The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (January 22th 2023)
Don't worry, no ice, I promise! Just a very beautiful private lake and wood-fired sauna
Hope you’ve had a great week. I’ve been loving the frostiness, the clear skies, the icy ground. Feels like proper winter, more invigorating than rainy greyness.
In fact ice is a bit of a theme for this week as – and yes I know this sounds mad – I went on a Wim Hof ice day (that’s me sitting in an ice bath in the green hat, with my husband in the other one. My brother said we looked like cans of sardines).
Now those of you who watched the rather excruciating TV show in which The Ice-Man Wim Hof got loads of celebrities (including Professor David Green and Gabby Logan) to shed their fears and swim in an icy lake will know what I am on about. For the rest of you, Wim Hof is a pretty nutty looking Dutch man who holds a record for a barefoot half marathon on ice and snow and a Guinness World Record for swimming under ice. An extreme athlete, he started experimenting with cold and its effects on the psyche after his wife committed suicide. Understandably distraught and bereft, in the aftermath he turned his life around with a combination of exposure to incredible amounts of cold and an intense breathing technique which sends practitioners into a deep meditative state. Cold plus the breathwork leads to control of the mind, is his theory. He is an evangelist for the benefits of cold water on our emotional state, our bodies and as an antidote to modern life.
I have to confess to being completely obsessed by the TV show and the way that getting into the ice and practicing the breathing fundamentally transformed many of the individuals on the show. Regular readers of this email will know I am a bit of an enthusiast for the joy-giving properties of cold water myself; I started swimming all year round in the Hampstead ponds during lockdown (let’s face it there wasn’t much else to do!). And I’ve discovered that one of the huge benefits of paddling my own canoe workwise (rather than being on a corporate timetable and somebody else’s payroll) is that if I want to down tools at noon every day and nip up to the pond for an hour and swim, then I jolly well can. And every time I do. I give thanks for not being in the weekly routine of conferences and deadlines which ruled my life for nearly a quarter of a century.
So back to Wim Hof. I was invited to try a an ice immersion and breathwork workshop with a chap called Will Van Zyl who was trained by Hof himself. So at 7am we set off to Berkshire (just off the M4) (I’ve got my poor husband into all of this too) and arrived at Wasing – a family owned estate of 4000 acres of ancient woodland – to be greeted in a sunny pavilion by the chatelaine of the estate herself, Di Dugdale and iceman Will Van Zyl.
Over the next three hours Will, a South African by birth, was all humble gentleness and knowledge as he guided us through three hours of yoga and Wim Hof breathing.
I’ve done some breath work before – it is amazing how if you do a cycle of breathing where you inhale more than you exhale for a few minutes then when you finally exhale you don’t need to breathe in again for a really startlingly long time. Of course, your brain is going: ‘breathe you ninny’, but the body actually doesn’t need to. If you relax into it, the mind goes off to a deep, calm place. When I first tried it last year, I found I became very emotional and wept. So I was a little trepidatious this time.
I needn’t have been! We started off with some gentle poses which were all about getting used to a certain level of ‘intensity’. Hmm – intensity can be a bit of a code – like when a doctor says, ‘this might be a little uncomfortable’ which means it is going to be bloody agony (think mammograms…). But Will really was only interested in intensity, the point where you begin to feel a muscle working. We then flapped our legs like butterflies until they began to tremble involuntarily; mine really waggled up and down. Apparently, Will was getting us to understand how reflexes work for when we got into the ice bath (when submerged in low temperatures we are programmed to breathe rapidly and for all the blood to flood into our core).
Then, we began the Wim Hof breathing, which is really big intakes of breath, and fast breathing out, in and out for 30 rounds. Then, you breathe out…. and out…. and wait… and just go on waiting in the stillness.
My mind filled with purple light. I felt like I do if I have a really good meditation session and a power nap afterwards. Peaceful. Blissful, actually. My hands and forearms tingled. Some of the others said their whole bodies tingled. Then we did some humming – blue light inside the eyes that time. It was powerful.
