Yes, I know, the cover photo is not from Singapore. Some stories require a bit of background…
Cold water always attracted me. I think it started during my university years when I spent many a long day taking my bicycle to one of the lakes or rivers around my hometown. I enjoyed the physical exercise, the sensation of sweat dripping from my face in the summer heat before submerging myself in the cold waters of Austria’s mountainous nature. On some of these days, I brought my lecture notes with me and spent hours studying complicated formulas or mathematical theorems, interrupted only by another short swim every half an hour or so.
I even bought a bathtub thermometer which became a fixture in my bicycle bag to check the water temperature of all the places I visited. Salzburg is lucky enough to have many small lakes and streams just a few kilometres outside the city. There’s even a canal, around three meters wide, bringing some of the cold water from the Königssee, a famous lake in neighbouring Bavaria, to the heart of the city. In summer, the temperature of all these waterbodies varied between 14 and 17 degrees, considerably more refreshing than the larger lakes to the north and east of Salzburg that drew most of the visitors. Here, people rather enjoyed sunbathing and took a few short dips in the water at most. I was the exception as I came for a swim.
The water was cold at first, but if you kept moving you could stay in for quite a while, and the discomfort turned into an almost pleasant relaxation. Like long-distance running, it taught me how to focus on the task at hand. Put one foot in front of the other and repeat, one breaststroke at a time, pedalling on my bicycle for hours on end. On a basic level, it’s all the same. The rhythm calms my mind, and my thoughts drift somewhere else or, if I’m particularly lucky, I stop thinking altogether.
There’s been a time when I reminisced these days almost in regret for not using my three-month summer break to explore other parts of the world. The crave to travel hit me virtually at the same time I finished my Maths degree. By then, the previously unknown duties of working life made it all the more challenging to get away for more extended periods. Looking back now, I appreciate how I spent most of my time back then. It kept me in touch with nature and connected me to my home in ways I only really understood after moving to Singapore much later.
My grandparents built a house in Seeham, a small town of around 2000 souls (and a lot less when they bought the land in the 1960s). It’s situated 20 km north of Salzburg close to a lake where we spent most of our childhood. Every Friday right after school our parents put us in the car, to embark on the 30-40 minute journey and only return on Sunday night. Similarly, every school holiday was spent there almost in its entirety. As children, my siblings and I didn’t understand the reasoning behind all this. “Why can’t we stay at home?”, we enquired. “Or meet our friends from school?” Again, the benefits only manifested themselves in hindsight.
At its narrowest part, the lake is about 1 km wide. Using a steady-paced breaststroke, I could cross it in 20 minutes. The rhythm of my head dipping under the smooth surface of the lake commanded the rhythm of my breath. The monotony of it had a calming nature, and it was a good workout too. As the small chapel on the other side of the lake came into view, I would speed up a little to ensure the right amount of exhaustion after the last few meters. The muscles in my arms burned when I crumbled out of the water. I would sit on the shore and take in the views for a few minutes before turning back.
There was a church on our side of the lake which I used as a landmark during my return. Slowly but steadily it came closer with every stroke. Around 50 meters from the shore were some buoys and two wooden floats which people used to rest and sunbathe. Those marked my return to civilisation as in the middle of the lake there was seldom anyone else.
One summer, I did 25 such crossings. One day, the wind created a small current making it considerably harder to get back. I swam hard for about five minutes but didn’t make considerable progress. I decided to turn around and rest more. I tried again, but it didn’t make a difference. Worried that I might run out of energy halfway across the lake if I pushed on, I turned back. My brother, who was working as a lifeguard that year, was watching my struggles from the other side through his binoculars. My grandparents got worried and took off in their car to find me. They figured I would start walking home and they could pick me up somewhere along the road. Little did they know that I, forever the free-spirited madman, just decided to walk back the other, considerably longer, way. It must have been at least two hours later that I finally arrived, barefoot and dressed in nothing more than my swimsuit, my feet equally burnt from the concrete road as my skin from the sun. Reflecting on the experience, the precarious nature of my swimming treks sunk in. I pondered getting a swimming help, maybe one of those orange Baywatch floats, and drag it behind me just in case, but my subconscious mind had other plans. I never crossed the lake alone again.
There were two swimming events in Seeham each year. One was held in late September by the local water rescue. Locals and visitors (usually from other water rescue clubs across Austria and Germany) would suit up in neoprene and make the crossing by boat. Then everyone swam back together and had a party afterwards. Some already started the party on the water, bringing a self-built floating device which held a box of beers.
I joined this event a few times. Amongst everyone dressed up in warm, waterproof neoprene suits there were usually one or two “idiots” wearing nothing more than a swimsuit (one of them was me). The water temperature in late September varies. It depends on how cold the first weeks of autumn are and how much the lake cools down from its regular 20-25 degrees summer temperature. One year, autumn was already going strong; it was raining and cold. The thermometer outside our house showed 8 degrees, and I headed to the lake the morning before the swim to measure the water temperature, a chilly 14 degrees. A moderator was interviewing some of the locals as they stepped out of the water. “Why were you swimming so fast?” he wanted to know while sticking a microphone in my face. “Because it was cold” was all I could mutter before rushing off to get changed. The hot shower after this was one of the most delightful sensations in my life.
