On the whole, let’s say for the majority of us, the sun makes us happy, doesn’t it? In the summer, we’re full of energy, wandering around in our flip flops and vests, enjoying the light evenings, admiring gardens and drinking aperitivos in outdoor cafes.
But then October 31st hits and things change. The clocks go back, it’s dark by 4pm and we find ourselves yearning for those long, sun-fuelled, light-filled days, wishing they could last forever. No longer can we fit fifty million activities into the day, because the day already feels over by mid-afternoon.
We begin to hunch over a little more, protecting ourselves from the November wind, rain and cold that begins to creep into our bones. And for many, energy levels begin to drop too, and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) begins to affect large numbers of people in locations such as ours here in Britain. It can bring with it significant changes to our outlook, causing (more) sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, depression, and even physical symptoms such as joint pain and lower immunity. Some of us experience this deeply, others, mildly or not at all.
On top of that, research shows that we’re more likely to get ill when the temperature drops and it’s why at this time of year, not only do we lose the light and the heat, but it seems like everyone has started coming down with something, coughs, splutters and a touch of flu.
Why does this happen? Well, it’s for several reasons; firstly, viruses are more active in the cold weather. And secondly, most of us are far more likely to spend less time outdoors. Being indoors more can result in a drop in your vitamin D levels and guess what? Your body needs that to support your immune system.
So, I did a poll
I was curious. What are you all doing out there in the dark (having no doubt turned all your lights off to save on energy costs – it’s expensive now, right?). Is everyone feeling bored, goggle-eyed, adventurous, sexy, creative, lazy, bookish or meditative? I wanted to find out and so I decided to run a poll in some of the online community groups I’m part of.
As luck would have it, Facebook makes it rather easy to run a poll. The downside is it only allows for one question at a time, so I only had one shot at this. But on the upside, it allows for multiple responses. I created a one-question poll in four different community groups, and guess what? I had a rather incredible response. It seems that everyone wanted to tell me what they were getting up to, all 344 people, who responded within a couple of days (and are still responding as we speak).
The question I posed was
‘What do you mostly do in the evenings when the nights draw in?’
I pre populated around ten options to help people with their answers, including options such as watch TV, read a book, listen to podcasts, chat/play cards/games with family/partner, cook and eat dinner, meditate/do breathwork paint/draw/something creative, look at social media, play with pets, go out for a walk outside, spend intimate time with your partner, learn something new (formalised), learn something new (non-formal), see friends, go to the gym, look after children. I asked people to give me up to 3 responses, including the option of a free form answer of their own choice.
Who was I asking?
Three of these groups were outdoorsy types — two of them are UK-based outdoor swimming groups, and one is a forest bathing/nature connection group of guides. The other was more international — a group whose bond is formed through an interest in personal development and growth. Two of the groups were well outside of major cities such as London, two were more city based. All four groups had one thing in common — they were made up mostly of women. In terms of age, two were more likely to be women 40+, the other two would have had a few more women 35+.
Am I surprised at the responses? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the highest TV watchers are those in the outdoor swimming groups, 30% of them mostly watch TV in the evenings, whereas the nature group and the personal development group are more interested in reading books, going for walks in the dark and learning new things. Everyone spent some of their evenings, as expected, cooking and eating dinner. What was perhaps surprising, or even troubling, was that across all the groups, one of the lowest scores was for ‘being intimate with your partner’. It seems that our long dark nights are no longer spent frolicking under the covers! This may also be down to the age groups I polled, but I’m no sex or relationship expert, so I’ll leave you to ponder over this!
