Ali Wood meets aquatic bodyworker Helena Eflerová to find out what else the sea has to offer for cold water swimmers


“My grandfather taught me to enjoy cold water dips,” says Helena, shouting over the noise of the surf. “I used to do yoga with him at dawn, he was like the original Wim Hof.” 

The sea is slate grey, churned up by a sharp easterly. The lifeguard hut, our meeting point, is being dismantled for the season, and the usually soft shore is tumbling with pebbles.

We stand ankle-deep in the white water, waiting for a lull in the waves, as Helena recalls her upbringing in the mountains of the Czech Republic. 

Helena performs an aquatic contact improvisation dance 

“We’d run barefoot through the mist and practise outdoor yoga,” she says, “then we’d sting ourselves with nettles and jump into a cold pool my grandfather dug at the bottom of the hill. Afterwards we’d warm up with nettle tea.”

Ice jumping

Hailing from the spa region of Bohemia, Helena grew up appreciating the benefits of open water swimming and hot spring bathing. Like many Czechs, she’d swim in Barbora lake all year round, even breaking holes in the ice to jump in.

Helena at Barbora Lake in the Czech Republic

“In Slavic culture, lakes and rivers are there to be swum in,” she says. “Like the Scandinavians, we enjoy saunas too, but we like the icy water. It makes you strong, improves your metabolism, and when you go from indoors to the outdoors, you don’t feel the cold.”

Though far from icy, the sea in Bournemouth is cooling down now, after a mild autumn, and choppy from recent storms. The plan is for Helena to show me some yoga – one of the many open-water activities she teaches, along with swimming, dance and flotation therapy – but the challenge will be getting out past the breakers. 

The waves stall momentarily.

“Ok, we go,” nods Helena. With a penguin-like waddle, at odds with her elegant poise, she enters the surf and duck-dives each wave, a technique she learnt at the local surf life saving club. Her dad has been a mountain rescuer all his life, so she sees surf-rescue as a way of keeping up the family tradition of volunteering.

Yoga on the beach

The cross-current is strong, and every second that we stop swimming, we get swept closer to the pier, so we head in, walk down the beach, and start a few groynes downwind, pausing first to do some breathing techniques.

Legs planted wide in the sinking sand, the sea crashing around our shins, we breath in through the nose and out slowly through the mouth, pushing one hand inwards and then the other in time with our breaths. 

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Calming the nerves

Helena runs a company called HE AQUATICS and her goal is to transform tension into relaxation. She tells me about a yoga student who just swam across the English Channel. Already an excellent swimmer, it was her fear of cold water that was holding her back, so she sought Helena’s help to overcome this. 

“We tackled it through beach yoga,” says Helena. “I think people often breathe too shallow, and yoga teaches you to breathe deeply. I like the fact you can do it on the beach without any fancy equipment.”

Wim Hof, the extreme athlete and celebrity ‘Iceman’ has made a career out of getting people to embrace the cold, and Helena is a fan of his methods. 

“The breathwork that Wim Hof teaches is different to that of yogic breath, which focuses on belly breathing and emphasises the exhale,” she says. “WHM breathing is circular breathing, with the emphasis on the inhale, but it still teaches you to calm your mind and slow down your heartbeat.

“You can use it to tolerate cold water, but actually it’s also something you can do to get up in the morning after a bad night’s sleep and prepare yourself for a busy day.”

Breathing comes into everything Helena does in the water, but especially free diving and artistic swimming, where she has to hold her breath for long periods of time, teaching her body to cope with higher levels of carbon dioxide. 

Artistic swimming and water dance

When we get out past the worst of the breakers, the sea is chest deep. Helena shows me some dance moves. First up is a walkover – an underwater cartwheel, which normally she’d practise in a heated pool. I attempt the more advanced technique, where your hands don’t touch the bottom.

Though I fail, and the water fizzes up my nose, and we have to stop every few seconds and dive under a wave, the sensation is liberating. It reminds me of being a kid and just playing in the water – something we forget to do as adults. 

Dancing is Helena’s first love, and though her parents wanted her to become an architect, it was her grandfather’s yoga sessions that taught her to enjoy movement above all else. 

“As a child I enjoyed being in my body, moving with my body and the slow motion,” she says. “The postures were exciting – and I was proud that amongst all my cousins, I could hold a pose the longest, do the splits and headstands. I’m dyslexic, and my verbal communication was poor, but suddenly I found a platform to shine. I could impress my grandfather, and on a bad day, yoga became a coping strategy, giving me happiness and confidence.” 

Underwater Butoh

Helena studied fine art ceramics and sculpture, but found herself reverting to dance – first by building herself into clay for her bachelors degree and then performing in water for her masters degree at at Winchester School of Art. Her final piece was an underwater performance using a Japanese dance called a Butoh – which was so successful she was invited to develop and perform it at Aquabox by Maurizio Mancioli as part of the Para Haus Contemporary Art Exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil. 

“People were watching me from the other side of the glass. I was like a pretty goldfish and the audience were very passive, but I thought to myself, how can I make the audience a part of my act?” 

She trained in aquatic contact improvisation – a dance form that explores one’s body in relation to others – as well as relaxation, fitness and rehabilitation techniques, all taking place under water. What came out of this fusion was underwater improvisation dance, whereby the audience join in. Helena invited guests to wear swimsuits to her performance. She’d teach them breathing, buoyancy, and basic dance techniques, then the final act was for them to enter the pool with her and dance. 

The freedom of water

Helena later collaborated with a composer of underwater music whose company Wet Sounds, together with charity Liquid Vibrations, provide musical hydrotherapy for disabled children. Helena provides flotation therapy and aquatic bodywork, helping the children to float, and breathe more deeply while mobilising their joints. 

