“Ice swimming is like meditation”

Leigh, Australia 

“In Finland you can’t get through winter relying on alcohol.”

It was around 2006 when I left Australia to have a little bit of time in London. I was working three jobs like a mad man; public sector 9–17, at a supermarket packing shelves in the evenings, and on weekends I was putting windows into a new building next to the airport. I counted that I had two days off in 4–5 months and about three quarters of the time I was working two jobs a day. I would never do it again, but at the time I just wanted to push through and save up. I made good money.

I set myself up in London doing the London thing, partying, having drinks. I wanted to be in a situation where I could try anything and not have to say I don’t have the money. I kinda found it very difficult. There are many other Aussies, new Zealanders, South Africans in London. We are all kind of similar, and Brits put us in the same basket. The reputation is tricky – if there is someone hanging off a chandelier in the pub, you know it’s an Australian.

I had worked for the government in Australia before and I made myself a goal to apply for five jobs a day in London. One Thursday evening the guys at the hostel were asking if I’d join them for happy hour, but I decided to apply for one more job. I saw ‘Kings Roads Sporting Club, Swim Suit Sales Person’ so I applied. At midday the next day my phone rang, it was the sporting club. The person on the phone started by saying that they had never laughed so much. I had made some pitch about what kind of swimming suits I’d sell to different celebrities, like Oprah and Nicole Kidman. They said they felt the same about Oprah, and then the girl asked if I could come and see them the same day. I had a great interview and they took me to meet the boss, a South African Jewish guy who was into boxing. He said he would give me a job starting the next day and that I’d be the manager of the Billabong section.

LEIGH EWIN: “I was like a big baby trying to sort everything in Finland… You can hardly even use Google translate to help you out”

Soon after this I met a Finnish girl. She was the one who actually got the job as the Swimsuit Sales Person. We got together and spent about nine more months there. Then I decided that London was not for me and I wanted a more cultural experience. That’s how I got to Finland. I didn’t know anything about the geography, I just had no idea. I didn’t really know where I was going. After we got here the relationship changed and we began to grow in different ways as I started making my own friends. I was like a big baby trying to sort everything in Finland. The first job I got here was at this kiinteistöhuolto, like a house management business. I did it for one summer, it was quite tough going. There was not much sun that year.

Coming to Finland I first wondered if I could actually do this. In most places in the world you think you will be okay, but here it feels like you can hardly even use Google translate to help you out. I applied to schools like Arcada, Haaga-Helia and I ended up being selected to Laurea. The first day I went to the school they gave me a laptop and I was wondering what it would cost me, but they said it was for free! It was like my first laptop ever! They said there would be no teaching or exams, this new kind of learn by developing course.

Leigh Ewin at the water's edge
Have you ever been miserable in a sauna, asks Leigh Ewin. Photo by Peter Seenan

Later I was talking to a friend of mine who was working at a marketing company and I asked if I could come for coffee at his office and maybe talk to the boss. So I went there in the best gear I had and sat down with the boss. It went well and I asked him if they had ever had an intern before. They hadn’t and then I said, “congratulations, you have one now”. He asked me what the price was and I was just thinking I would do it for free. So I literally ran to my school, only eight minutes from there, asked for the internship papers and ran back. The boss said that I’d better start on Monday.

I broke up with my girlfriend, but I had a job and an apartment, so I felt everything was going okay. I was like a secretary for everyone at the office and every time I was done with a task I would ask if anyone needed me for something else. By the time my contract was ending I asked the boss if he wanted me to hang around for the summer when people were on holiday. He said yes.

LEIGH EWIN: “If you can get over your initial reaction to ice swimming, you can find your inner peace and learn to love it”

I’ve realised that in Finland I should never turn up to a meeting without coffee. Finns drink the most coffee in the world; almost four cups a day. The other thing is the sauna. We have this tourism branch where I work and we always go and test saunas and other nature activities in Nuuksio and wherever. As a joke my colleagues would always throw me into the ice water. In the beginning I was always asking them to be quick with their photos, but I began to like it a lot. Ice swimming is like looking at yourself in a mirror; it shows what kind of person you are or mood you are in. There is the fear response, how will you react? Do you stay and fight or get out? It’s symbolic. If you can get over your initial reaction, you can find your inner peace and learn to love it.