What I loved reading were the free-text fields. What I’d omitted to include as an option was an evening spent luxuriating in a bath (I, too, love this when the nights draw in). There were also one or two respondents who loved spending their evenings playing a musical instrument. Only one person (plus me) spent some of their evenings in a sauna, unlike what so many of those glowing-with-health Scandis must surely be doing? A few did a bit of Pilates and yoga, a few met friends (hoorah, some of us are still social creatures!). A few were quite brave and went swimming in the dark (no prizes for guessing which group). Very few listened to podcasts (which surprised me), and some went to quiz nights. 7% of respondents in the personal development group spent their evenings doing a meditation or two, but hardly anyone in the other three groups. And absolutely no one sat around a fire with friends, a partner or family, in the evening (outside or inside) toasting marshmallows and drinking warm cups of hot chocolate, telling stories, singing songs and reciting poetry. These once deeply-connecting night time activities of old, ones which our ancestors would have used to pass on wisdom and connect with each other across generations are long gone, replaced by loneliness, TV, books and social media.
Does this change? Do we change? What I’m noticing in myself
This autumn, I found myself incredibly aware of the nights drawing in and of my physical and emotional responses towards the change in season. I noticed the usual need to feel cosy and warm (along with my resistance to putting the heating on — think of the climate and gosh, the cost!) and I started browsing River Café recipes and making soups, broths, Hawthorn jelly and what the hell, even a few pickled vegetables thrown in for good measure! But there have been changes afoot — subtle, yet deeper, more profound ones that involve connection; to myself and to the great outdoors, to nature. I’m no longer satisfied with watching the TV night after night (if at all) and I can’t bear the news for long. And whilst some of the things I describe here take place in the morning, there’s also a place for them in the evening, too.
These gentle changes began to stir in me about four years ago. I’d begun training as a Forest Bathing guide and at the same time started following American author and psychologist, Dr Benjamin Hardy, who extolled the benefits of getting up early to have some ‘be’ time.
Instead of opening one eye, glimpsing out at the dark, and hiding back under the covers, I began setting my alarm for 5.30am and quietly moving to another room to spend thirty minutes focussing on a holistic practice known as Breathwork. I do this five to six times a week and whilst I’ve used breathing techniques on and off for over twenty years now, my self-practice with one particular technique has become integral to my life. I began wanting others to experience the revelations I was noticing, too, and so I spent a year training to be a certified Conscious Connected Breathwork coach. But for me, the commitment to self-practice is not about leading by example, it’s because I’ve discovered that having a regular Breathwork practice has a significantly positive affect on my physical and emotional body. It deepens the connection I have to myself and not only helps to clear and make better sense of any emotional baggage I have going on, but it also boosts my immunity, which is exactly what we need at this time of year. I’m not saying I never get ill, but when I do, so when I finally got covid a few months ago, it never touched my lungs. I crashed solidly for three days, but I bounced back pretty quickly. Breathwork feels like a very robust insurance policy for my well being.
Then, just as dawn approaches and my Breathwork is done, I wrap up and head out into the valley behind my house. I like it that there’s no one around at that time of day. I like it that the trees are all but shadows; giants only just visible to my dark-adjusting eyes. It wasn’t always like this, but I like it too when the rain starts to fall. I find myself actively looking to go out in it, not when it’s torrential, but a light rain feels more wild in some way, welcome even.
I like the wind, too. It makes me feel alive and I sense all the domesticity and creature comforts of modern-day living seep away into the soggy ground beneath me. There are paths I should stick to. Big signs, just visible in the dawn light, warning me that firearms are in use in this area. And whilst I know that on the odd occasion the landowner will appear, shotgun in hand, to keep the deer population in check, it won’t be now, I say, not in the dark, not in the wind and the rain. And so, I skip on, excited to feel myself slowly rewilding, free, alone with the trees, the wild plants, the deer, the rabbits that dart across the path in front of me, the red kites and the buzzards that hunt at dawn. I return satisfied, satiated, happy, like I’ve had an illicit affair, but with nature.
Does it sound strange to you perhaps, as a woman in my fifties, that I’ve also built a little fire camp of sorts at the top of my garden? The dream of it began to take shape in my imagination way before I got to work on creating it. Then, as I started plotting out the area, I’d go out at all times of day, whenever I could snatch the odd half an hour away from work to carve out a space, digging out the soil and flint to create a fire pit. I even built some steps, going up the steep bank that heads out into the maze of hawthorn and blackthorn bushes that grow just beyond our boundary. The place where deer silently explore the rich leaf pickings and where thick undergrowth hides fox dens and badger setts.