“Out of the water, their disability restricts mobility, but in the water, out of their wheelchair, they can relax, listen to the music and enjoy pain relief through stretch and massage,” explains Helena. 

Musical hydrotherapy for disabled children with Liquid Vibrations

“They listen not just through their ears, but their bones too – the body absorbs the vibrations of the music. Some children dance, others just like to be floated.”


Even as a child, Helena was aware of the benefits of hydrotherapy. Her grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s, which was causing painful curvature of his spine. She recalls her grandmother floating him in a spa, holding his head and allowing him to stretch out, releasing the pain and stiffness. 

The use of water for therapeutic purposes is by no means a new trend. Ancient Egyptians right through to the Victorians advocated the curative properties of water. Indeed, the very spot where we’re swimming – in Boscombe, Dorset – was popular with the 19th century rich and middle classes, whose black and white photos can be seen in the local pubs. By 1840, clifftop villas were being built for summer hire, with stagecoaches bringing excited sea bathers from Southampton and beyond.

Social cold water dips

Like many of us who enjoy cold water swimming, Helena is drawn to the social benefits. The first time I met Helena on the beach she mistook me for someone else, yet still managed to persuade me to drop my lone swim and join her and another woman. And now she has me dancing under the sea! 

“It’s that deep connection with people that I seek,” she says. “I like to help people and I’m also doing this because it enriches my life.”

I never considered that yoga or dance might be fun in the sea too, but my invigorating session of dipping, dancing and stretching has left me wanting to do more. As we emerge from the sea, slightly chilly now, and grateful for our wetsuits and changing robes, we head to the cafe for brunch. Whilst I tuck into my full English, and Helena her vegan breakfast, she tells me more about her sessions, which she runs every day, all year-round. 

These include yoga for dippers, shoreline stretching, underwater dancing or full moon swims. Her sea dips are free – just a chance to meet like-minded friends – and then her classes are either drop-in prices, or monthly memberships. 

Full moon swim with friends

Helena’s first session starts at 6:30am. She checks the forecast, the sea conditions then decides where to meet, starting in the dark. “You look at the moon and the sky, and this beautiful blue light before dawn,” she says. “By the time we finish the breathing and start to stretch it’s getting lighter, we go for a dip in the sea and come out in the sunrise. It’s magical. Yes, you’ve got to be motivated to get up that early, but it’s such a big payback.”

Empowering dippers

The sea is for everyone, and Helena sees her role as “empowering dippers” – giving people the skills and confidence to have fun safely in open water, regardless of their age, shape or ability. She runs group classes and one-on-one sessions, spending up to 6 hours a day in the sea or pool

“The water brings us all together,” she says. “It allows us to relax and have fun. Some people need dancing, floating or swimming; others just need to be by the shoreline, stretching. I spent the first 20 years of my life in the artworld feeling unhappy, and now I want to spend the rest of my life in water, feeling good and healthy, and sharing the joy with others.” 

Helena’s top tips for first-time dippers

Swim in company 

Join in with local community swims – there’ll be groups on Facebook, or go with friends. The day before, check the weather and sea conditions on a site such as If you go with different groups you’ll become familiar with the different types of beach and current, what the water’s like at low and high tide, and the effect the wind will have on your swim. At first, only swim if there’s a green flag. 

Check the water quality

Red flags don’t always mean the sea is rough – it could be an indication of poor water quality. You can use this interactive map from Surfers Against Sewage to check the condition of your local swim spot. 

Wear the right gear

For cooler waters, wear a wetsuit, boots, gloves, swim cap and goggles. When swimming in cold water, the right cold water swimming gear can help prevent cold water shock, and means you can spend longer in the water, and not get too cold when you get out. 

Observe the water

If you’re on a lifeguarded beach, swim between the flags. Look at the water, look at the direction of the currents. If you’re in a non-guarded part of the beach, swim parallel to the shoreline.

Observe the waves and ask yourself what kind of waves you’re looking at. Are they spilling, plunging, surging, collapsing, deep water, shallow water, tidal, inshore, or progressive ones? Is there a rip tide, or tumble dryer shore that keeps you spinning? You become familiar with them over time, but look carefully before entering the water. 

Enter the water carefully

Watch other swimmers and their water confidence and swimming abilities. Waves come in sets and wait for your moment. If you’re comfortable swimming in waves, wait for a break in the sets to safe enter and exit. If you’re not comfortable, have a shallow dip or just simply sit on a shoreline. Let the sea water spill over your bear feet, walk, jog, stretch, breath deeply and meditate. 

Look under the water for weaver fish or other dangers. Neoprene booties will protect your feet from stones. Go in slowly and acclimatise. 

Take a tow-float

A tow-float attached to your waist gives you something to hold on to when you need a rest, and will help make you visible to others, along with a bright swim cap. For making contact with other swimmers use a whistle.  

Widen your stroke

In a pool you tend to swim front crawl or freestyle with the arm close to the shoulder – a long reach with a narrow stroke – but in the sea it helps to go wider, keeping a high elbow and ‘scooping’ with the hands. Be vigilant, and keep spotting – for example, pick out a landmark on the shore. If you have a tendency to go left or right, spot your landmark on every fourth or eighth stroke. 

If in difficulty, float

If you struggle and you need help, remember the RNLI’s excellent advice to float to live, or float like a starfish. This is especially important if you’ve fallen into the water, where you’re at risk of cold water shock. This advice has helped countless people who’ve encountered difficulty in the sea, including two sisters swept out to sea in Wales.