In Finland you can’t get through winter relying on alcohol. I tried and found that I just didn’t like it. I tried living like a bear in a cave too, and I didn’t enjoy myself. Avanto (ice swimming) is like meditation. I mean, skiing through the forest on a clear day and then doing sauna and avanto, what else do you need? When I get in there I’m not thinking about anything else. For me this is the thing.

Leigh Ewin inspects the water under a threatening sky
Leigh Ewin looking out over Töölönlahti. He wants to introduce ice baths to companies to help team-building. Photo by Peter Seenan

Now I’ve started doing this ‘biohacking’. Maybe you will have a really good coffee in the morning with some fats and oils in it or you will really look at how to get the best sleep. I don’t know if you have heard about this Finnish company called Warrior Coffee. They are the ones who created the world’s first instant coffee with fats. You just need to add hot water. Elastinen is one of the founders and Sami Hedberg is an investor. I’ve met a lot of smart people here through my job and these guys asked me if I would help them. All this is just being myself and believing in who I am. But I think you lose yourself here when you have nothing, you lose your confidence. When you come here you have nothing. So you find yourself getting further away from what you need. At some point you need to adapt, but at the same time keep the essence of who you are and what you believe.

Recently I bumped into something called the Wim Hof method. Wim is known as a dare devil because of his many world record feats. He has 26 of them, mainly connected to cold exposure and climbing mountains in record time in only shorts and shoes. That’s where his breathing technique and mindset training comes in. I have been studying this and have now become a Wim Hof Method instructor here in Finland. There are some amazing health benefits of this method and I love the idea of connecting breath work, mindset and cold exposure.

LEIGH EWIN: “Here I am, some bald red-bearded Aussie, telling Finns that they are sitting on a goldmine”

When I broke up with my ex I made a decision to stay out of the house, to go out. I thought I need to get out to the nature. I mean, have you ever been miserable in a sauna? Always happy. And then always somehow by default you find your way to the lake or water. Is there any better feeling than going from the sauna to the lake and then the first sip of beer? What are you thinking of then? You are not thinking how bad life is. You are thinking that this is some hidden secret the world needs to know. That’s how I feel. And then you want to go even further to a scientific level, like what happens to the body in these situations? This is what the breathing training is about; really mapping out what happens inside the body on a physiological level. I think in Japan people have something called forest bathing, you just go to the forest and lie on the ground.

Here I am, some bald red-bearded Aussie, telling Finns that they are sitting on a goldmine. My friends back home say I’m lucky to be here. I was not happy in Australia so I had to leave to see what else was out there, what else I could do. I had to hit almost rock bottom here to be able to say that I already have what I need. I just needed to get out of the house and go to a sauna, everyone has one and there are hundreds of thousands of lakes in this country. It feels like Finnish people only let themselves relax when they are at the cottage. Otherwise when you ask them they say that they are busy. Being busy is like a defence mechanism so you don’t need to think how you actually are.

What I want to do is share my techniques and knowledge with all these companies, tell them I’ll bring some good coffee and talk a little bit about breathing. I think that by re-learning how to breathe, you can begin to control your own physiology and even your mood and happiness. I want to introduce ice baths to help team-building within companies. Watching your colleagues stay in a tricky situation for a couple of minutes and watch them fight and succeed is a powerful thing. It’s also the same with the first reaction of fear. Seeing colleagues overcome their fear reactions can show them in a new light and give you a new level of respect for them.

I’ve been together with my current girlfriend for years now. I can easily see myself here in 20 years. I mean, there is always a calling from home; recently my sister and brother announced within 6 months of each other that they are both having their first children. Of course I would love to be involved or be a good uncle to their kids. But at the same time I’ve learned patience since being in Finland and I have come a long way and I feel so close to being able to do to my own thing and have my mission up and ready. So I’m not thinking about that stuff at the moment; my own kids and those things. I’m just really focussed to deliver this thing. I feel I owe it to myself and to people I have been talking to about it. And in a way, it’s my own gift to a country that has been so good to me.

Other resources: 

Andruta: “Seeing other women were so comfortable with nudity in the sauna made me more willing to embrace my own body”

Amjad: “At the reception center, we had an invitation from the sauna society and nobody wanted to go, except me”

Greg: “I feel alive, instead of being stuck in some really monotonous routine”

Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Leigh’s story. 

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