I think it’s fair to say that, whatever it is that we’ve experienced in recent months, we have all used the breath as a coping mechanism.
It’s something so simple, yet oh-so effective. The breath is something that I never stopped and listened to, until I took up yoga. Now, much of what I do and how I’m feeling can be controlled by the power of the breath.
When I was young, my mum would tell me to ‘breathe and count to 10’. Now, an avid yogi, I’m starting to think she was on to something…
Yoga is my therapy of choice, but for others, it can be meditation, walking, running, cycling, cooking or reading, to name but a few.
For Hayley Dorian and her group of Wild Sea Women, therapy comes in the form of the glorious cold waters.
Hayley’s new office is the North Sea – and after years of working in a fast-paced, desk-based IT job, nothing beats this new, natural environment she finds herself in on a daily basis.
“I’ve always loved the buzz of cold water, ever since I was little,” Hayley explains.
“In my twenties I started going into the sea – literally dipping in for a couple of minutes and then coming out.
“I never really knew the health benefits around it, I just knew it made me feel so good and alive. In the last three years or so, I started going in daily because I found out that there were loads of positive benefits to mental health and physical wellbeing.”
Yes, something as simple as a dip in the sea can indeed save a life – and that’s where Hayley’s passion for wild swimming came from. Taking the power of the breath and the cold water, and putting it to good use. The Wild Sea Women meet weekly at each of their locations on a Sunday evening to take a dip to help reset the mind and body ready for the week ahead.
“It’s a great place for women from all walks of life to get together, meet new people and just enjoy the simplicity of getting in the cold water and feeling the instant health benefits,” Hayley says.
“I had pneumonia years ago and was told my lungs would never be healthy again. I wanted to prove them wrong, so I began learning about the most optimal ways of breathing and began right away putting them into practice and saw a massive improvement in my health.
“I was also diagnosed with an autoimmune disease about four years ago and the cold water has been my biggest medicine. I suffered very badly with chronic migraines, but it’s very rare I get a migraine now. If I do feel one coming on, I go into the sea, dip my head under, and like magic, it’s gone.
“After noticing the health benefits, I decided to start digging deeper into the science behind it, and I stumbled across the Wim Hof Method.
“It’s all about the benefits of cold exposure along with breathing techniques for our mind and body. Wim Hof is a Dutch extreme athlete – he has World Records in being able to withstand the cold, sitting in ice baths for hours. He’s known as ‘The Iceman’.
“He has a really sad story. His wife, who he had four young children with, died of suicide when the kids were really young. He’d always been one for going into the cold water and knew how much it helped him in his own state of mind – to get through life. So that’s how the method was brought to life. He wanted to help and inspire others who were going through similar situations.”
Hayley’s results, paired with her knowledge of the Wim Hof Method, triggered a lightbulb moment. A moment when she decided it was time for her to ditch her career as a firewall and network engineer and make the water her new workplace.
“So with my newfound knowledge, I decided to do a teacher training course to become a Wim Hof Method instructor because it’s so in line with everything that I believe in.
“The Wim Hof method is mainly all male dominant, so I just wanted to get more women into the sea, to experience the power of the cold water.
“So, during the first lockdown period, I decided to put a social media post out to invite other likeminded women along for a dip in the sea. It really took off, then I created a Facebook group for Wild Sea Women and it has just taken a life of its own, and it’s so wonderful to see how many lives are being impacted in a positive way.”
The initial lockdown was a tough time for many, and by putting a positive spin on her personal developments, it presented the perfect opportunity for Hayley to share her discoveries with others looking to get out and enjoy what nature presents to us.
“I read a lot about mental health and people suffering being stuck at home, so I just thought, I’m going to do something to help. Whenever I’m feeling low, I head to the beach, go into the water, and I come out feeling invigorated. I wanted other people to share this experience – not only because it works for me, but because it’s scientifically proven to work magic.
“When you go in the cold water, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your mind, you naturally switch off because you’re just thinking about surviving.
“It’s my favourite form of meditation.”
Now is a fantastic time to get out there and try something new, Hayley tells me. We’re all looking for new ways to enjoy nature, particularly as the cooler weather sets in – and, believe it or not, the colder it is, the more beneficial a dip in the North Sea will be.
“I hope everyone does continue enjoying the great outdoors throughout the winter,” says Hayley.
“People are always really surprised that we go into the sea all year round, but it’s just so beautiful and it’s cold all year anyway,” she laughs.
So, what’s the science behind the method? “In itself, it’s a cardiovascular workout because your blood vessels constrict as you go into the water, and then when they open back up, it really gets your heart going,” explains Hayley.
“It increases white blood cells, which boosts our immune system. It also builds brown fat, which is good fat and burns the white fat. The more we go in the cold, the more brown fat we build up and the longer we can withstand the cold. It conditions the whole body and brings with it mental clarity and focus, perfect for anyone suffering with depression, anxiety or ADHD.
“There are so many benefits which are all backed up by science.
“A lot of the time people think we’re lunatics, looking for punishment, but it isn’t, it’s just so addictive once you try it and you soon notice the benefits.”
Hayley and her group of Wild Sea Women meet up once a week, but quite often check in a couple of times between sessions for a quick dip, a bit of yoga, meditation or a stroll along the shore. “Sunrise and moonlit dips are everyone’s favourites,” says Hayley.