Another year there was a local triathlete participating who came in just a few moments before me and congratulated me on my breaststroke swimming which should’ve been considerably slower than the freestyle crawling technique used in competitive triathlons. For a short while, I considered taking up swimming as a more serious hobby. Maybe there would be a niche for long-distance breaststroke competitions, I thought. I also looked up the list of successful crossings of the English channel and learned that I would be the first Austrian to accomplish the task. If I was crazy enough to try it and if I were successful of course. Like many other ideas, I soon tucked them away neatly in the maybe later box of my life.
To finally link all this back to ice-bathing, the second event held each year took place on the 31st of December. There was a buoy fixed about 20 meters offshore, and participants would sprint into the ice-cold water, take a few strokes to reach the marker and hurry back.
With water temperatures around freezing and air temperatures below zero, this was a whole different level of cold exposure. The shock upon entering the water was intense, a sharp pain like a thousand needles ran through my body. A rush of adrenalin, basically the body’s fight or flight response kept us going. Moreover, there wasn’t any choice once you were in the water. Interestingly enough, after twenty to thirty seconds the body adapts to the cold, and some people even went for a second or third round. I had no such plans. I was happy to be out of the water, quickly changed and drank some hot tea my grandmother brought along in a thermo-can. I accidentally poured some of it over my face. My skin was still numb from the cold, so I didn’t feel anything right away. It was only an hour later that I realised I burnt my lip. The next day, we saw our photo in the local newspaper: “30 brave ones at the New Year’s Eve Swimming”. Brave or crazy, it’s a fine line and all a matter of perspective.
I first learned about Wim Hof when I stumbled upon an online documentary, “Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman”. It sounded awe-inspiring: the world record for the longest time submerged in ice, the longest dive under ice, running a half marathon barefoot on snow and ice, climbing Mount Everest dressed only in shorts (not to the top but still massively impressing). What resonated with me the most was the claim that everyone could do what he did (or at least some form of it). His method was simple, built around breathing exercises and cold immersion. Starting on your journey would be as easy as taking a cold shower every morning. I also liked the fact that he invited scientific studies to back up his claims and help him understand the concepts at work. The human body works in mysterious ways. I didn’t see a freak of nature though or someone who was genetically gifted. I saw his method as a powerful tool and wanted to know if I could benefit from it myself.
I got an online course and practised the WHM (Wim Hof Method) for a while. I even considered joining him for one of his winter tours to Poland where participants would train to climb Mount Śnieżka in nothing but shorts. Again, the plans fell short. My limited days of leave were precious, and I had different priorities at the time.
I continued using some of his breathing techniques and made it a habit to take cold showers after exercising but eventually, it faded from my conscious mind. Still, I am an avid visitor of spas, and thermal baths and the most enjoyable part of it always remained the cold water pool. A lot of people come out of the sauna, drenched in sweat, splash into those pools, make a lot of waves (and grunting sounds) before rushing back out. I, on the other hand, liked to sit in the cold water for 15 minutes plus forgetting the world around me.
Fast forward to 2018 and my arrival in Singapore. It took my body a while to acclimatise to the weather. It’s summer all year round and a hot and extraordinarily humid one too. After half a year I was going home for the first time, realising that I’m no longer used to swim in even slightly cooler lakes. On my way back I stopped over in Tokyo and sitting in the pool of a local Onsen I pondered about how to incorporate cold water exposure into my new life in Singapore.
I found an Onsen close to our apartment and started visiting it regularly. The cold water pool wasn’t that cold at all, but it was a start and a refreshing experience. By chance, I ran into my chiropractor during one of my visits, and he mentioned Wim Hof to me. “Yes I know” I replied, involuntarily ending our conversation about the topic right away. Somehow it must have lingered in my mind because the next time I came, I was resting in the quiet area to which, in very Singaporean fashion, I brought my handphone along. When the thought of Wim Hof crossed my mind again, I picked up my phone and googled it. It turned out his technique had picked up some pace, and there were significantly more events all over the globe. To my great pleasure, there was a local instructor in Singapore teaching his technique. I signed up for his introduction course right away.
A few weeks later, I take a ridesharing car to a quiet neighbourhood in Singapore’s heartlands. Well maintained ground houses extend on both sides of the road, larger highrise buildings shoot into the sky behind. It’s here on the third-floor yoga room of a Chinese family home that I will embark on the next chapter of my journey into the depths of my body, trying to understand myself on a deeper level through cold exposure, breathing and meditation. Or, to put it less dramatically, just have some fun dipping in ice water.
To be continued…