Scandinavian Winter Swimming: Bathing with Polar Bears

There are some cultural concepts and practices here that I have no difficulty in supporting. In fact, I wonder I how ever lived without certain things (smørrebrod and hygge immediately come to mind). But then there are some idiosyncrasies of a culture that are just too far removed from my own background; things that make me tilt my head, turn my face sour, and question the very sanity of the place I have chosen to call my new home.

Last winter I was introduced to the ritual of winter swimming, ostensibly known as the polar bear club, people who partake in outdoor swimming during the winter. I thought it was certifiably insane to throw oneself in the glacial canals of Copenhagen during the coldest months of the year. However, after plenty of persuasion on one particularly cold and languid morning, the sun just beginning to shine and the snow still fresh on the ground, my roommate and I biked to a common swimming spot near the Opera House. Knowing that only one second of reluctance would stop me entirely on this audacious morning, I dived in. Unsurprisingly, I questioned my own judgment during the first few seconds of my frantic maiden swim. Somewhere in the midst of this chilling experience, however, I completely forgot about the cold.

Scandinavian winter swimming

Scandinavian winter swimming is a common tradition originating in the Baltics.

The winter swimming tradition throughout the Nordics is often tied with the sauna. A friend in Sweden, for example, chose to spend a recent Sunday in a sauna, followed by a frosty swim. It is in all respects an extreme hangover cure; not from a night of heavy drinking but from work, stress, and the demands of the weekly grind. People swear in this ritual’s regenerative ability to put an arduous week behind them and to begin the upcoming week rejuvenated.

Although I was cynical at first, having never been a fan of the unbearable heat of a sauna nor the cold of the winter, I came to understand the benefits of winter swimming. There are plenty of physical health benefits, as well as risks, of these particular activities, but I am less interested in those. It is more the holistic experience, its effects on one’s general wellbeing, that I have become interested in.

The idea behind the sauna has gone worldwide, its benefits for physical restoration and detoxification well understood. Winter swimming has a similar effect. And, putting aside the potential effects on physical health, what one experiences with these two activities is the sensation of catharsis.

The tactile experience of the sauna is relaxation and minimum physical exertion. As one perspires, one feels a protracted release, the body letting go as it recharges and replaces any lingering demands and stresses that are within. The mind is focused on the sensation of the heat and the body. Eventually there remains a reverie. I always feel as if woken from a slumber at the sauna and it usually stays with me, a sort of tiredness, like being in a trance.  But that is only half the process, the first act. The second act is the winter bath. The sensation of moving from one extreme to the other, from hot to cold, is jolting, yet at the same time refreshing and vitalizing.

Scandinavian Winter Swimming

Sauna culture is very common throughout Scandinavia, particularly when combined with winter swimming.

After the initial shock of the water, there’s a surge of energy and adrenaline rushing through the body. The mind isn’t thinking; it is just experiencing. Just as in the sauna. There’s no need to swim for a long time. In fact, I think it would be downright dangerous. But it isn’t about the swimming at all. If seen as a ritualistic experience, with the first act in the sauna creating a sort of trance, then the second act in the cold water is all about waking up again. The common denominator here is the process of release and rejuvenation.

It is a natural way of feeling more vivacious in one’s everyday life. Thorbjörg, writer of 10 Years Younger in 10 Weeks, advocates an alternative and more natural lifestyle. There are things we can do in our everyday life, without going to excess or under the knife, to feel revitalised. In an age where youth, and all its connotations of energy and beauty, is valued greater and greater as we age, we have created entire industries, techniques, and technologies towards longevity of life. But longevity must also be coupled with vitality; quantity is not enough without the quality. I believe that view is becoming clearer as we watch lifestyle trends and the shifting focus towards things that are more natural, organic, and sustainable. The work and life of Thorbjörg exemplifies that budding perspective.

There is also the social aspect of winter swimming. In contrast to the spring and summer months of endless festivals and activities, the winter sees a widespread downturn in social life. The winter is a time of escaping the outside and shutting oneself indoors. Winter swimming, however, is a rare activity that actually embraces the frigid temperatures outside. I heard from a long-time practitioner that every year she sees more and more people joining the club.

At the end of our short dip in the canal, we gathered our things and made our short way back home. I felt fresh and awake. The thing about rituals is that they commemorate time and events. This one was no different.

Many cultures have rituals for new beginnings and I now see winter swimming as one of them. Winter can be dark and a period of hibernation; this seems to be one way of making sure people keep feeling refreshed and energized. There is a reason it is a New Year’s Day tradition that spans from the Baltics to parts of Scandinavia.

Images from: here and here


Henry Guyer
22 Feb 2014

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