“So we tend to just keep an eye on the weather and the sea conditions and pop in whenever we feel like it.”
It all sounds like a lot of fun, right? But just how does someone take the plunge? Again, as I’ve learnt with yoga and now with wild sea swimming, it all comes down to the breath…
“If people feel like they’re ready to give it a go, I help the women by focusing on the breath, especially on the exhale. Relaxation is in the exhalation. When you go in the cold, it does take your breath away and you gasp, and that’s when panic sets in – we just need to focus on our breath.
“We do guided breathing beforehand, which really helps calm the nerves. And then, with us being in a group, everyone is just so great at encouraging one another and it’s so heartwarming to hear the laughs and see faces lighting up.
“I’ve never seen anyone turn back and give up on it. They do it, they come back for more the following week, then the women start taking to the water with their own groups of friends. It’s lovely to see so much support here in our community.”
Along with her daughter, Summer, and her poochy companion, Cleo, Hayley sees no signs of slowing down as we head into the new year and the cold weather bites.
“It’s all about the winter for me. I’ve always loved the season. We even go in on Christmas Day, it’s just a massive part of our lives.
“There’s just something so beautiful and still about getting up early in the winter and dipping in the North Sea.
“My dog, Cleo, likes to come in the water with me too. It’s lovely to go out in a group, but sometimes it’s nice to just appreciate the silence by going in pairs with a relative or friend (it’s never advised to go in the sea alone). It’s the best kind of therapy, nothing brings you to the present moment like the cold does.”
Wild Sea Women is ever-growing and expanding, and it’s great to see it spreading across the region.
“We meet up at Seaburn beach every Sunday evening. We’ve also got Wild Sea Women leaders hosting sessions in North Tyneside, Seaham, South Shields and even Scotland. It’s wonderful to see it growing and to see new communities forming in the process. It’s a place for mental and physical health, but it’s also a place where new friendships form.
“To anyone wishing to give cold water dipping a try, we’ve got lots of safety tips and advice on the website including tips from the RNLI, who we have been working very closely with to ensure everyone is aware of the potential dangers of the sea before taking the ‘plunge’.
“We often get asked, ‘what about men?’… well, we do have a group for men called Iceguys, which is run by Christopher Nicholas here in Sunderland. This group is also beginning to expand to other parts of the UK.”
Hayley’s Wild Sea Women >>
NAME: Angela Thompson
JOB TITLE: Associate Director, Joe Halliday Recruitment
SHORT BIO: I was introduced to sea swimming about three years ago when Hayley asked me to come along as I was suffering from depression and a few health conditions.
Hayley introduced me to the Wild Sea Women group, so I decided to join, take up a new hobby, meet new friends and get help and advice from other swimmers. I’ve been open water swimming since… February 2018.
My first dip was… an instant success – I all of a sudden felt like I could breathe again. I love it because… it helps with some of the medical conditions I have as the cold water eases them, takes the swelling down and has amazing effects on my mental health.
I knew it was going to make a difference when… the first time I got out of the water, my head felt clear and I was relaxed. I was totally revived and instantly felt like I could function better.
Three top tips for anyone taking the plunge… make sure you check the tide wind and waves before you swim, remember your breathing and try to get your shoulders in as soon as you can, and finally – wrap a nice big towel around a hot water bottle so it is warm when you get out.
NAME: Elaine Smith
JOB TITLE: Founder of Hotpod Yoga Sunderland
SHORT BIO: I discovered the benefits of wild sea swimming after teaching a yoga class on the beach, taking a deep breath and giving it a go, and I’ve never looked back.
I’ve been open water swimming since… July 2018.
My first dip was… at Slope Beach in Seaham. I was teaching a yoga class on the beach and afterwards my friend Hayley started heading towards the sea for a dip. I thought she was mad! But I came prepared the following week and took the plunge.
I love it because… it feels so empowering. You find inner strength and resilience. Plus, I’ve met an amazing group of like-minded people. I knew it was going to make a difference when… I found myself jumping out of bed at 5am in the summer to catch the sunrise every morning. It feels like a reset button.
Three top tips for anyone taking the plunge… focus on your breathing, Neoprene boots and gloves can help ease the blow in the winter, and take a flask and hot water bottle with you to warm up afterwards. A slice of cake always helps too!
NAME: Caroline Wickham
JOB TITLE: Housewife
SHORT BIO: I’m a single mum to my beautiful son and live in Sunderland. During the first lockdown I tried a swim in the sea with friends and ended up back in touch with a girl I already knew. I started to swim with her and she introduced me to WSW. It’s now a massive part of my life and I cannot recommend it enough.
I’ve been open water swimming since… June 2020.
My first dip was… last summer, and now it has become a huge part of my life.
I love it because… believe it or not, it is incredibly addictive and helps massively with my anxiety. It’s such a great tool.
I knew it was going to make a difference when… I was no longer feeling anxious and it just gave me this huge buzz that I couldn’t get enough of. Three top tips for anyone taking the plunge… don’t go it alone – join a group or dip with a friend, make sure you have warm clothes and a hot drink for afterwards, and prepare to become addicted!
For more information about Wild Sea Women and how you can get involved this year, visit the Wild Sea Women website or keep up to date on social media. Prepare to be blown away by the bravery and inspiration!