim. And I now try to base all my retreats in places where we have access to cold water - my Lake District retreat has a lake just across the road - perfect for post morning yoga swims and evening swims in torchlight.
Yoga changed my life in my late 20s, swimming changed my life in my late 40s. They are both the same and different, I see both as my forms of practice and need both in my life equally - they both help me to stay sane in this crazy world.
Donna Southwell is a respect and dedicated Ashtanga Yoga teacher. She is qualified to teach primary and intermediate series and has been teaching for over 20 years. She regularly runs Yoga and swimming retreats. If you would like to be updated about Donnas retreats please email to be added to the mailing list: firstname.lastname@example.org
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