Wading into the frigid Boise River, I made a deal with myself: I would get all the way into the water. I would wet my hair. Then, I would return to my towel and sweats as quickly as humanly possible. The water reached my waist, my chest, my neck and, finally, it rolled over my head. My skin and muscles stiffened until they didn't feel like themselves anymore. I was under for less than a second, but I gasped when I surfaced like I'd been holding my breath for minutes.
The first thing I saw was the bright red foam-rubber shoes I'd worn to protect my feet floating downstream, slipping by people who'd gone polar-bearing in the river just like me and were now lunging toward shore, unaware of my plight.
Zerin Beattie, founder of Xpandyourself, started the trend of wading into the Boise River in the dead of winter on Dec. 29 with some friends. The next Saturday, on Jan. 5, eight people joined him in the river. I attended the Jan. 12 meeting, where 33 swimmers, supplemented by spectators with cameras, met at the wooden bridge on the Boise Greenbelt near the Riverside Apartment complex at 8 a.m., performed a breathing and meditation exercise, and marched into the freezing stream en masse.
"The difference between a cold shower and the river is astronomical," Beattie said afterward, warming his hands on a cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks. He later added that the water temperature of the Boise River at the time of the plunge was 29 degrees Fahrenheit—a thermometer reading made possible by the speed of the water's current.
For the last four years, Beattie has taken cold showers, which he said have improved his blood flow, reduced inflammation and expanded his consciousness when done with breathing exercises. In December, he helped send off a friend who was heading out of town by wading into the river. A photo of them ended up on the internet, and the morning meetings have grown in popularity ever since.
Increasingly, Beattie sees the meetings as a platform for XPand, which currently traffics in new-agey t-shirts but will soon roll out a 5-week health, wellness and mindfulness program he has been developing for years.
Beattie has the bearing of a man on a mission. On the shore, minutes before he and many others plunged into the gray stream, he barked encouragement like a drill instructor: "We should all know our own threshold. We should know our limits," he said. "This is beyond real." Sitting, he criss-crossed his legs and led the group in taking three sets of 30 deep breaths. Huffing beside me was Nick Victory, who periodically switched on his phone for updates on his biostats, which he clocked using a heart rate monitor strapped to his chest. He has hopped into the river for the last two years to recover from his morning runs, but this was his first time doing it with a coordinated breathing exercise.
"It's ungodly cold," he said about the water. "I don't think it gets any easier."
Nearby was Brandee Robinett, who said she had never done any kind of cold exposure, but when she saw a picture of the group on Facebook, she knew she had to try it.
"I was like, 'I'll do it!'" she said. "I think 2019 for me is about doing new things and breaking down the boundaries of fear for me, personally."
- Harrison Berry
The breathing exercise felt like a countdown, but after the first set, my fingers and toes began to tingle, as though they'd fallen asleep on me. Beattie offered advice: People should hold their deep breaths before exhaling quickly to maximize the amount of oxygen reaching the blood. It would keep us warm, he said, and help us recover from the cold. It worked—I stayed warm despite wearing nothing but my bathing suit, at least until I got in the water. The breaths ticked down, ordering the world into deep inhales and Beattie's call of "five more breaths!"
The next thing I knew, Victory, waist-deep in the water, was handing me my foam shoes. Some goose dung clung to the heel of one of them as I fumbled them onto my feet at the shore. I felt like I was in shock, but everyone else seemed ecstatic, as though they'd undertaken an immense journey together. They high-fived and shivered as they draped themselves in towels. A cluster of them formed around Beattie, hugging each other. My limbs moved sluggishly, but I managed to wrap my beach towel around my waist and pull on a shirt. It felt like a rock was lodged between my toes, even though I knew my feet were alone in my shoes.
"You will feel a tingling sensation in your body," I remembered Beattie saying during the breathing exercises.
Later, he would liken jumping into the river to a near-death experience that shifts the body into performance mode in order to survive. The effect is invigorating, and could be a gateway to the physical and spiritual health goals at the core of Beattie's philosophy.
"The confidence you gain when you experience this is unreal," he said. "This is something that kickstarts people to meditation."