Just as the numbers of people joining the outdoor swimming community have grown in the last several years, so too have those attempting to swim all year. Preparing for this involves learning all about cold immersion and afterdrops. It also usually involves acquiring more kit: wool-lined swim caps and thick neoprene gloves and socks. But for some outdoor swimmers, yoga is also an essential part of the cold water routine. Emma Fast-Field and Rachel Alcock-Hodgson meet them, and suggest a yoga routine to heat your core before getting in.
The list of benefits that a regular yoga practice can bring to your winter swimming is long, from meeting a wider range of people to equipping your body – and mind – to better cope with the shock of entering cold water.
Niki Perry, who frequently follows up yoga classes at her studio (and online) in Sidlesham Common with a dip in the sea at West Wittering, says that developing a strong yoga practice can help you improve in every single sport, from gardening to windsurfing and swimming, “because you’re stronger, more mobile and you’re breathing properly. You’ve got stability and you’re less likely to injure yourself.”
Like outdoor swimming, yoga is more than just what you’re doing with your body. Yoga roughly translates as union. This can be union with your breath, your body, your mind, but also everything surrounding you – the natural world.
For Charlotte Gardiner, a yoga teacher and outdoor swimmer who swims with a group of yogis through the year at Portobello Beach, near Edinburgh, “yoga is not just about the poses but about how you live in and interact with the world. A sense of connection with yourself and your environment can really enhance your swimming experience and anyone who has enjoyed open-water swimming may well have experienced that feeling of immersion and connection in their surroundings as well as a sense of introspection and peace in their body. Yoga and outdoor swimming can complement each other and both leave you with a lovely revitalised buzz too!”
Read on to find out how yoga can help improve your body awareness, core strength, breathing and headspace – all key ingredients for a successful winter swim. There’s also a short yoga sequence from Charlotte to try out before your next cold-water swim.
An important part of yoga practice is pranayama, or breath control. It’s about using the breath with intention, whether that intention is to relax, invigorate or energise.
There’s an obvious parallel between pranayama and swimming: both require conscious breathing, whether that’s matching your breath with your yoga movement or with your swim stroke.
But pranayama can help specifically with cold-water swimming too. When you immerse yourself in cold water, your body’s natural reaction is to snatch a breath. “Yoga practice helps you manage your breath, calm yourself and not panic when you get in cold water,” says Charlotte.
As well as yoga classes, Niki also holds Wim Hof Method workshops at her studio. Participants learn how to breathe in a transformative, meditative way that “takes you out of your body, out of your mind,” she says. After an hour of rhythmical breathing, participants are able to lower themselves into an ice bath. If that won’t help with winter swimming, we don’t know what will!
For Charlotte, developing a strong, regular breath is vital. “Taking some time to get a steady breathing rhythm before going in can be beneficial. It’s usually the transition of getting in that needs the most managing but keeping a steady breath once you’re fully in helps too, and then once you’re moving this will happen naturally in between strokes. Breathing through the nose also helps to retain a little heat, and every bit counts!”
Yoga builds core strength and stability and warms you up, creating internal warmth or, as some yogis put it, internal fire.
For Niki, a yoga practice is an essential part of her swimming routine: “I never swim without doing a yoga practice. It helps me feel ready. You’re warm, you’ve got the blood flowing around your body, everything feels alive.”
Charlotte agrees: “I wouldn’t suggest doing a full-on sweaty work out prior to getting in the water, especially in winter, but warming up the core and dialing in to your internal strength can give you a sense of internal warmth you can tap into.”
She also talks about the mental empowerment this can give you. By using your breath, and calming your mind, you are able to engage your strength, and tune into your body. Crucially, you also feel warm and ready for the water.
“I never swim without doing a yoga practice. It helps me feel ready. You’re warm, you’ve got the blood flowing around your body, everything feels alive.”
By keeping your breath and your movements calm and controlled, a yoga practice gives you time to tune in to different parts of your body, and how they are affected by movement. As Niki says, “it teaches you an awareness that…if you’d never practiced yoga you perhaps wouldn’t have had before.” For Niki, the links are clear: “I’m a much better swimmer because of yoga.”
Yoga’s emphasis on listening to your body can also help you hear what your body is telling you in cold water, so as Niki says, you start to “know how to manage your body in the cold.”
Charlotte calls tuning into the body a “feedback loop: the more you do it, the more you recognise.” Yoga gives you time to practice observing what is normal for you. We feel different on different days, but it takes time to build up this picture. Once we do, we can be more sensitive to how the body reacts to things like cold water, which helps us to stay safe while exploring winter swimming.
Charlotte’s advice is to “try to observe and pay attention to the sensations and to know when it’s time to get out and when it’s just your body adjusting. If you’re not used to cold water swimming it will take a while/few dips to tune in to your own body signals, so you’re best not staying in too long initially. Always try and go with someone else so you can keep an eye on each other too.”
Yoga is a form of mindfulness and it’s not hard to see the benefits that can have for winter swimming, which can also be a form of moving meditation.
“I absolutely love swimming because I find it quite meditative,” says Cat Duval, who runs Nine Lives Yoga and Moon Salutations & Swims in Brighton. “The repetitive movements, your body goes into a rhythm, you have this kind of moving under and over the water that can put you into a trance.”
If you’re familiar with meditation from your yoga practice, entering this kind of alert-but-trance-like state while swimming can help you through all kinds of challenges, from the pain of long-distance swims to the mind-over-matter of staying in the cold water. “And of course, sometimes when it’s really choppy, you might need to control your senses a little bit, to stay calm and relaxed and go with the flow,” adds Cat.
This is a very short sequence that will hopefully get you breathing and tuning into your core – without taking so long you get cold by the shore!
1. Tadasana/Mountain Pose
4. Warrior Four
5. Side Angle Pose
6. Forward Fold
Want to read more? See our article on Yoga for Swimming