Next we set off across the estate to the woods, full of huge old evergreens, and a thousand-year-old Yew tree. It is a protected forest and the three lakes in the middle are so pure that no-one can enter them even wearing suncream. It was beautifully still and smelt like Christmas trees. Red kites soared over the canopy and the water was azure under the blue sky, reflecting gusting white clouds and dark green tendrils. It was magic.
On a huge jetty in the middle of the lake were two silver baths – filled with ice. We stripped off to swim suits and woolly hats. And began Hoff-ing on the jetty. Hoffing basically means standing in horse-stance, legs akimbo, knees bent and pushing your arms out to the side while breathing out. It is surprisingly tiring and pumps blood around the torso turning the body into a heat-generating radiator. After about five minutes Will summoned us two by two to the baths; and invited us to climb into what looked like an enormous, icy gin and tonic.
“Just step in and sit down all in one movement” he said. As instructed, I breathed out slowly, stepped into the ice and sat down.
It felt peaceful. My mind soared up and away from my body, I felt like I was flying above the trees with the red kites. It was ecstatic. My body was numb, I didn’t even feel cold, admittedly in a kind of pain-meets-pleasure way. Will explained that while immersed in the ice, the body’s systems are in overdrive; the brain creates all sorts of compounds to help us survive, including cannabinoids – (no wonder I felt so chilled).
He told us to stay in the bath for at least two minutes and to me, at least, it seemed to be over very quickly. We stood and Hoffed to warm up, while the others had their turn. (Even the most trepidatious and cold-avoidant managed it, rather to their surprise in some cases). And then we retired to the most beautiful sauna I have ever seen, heated by a wood burner, with a view out over the jetty and the lake. For the next hour or so we alternately warmed up and chatted, and then headed out and swam in the silky water of the lake amongst the clouds and tree fronds. I even had another ice bath (it was easier to get in when already cold from swimming).
Then, lunch – burritos and Cacao, followed by flapjacks and tea. Heaven.
Afterwards, I felt recharged, rejuvenated, restored. Not just by the ice but by the place and the lake and the nature.
In fact it was so wonderful that I have arranged for any one who wants to to come and try it with me. We’re doing a Noon One Day Retreat at Wasing on March 25th, from 10am to 4pm. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do the ice! We’ll do an introductory wild swimming day, with the yoga and some gentle breathwork (not the full Hof this time) and swim in the lake and use the sauna (we’ve got the whole place to ourselves) and have lunch and retire to the beautiful yurt in the middle of the ancient woods for a Noon Circle afterwards. (If you fancy it you can sign up on Eventbrite here. There is a discount for Paid Subscribers £100 for the whole day, the discount code is in the special Paid Subscribers email I sent out earlier). Me? I can’t wait to go back!
If you fancy doing the full Ice Monty – Wasing are offering some ice courses here (I thought we’d do baby steps for Noon and start just by getting some of you lovely ladies in the Lake, that will probably be enough considering it is March!). But if you live locally you can become a member of Wasing’s super exclusive swimming club and swim in the lake and use the sauna. (If you fancy these there is a special NOON discount code for all readers of this newsletter. Di Dugdale says: “Use the promotional code NOON to book either of these courses until 17.03.2023: 15% code applies to Foundation Programme only. 25% code applies to Wild Swim Membership joining fee only. UK residents 18+ only. T&C’s apply.”
In other news: I gave a big speech at Meta/Facebook about Queenagers for their Courage is Contagious day on Tuesday last week. It’s the first time I’ve ever been to a big corporate event where older women have been on the agenda, and not just through a menopause lens, so big thanks to Sophie Neary, META Managing Director who organised it. And while we’re on the subject of putting Queenagers on the map, we’re super excited to have a very classy supermarket interested in doing a campaign directed at us. I’d love to know how you think about your shopping; if you have a minute to fill in this Google Survey, I would be super grateful!
Have a great week! Hope to see you at Wasing, soon!
Oh, and before I forget we have a wonderful article about a new show directed at Queenagers called Degenerate https://www.noon.org.uk/we-want-to-shout-from-the-top-of-our-lungs-about-how-magnificent-mid-lifers-are/ and there is a special discount for any Queenagers who want to go to the show here. Hope you enjoy it.