I’m sure you’ve all heard about the growing wild popularity of the outdoor sport of “wild swimming.” That is, the sport of entering near-freezing water without a wetsuit, even in the middle of winter. To be a “wild swimmer,” one needn’t be an accomplished sportsperson, but instead must be crazy enough to step into frigid water outdoors – the sea, a lake, a river- and… breathe. That’s right – breathe.
As someone who has in the past few years become a rather avid all-year-round sea swimmer, I can tell you that it’s true: provided the conditions are calm and welcoming, it’s very simple. All you need to do is walk into the water, until it’s up to your neck, and breathe.
You see, it’s very a human response, when extremely cold, to become breathless. I know this happened to me the first time I tried sea swimming in Ballycastle on the north coast – my whole body tensed up, the alarm bells of panic started ringing inside of me, and I was out of the water in a flash. That was in August.
Now, I swim easily in January. How?
I learned to breathe. As the water comes up over your shoulders, and you feel yourself becoming breathless, those minutes are the most important. If you breathe, slowly, in and out, your body loses its sense of panic and begins to relax.
As my tolerance increased, I began to experience the feeling of joy that wild swimming is becoming known for. Soon, my breathing became an act of trust in what would come: the sense of wellbeing that would wash over me and stay with me the rest of the day.
Sea swimming has taught me to breathe through the uncomfortable and to trust not only that my body can handle it, but that something good is to come.
I find myself breathing, these days, when stress threatens to overwhelm me – when my daughter is tearing her hair out trying to get her homework turned in online with only minutes to spare; when my son’s ipad crashes in the middle of his virtual class; when the needs and demands of work and homeschool and housework, and never having enough space to myself, leaving me feeling breathless.
At those moments, I find myself breathing. In, out, in, out. Long, slow breaths. An act of trust that this moment too shall pass, and that a sense of calm will return.
Don’t we all need to remember to breathe, these days. We so easily slip into a state of panic, the alarm bells ringing about the threat of COVID, the fears for the future, the state of the world, the struggles of the multitude of responsibilities we all carry in our own ways.
Just when we’re tempted to turn on our heels and give up – as I did on my first swim – that’s when we can call up the most simple act: to breathe. To breathe long, slow breaths, reminding our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls that we can trust that it will be ok.
For at the root of our faith is the belief that God can bring goodness out of even the most trying of situations.
So let’s breathe. In, out, and trust that joy and peace and hope and a sense of wellbeing will come.
Let us pray. Breath of life, when panic and stress rise up within us, breathe your calming spirit into us, and with that breath, remind us that your goodness will always prevail. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
In a strange collision of circumstances, I was also featured in a BBC documentary the night before I offered this prayer. The sea swimmers recorded this last summer, as a part of a series on The Glens of Antrim, where I live. The Ballycastle Swimrise Group have been a lifeline to me over the past year – prior to COVID and through COVID. Sea swimming has breathed life into me in so many ways! Click the link below to catch a glimpse of sea swimming in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland.