Francine Nunnari admits jumping into a freezing cold ice bath on a crisp winter’s morning sounds “crazy”. “Who would want to start doing ice baths in the middle of winter? I really thought it would just be me,” she says. But, to her surprise, a growing group of like-minded souls have joined her to brave the cold every Wednesday morning in Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. “It’s turned into something quite beautiful, meeting up with the community and pushing through self-limitations,” Nunnari notes.
The Port Macquarie Beach, Breath and Ice Group, as they call themselves, gather at the town’s popular Flynns Beach before sunrise and Nunnari guides them through peaceful, yet important, breathing exercises before preparing for the immersion.
“Cold represents stress; it’s a form of stress that a lot of us don’t like,” she explains. “It’s about facing a challenge rather than turning away from it.”
Each group member has a different motive for waking up at dawn and pushing their boundaries, but many say it was to improve their mental and physical health.
“You feel it physically, but really dealing with [the cold] is good for my mental health,” says Hendo Longstaff. “For me, one of the biggest challenges was doing this form of practice in a community environment when I normally hide at home.”
For Michelle Jordan, the early morning meetups are a family activity with her husband and children. “I find it a real challenge,” she says. “I feel like I’ve achieved something and it’s building up more resilience in being able to do hard things.”
Her daughter, Samaya, feels similarly. “It helps me get through the week and it feels nice afterwards,” she says.
After their ice baths, group members run into the ocean, which feels like a warm bath compared to the ice.
Ice exposure and cold-water therapy has been made popular by Dutch athlete Wim Hof and is practised around the world. Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Jonathan Peak has conducted research on cold water immersion for athletes and says he understands why it’s becoming popular within small communities.
“Initially there’s a little bit of shock when you get into the ice baths,” Peak says. “There's the slowing of the heart rate and the activation of a sense of relaxation. What I think is happening is the cold-water immersion is putting these people into a meditative state.”
Dr Peak notes more research is needed on its effects and potential risks for the general population, and recommends anyone with a pre-existing heart condition consult a health professional before participating.
Group members typically aim to stay in the bath for two minutes, though local resident Ian Goldspink has endured the ice for four. “It felt invigorating — I loved it,” he says.
For surf and yoga teacher Lauren Enfield, immersing herself in chilly water is a daily ritual. “I get a lot of ‘stoke’ in my life through surfing, through yoga, through nature, through family," she says. “An ice bath is something different, so it gives me the same sense of joy and release all day but I've done it in a different way that’s challenging.”
Enfield believes other regional communities should embrace the weekly ice bath catchups. “I think communities can benefit, not only from that mindset changing, but the gathering of the community,” she says.
Nunnari couldn’t agree more. “Healing comes from connection,” she says. “I can see this happening within the workplace, in schools, within every community and micro community.”
She adds she’s seen clear benefits. “There’s the challenge, there’s the resistance, there’s overcoming that, pushing self-limiting beliefs, self-awareness, all of that,” she concludes.
TOP Beach, Breath and Ice members at Flynns Beach submerging in the ice-cold tubs
ABOVE Francine Nunnari began her weekly ice bath sessions at the start of winter
MIDDLE Hendo Longstaff says the experience is both challenging and enjoyable
BOTTOM Lauren Enfield says it’s nice to embrace the cold
PHOTOS ABC Mid North Coast/Madeleine Cross