Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

wild swimming

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

swimming in small groups for one or two hours, naked, for at least three miles, sometimes much more. this is the only free sport that requires no equipment, no training, no coach. just jump in, calm your fears, and trust that you can swim in deep water. go with the group and stop on the rocks when you’re tired.

it’s more than exercise — it’s a daily immersion in seawater, a way to balance your body and mind, regulate your circulatory system, and experience your true position on this earth: a tiny creature floating in infinity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ve been coming to Ibiza ever since you were a kid, on family vacations. And, since arriving here six months ago to set up your studio, you’ve established this daily swimming ritual with a group of friends. Where do you go, and how long do you swim for?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — We go along the northern coastline of the island. In the north, you can find a magnificent stretch of cliffs and deep sea. When you swim, you fall into the rhythm of the stroke. When you zone in, you can go for a long time. You breathe air in rhythm with your strokes. You are fluid, your body seems to keep moving on its own, and your brain is allowed to go wherever it wants. You are in the flow.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Naked as the day we were born. All artifice is stripped away. There’s a feeling of freedom when swimming naked. An echo of Homeric dimension…

OLIVIER ZAHM — But this swimming ritual is not like going swimming in a pool. It’s more complex, right?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, wild swimming opens up a whole different world. When I was a kid, my mother took me to the pool to heal a severe scoliosis. I started to learn the technique of swimming and got into a swimming club. I had daily training. It became a lifetime skill. I eventually left the old smell of chlorine and competition and started to swim long distance in the sea. You feel truly alive when swimming in the sea: it’s something like a metamorphosis, a mirror of our own body liquid.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Wow. We are made up of 60% water…
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Every living identity on our planet is made up of at least 50% water. We start life suspended in the womb, with a composition of up to 95% water, dropping to 77% at birth and slowly dropping to 60% in old age. Our brain is made up of 80% water! Our brains love water — they zone in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A different mind zone?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, it’s a zone between a dream state and an awake state. The mind wanders free of any particular external focus. The brain is in default mode, and it makes fresh, unexpected connections possible. You get inspired. A new idea or a solution to a problem pops into your head from nowhere. It’s a sea of thoughts, really. You are channeling inner life. Sigmund Freud, in his correspondence with Romain Rolland, called it the “oceanic feeling,” back to the womb of our mother, symbolic to the womb of the sea.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Two wombs.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — There’s a feeling of wholeness when swimming in water that permeates humanity’s consciousness. It’s a longing for the sea life, from which humans emerged in primitive times.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To a place of protection?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, protection from the grinding machinery of everyday life. Swimming is a portal to another world — like a wormhole through which to escape from the never-ending connected world we are living in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, because you see where you come from. Or you escape, and you come back.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The world behind you slowly vanishes, and you lose track of time. Nothing else matters. If you get far enough from the shore, you see the land fused with the sea. You can only hear the rhythmic hum of the ocean. It’s a trance — and a good time to head back.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Hopefully.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — There’s always a negotiation when you’re far out at sea. When to turn back? What risk is worth taking for that feeling of discovering a new limit? With wild swimming, you’re always looking for a new frontier, to go further into the unknown. You learn much from people in the way they face the unknown in life and water. It’s a great test.

STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — This love for the unknown is the greatest of all the joys that swimming brings for me. It’s a feeling of being intensely alive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s the risk of fatigue, cramping…
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Those things happen when the mind starts to worry. The human body as a whole is almost the same density as water, which allows us to float. We are weightless in the sea, with zero gravity, like in space travel. Everything has to be effortless. Things must be done with relaxation and undulation, like a fish, and everything will be fine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can we connect swimming to meditation at all?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, absolutely. The sea is a sanctuary. The mind is in an immersive state: calm, peaceful, and unified. You enter into the water. The water enters you. There is no self, no other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have to empty your mind in a way.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, swimming in the oceans is similar to a psychedelic experience. Sometimes you zone in on something with unparalleled lucidity, like the rhythmic succession of sound as the hand cuts through the water, then passes under the body and forms a wave against the side of the face. All those sequences merge with an open awareness that produces a state of effortless concentration and joy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you ever get scared?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — There is always a primal fear of the sea. You thrive in a space of uncertainty. You are like astronauts exploring what is on the other side. With wild swimming, there is always an element of danger that demands a giving over of the self.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To surrender?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes. There is no other way. To be in the flow is to surrender to the sea. You are lost in what you are doing, back inside the aquatic collective brains of our first ancestors. Millions of years apart, the mineral composition of our cells still mirrors the one found in the sea.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you believe the chemistry of the sea mirrors that of the body?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — All our cells started from the same group of cells in the depth of the sea — a slow, ascending, developmental series extending from the fish through the amphibians to humans. We never completely gave up the aquatic mode of life. We are linked to the fish.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it has not been commercialized. It’s a totally free activity.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — True! Everyone can swim, and you don’t need anything. The commercialization and competitiveness happen more around the pool. There are marathon swimming races and other extreme swims in the English Channel or the Bering Strait. Those extreme swims never attract me personally. I prefer the Zen tranquility of long, wild swimming.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’ve also started swimming in the winter?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, swimming in cold water is something else! It’s more of a Samurai swim. You need to be heroic. There is a moment of panic, an electric flash of fear, but it’s so exhilarating. The cold gives you such an adrenaline rush. When you come out, it gives you an immediate sense of health and vigor, which is hard to explain, unless you’ve done it. This sense of well-being is so extreme, it’s a sort of ecstasy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you were looking for this because I can remember you going to the Russian baths in New York — the dirty, hardcore Russian baths in the middle of the East Village. Getting beaten by a stick or…
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yeah. [Laughs] Those sticks are called venniks, a bundle of leafy birch or oak. A medieval Russian medicine! The venniks draw the maximum amount of heat when it hits your skin. After getting beaten to the very limit of the heat and the number of hits you can take, you run into deep, ice-cold water. There are no words to describe the state of bliss and pain, all at once. Here, too, you have to surrender!


[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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