On a weekend in Suffolk and keen to dress my camp up a little, I spotted something to bring back that I felt would give it that authentic look — hay bales! I handed over a fiver to the farmer in return for his bemused looks as I stood there in my smart jeans and boots, heaving and stuffing his hay bales as best I could into the back of my car. I didn’t care! It was fun buying them and I felt a woosh of excitement as I drove off with bits of dried grass flying around the car, imagining them feeling heady with anticipation at the thought of being transported away from their Suffolk hayloft and on to their new home in Surrey, making rustic seats for my guests and I, around the fire.
So, what’s it all about? Well, for starters, I’ve made breakfasts over the fire. It feels satisfying to cook your food outside. I’ve also held a Cacao ceremony. And, well, just hung out up there in the evenings, watching night fall, instead of watching TV. Recently I had a friend visit. She was recovering from a series of breast cancer operations and having told her about my secret spot, one day she asked if I would create a little ceremony for her around the fire. It would be about letting go. Letting go of what no longer served her — emotions such as grief, anger, victimhood, loss. Fire ceremonies are a satisfying, powerful way of doing this — a way to find deeper meaning in this non-stop world of ours. The act of gathering around the fire together is humanity’s oldest wisdom tradition, yet one we have lost almost entirely in the modern world. But together, my friend and I held our sacred ceremony, building the fire slowly, gratefully, thanking whatever we felt like thanking as we collected each piece of wood and placed it on. Saying little prayers, too, for all those less fortunate than ourselves as we continued building.
Slowly, meaningfully, graciously, we built the fire. Then, as the flames rose, we mentally downloaded our fears and our worries of not being enough, onto physical representations of the four elements, in the form of leaves, resin, and bark. Circling the fire four times, we ceremoniously let go of our troubles as we watched the fire take them, burn them and release them back into the Earth. Rituals such as these, which no longer find a place in our modern society, leave deep, lasting memories and even deeper connections with the natural world. They become embedded, in our body and in our soul.
And then, there’s the sea. As the temperature drops and the autumn storms begin passing through, it begins to change its invitation to the host of bathers who have now taken up the pastime of outdoor swimming. In spring and summer, it calls out to passers-by with a welcoming, invigorating, yet gentle persuasion
But now, the call changes.
The sea whispers,
“I’m still here for adventure; to purify and cleanse your soul but take care! For now, I am better suited to the hardy, and to the brave!”
And brave we were, this November passed, as autumn took its first chilly grip, a little group of adventurous ladies, meeting in the pitch black on a deserted beach on the south coast of England. Dressed in a mix of swimming costumes, witch, and skeleton outfits, we were there not just to celebrate Halloween (or as the old Celtic tradition goes, Samhain), but also to mark the end of a month-long commitment by some of the group to ‘dip-a-day’ for the protest group, Surfers Against Sewage. It’s said that this night, also called ‘All Hallows’, is when the veil between this and the next world is at its thinnest; the best time to convene with our ancestors.
That didn’t seem to deter us as the waves crashed along the shore, we just squealed with delight at the madness of it all. Running along the beach in the darkness, trying to find a spot in-between the waves to launch ourselves in, complete with torches embedded in bobbing tow floats. Loving life, loving the bond we shared, loving the rawness and aliveness of the experience. We could have been sat watching TV, feeling our feet encased in warm, furry slippers, with a gin and tonic in hand. Instead, our feet were freezing, but we happily traded warmth for an unbridled, wild, free, excitement to be outside in the sea, in the dark together.
Nowadays, I try to go into the sea all year round, early in the morning, and whenever I can, on a full moon. It’s an act that continues to change me, in subtle, yet magnificent ways. Each bathe heals the wounds of the day, washes away the parts I am ready to let go of. Being in the sea warms me up from the inside, boosts my endorphins, calms my nervous system, improves my circulation and gives me a natural high. That’s why it draws me back, time and time again.
