Water environments and wellbeing
Dr Easkey Britton is an internationally-renowned surfer, artist, scientist and explorer from Ireland. She pioneered women’s big-wave surfing in Ireland as the first woman to surf Aileen’s at the Cliffs of Moher and Mullaghmore. Easkey is a five-time Irish national surf champion, and holds a Ph.D. in Marine Environment and Society. She is the founder of Be Like Water, a platform to explore innovative ways to reconnect with who we are, our environment and each other, through water.
Wter is life, it cleanses,” Farnaz said as we moved around the circle of women sharing experiences of what water means to us in our lives. We were a group of ten from very different backgrounds, ranging in age from 13 to 43. “Being in the water makes me feel calm,” said Laleh. “Water takes away my tiredness,” Mina added. For others, it was their very first time to get into the water. They were hesitant and nervous but encouraged by the other women in the group. These women were participating in the Be Like Water programme – an active, physical practice aimed at tapping into the more playful, creative and therapeutic qualities of water and the sea. This programme was initially developed by myself and Shirin Gerami (Iran’s first female triathlete) with minority groups of women and girls in Iran as a way to make surfing more accessible and to facilitate a greater body-self-nature connection.
This concept of water environments being therapeutic is nothing new. Water has been considered an active life-metaphor for millennia, with Taoist Lao Tzu writing in 6th century BC: “Nothing in the world is softer than water. But for attacking the hard, the unyielding, it has no equal.” In Victorian England, seaside holidays were recommended by physicians for respite and recovery from illness and in Ireland holy wells continue to be important places for spiritual wellbeing and health promotion. More recently there has been growing interest in policy, practice and academia in how blue spaces (outdoor, natural aquatic environments such as rivers, lakes, coasts, beaches, sea) impact our health and wellbeing. ‘Blue space’ has been defined by therapeutic geographers Ronan Foley and Thomas Kistemann as ‘health- enabling places and spaces, where water is at the centre of a range of environments with identifiable potential for the promotion of human wellbeing’.
My current research with the NEAR-Health project at National University of Ireland, Galway is one such project which explores how nature, including blue space, can help society attain and restore health. My bias as a life-long surfer has certainly influenced my desire to better understand what I’ve intuitively felt all my life, the power of the sea to heal and restore a sense of wellbeing. Emerging evidence suggests that physical activity in the sea, in particular surfing, has confirmed psychological as well as physical benefits. The crisis of our time is the rise of mental health issues, with at least one in five young people in Ireland experiencing a mental disorder. Organisations such as Liquid Therapy and One Wave are tapping into the sea and surfing to tackle mental health issues, and the surrounding stigma, in a novel way. Part of the health benefits are linked to the fact that surfing is challenging. It’s dynamic and you’re always learning. Different coasts, winds, currents and seasons mean you are constantly adapting, which has considerable health benefits for both body and mind. While surfing, you have to think quickly in response to nature, learn to let go of the need to be in control and become aware of your environment. Wave-exposed coastlines could have added benefits with research suggesting that negative ions released by breaking waves alter our biochemistry and light up our mood, relieving stress. A recent study in England by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that living near the coast can make us healthier.
An aquatic experience like swimming or surfing can take us out of our heads and into the sensory world of our bodies. “I feel lighter and calmer,” said Sanaz, a first-time water user, during her Be Like Water session. Her friend Yasmin agreed: “I feel like I am flying – out there on the water you don’t think about any of your problems.”
This column appears in ISSUE 1: Saving the Arctic of Oceanographic Magazine
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