Three legs of a stool
A man I once studied with, asked me to consider the metaphor of a three-legged stool. Each leg represents a part of you, he said — your mind, your body, and your soul. And each day, he said to make sure I do something for each leg of that stool. It’s so simple, but so incredibly brilliant and powerful. Perhaps you might like to try it, too.
When I practice Breathwork, I find that it covers all legs of the stool in one go. And when I spend time in nature, practicing the Japanese-inspired art of Forest Bathing (time spent in nature engaging all the five senses), it covers all legs of the stool in one go. And when I’m immersed in the sea, or a lake, or a river, I find that it covers all legs of the stool in one go. My soul feels soothed. My mind learns new things. My body is invigorated, revived, and refreshed, by each one.
How about you, this winter?
I appreciate that it’s harder to find time for outdoor activities such as these when it’s dark by 5pm. It requires thought, dedication, motivation and often, company. And of course, it depends on where you live. Not everyone can easily jump into a river, or the sea. And not everyone has a forest nearby.
But it is likely you could take a stroll in a nearby park before breakfast, or after dinner. Call a friend or grab your partner or kids and wherever it feels safe to you, explore a park, or some woods at dusk, or dawn. Dress for the Arctic and head out, even in the wind, or the rain. Engage your senses fully, listen more intently to the sounds around you, take the time to notice perhaps how the wind, or the rain, or the night air touches your skin, on your face and your hands. Touch the trees and hedges as you pass by. Hold your arms out wide and feel excited to be out, to feel invigorated, to be alive.
Wild swimming groups have become almost commonplace in the three years since I first had the idea of the Selsey Sea Bathing Society. Observing others, and my own experience suggests, you really could really change your life if you begin immersing your wrapped up, restricted, warmth-seeking body into the cold water this winter. It’s certainly better if you can begin this earlier in the year but start tentatively, anyway. Go one weekend and dip a toe in. Then, next time your legs, or your hands. Join a group and observe those who are more experienced than you. Start preparing your body by taking some cold showers. See how you adapt and feel each time. The benefits are so much more than just a boost to your immune system, but also a lowering of your anxiety levels and a feeling of euphoria that can sometimes last all day. Immersing your body in cold water soothes the soul, taking energy away from our busy minds and sending it purposefully into your body, grounding you in a way little else can. And if it helps to know, you only need to be in the water at this time of year for two minutes for it to have a beneficial effect.
Or why not try some Breathwork one evening. It requires little preparation, no one to rely on, it can be done in the dark, or in the light. The weather may be relentless outside, but on the inside, you could find yourself feeling on top of the world. As with the cold-water bathing, go small so you build up a practice slowly and don’t get put off along the way. Try a five-minute session — fire up YouTube and give one of the thousands of options there a go — find what works for you. Or try reading a book on the subject (I can recommend James Nestor’s book called Breathe) so your mind understands what your body is capable of doing.
And if I’ve done my job well here as you read this, I hope I’ve convinced you that going out, whatever time of day that works for you, into the woods or the park, dipping into the sea or a river, or doing a little Breathwork at home, even just once or twice a week, will immeasurably improve your health and well-being. It’s of course only natural to want to hibernate at this time of year (which is also very good and necessary for us at this time of year) and do a little Netflix, Eastenders, or news binging. But to do this all the time, over time, can have a detrimental effect on some of us. I heard a therapist say recently that her clients that were doing the best, were those who carved out a little quiet time for themselves and combined this with time spent time out in nature. For me, it works — and I see it all the time — the magical effect it has on others, too.
Justine is running a one-day retreat for women in overwhelm. Described by Conde Nast Traveller Wellness & Spa Guide 2023 as the ‘Queen of British Breathwork’ and describing the retreat as ‘allowing for profound shifts’ and ‘much more than caring pampering’ and ‘incredible for healing and physical and mental health’, it runs on Thursdays subject to availability. To read more about this and to book navigate to here.