How Floating Down a River Helped Me Learn How to Go With the Flow

Here’s how one woman found lasting peace while floating on her belly down a wild river in Switzerland.
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Finding peace along the Aare River in Switzerland.

Finding peace along the Aare River in Switzerland.

Thousands of bare feet march on the paved and dirt paths along the Aare riverbank every summer in search of the perfect entry point into bright turquoise waters. The Aare River cuts through the heart of Bern, the well-groomed Swiss capital an hour’s train ride from Zurich. Last summer, I joined the hordes for a refreshing dip in the glacial melt coming from the Alps, despite having many nail-biting reservations. As peaceful and calming as the water looks and sounds, there’s no question I was entering a wild, unpredictable, fast-moving river with the sole purpose of letting myself get swept away. And in the past, getting “swept away” for me meant having to get rescued.

During a trip to New Zealand’s South Island with my sister in 2013, I naively trusted my white-water rafting guide (who, in hindsight, I believe was high) when he said it was safe to swim the rapids. I was the only one brave—or dumb—enough to body surf class III waves. I ended underneath our vessel, getting tossed around like gym socks in a washing machine. The guide assured the other six concerned passengers that he could feel me thrashing under the belly of the raft, and therefore, I was fine. I resurfaced unwounded but pale as a ghost, gasping for air, and covered in snot from forcefully trying to breathe.

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On that same trip, there was a second incident that was just as dramatic. My sister and I capsized in three feet of freezing river water when our kayak hit a rock. Disoriented, frustrated, cold, and wet, I went after our runaway oar without thinking. My sister, Maria, yelled at me from shore, and by the time I turned to holler back, I realized I was chest-deep in a current so strong that I had no choice but to flip on my back (river safety rules 101) and helplessly float downriver until someone “saved” me. In this instance, I didn’t panic. Instead, I was so consumed with anger at both the river and my poor choices (ugh, not again) that I had a bitch face until I was fished out—maybe three minutes later—and for the rest of the day. Needless to say, in both instances, I walked away unhappy and slightly traumatized.

So, to just dive in to the Aare and intentionally get “taken” in the river—a mere five years after feeling so unsafe in wild waters—was terrifying. But I’m a Pisces, and I love being in water. So there was a big part of me ready to wash away my river angst for good.

Floating down the Aare River in Switzerland.

Floating down the Aare River in Switzerland.

Finding My Flow

Around noon, I met my guide, Neda, who seemed much more reliable—and sober—than the one I met in New Zealand. I ate my nerves, devouring a plate of fries and warm goat cheese salad while I interrogated Neda about how this was going to work.You just jump in? Then what? Does someone pluck you out (like they did for me in New Zealand)? What’s the exit strategy? How cold is it? How deep is it? Have people drowned?

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She laughed and offered some insights, but not a lot. She assured me it would be fine and fun (I’d heard this before) and distracted me with intriguing facts about nearby BearPark, where a real-life version of the Berenstain Bears (mom, Bjork, dad, Finn, and daughter, Ursina) live in the city center. After lunch, we fed the adorable furry family whole watermelons, tossing four big ones over a glass wall (squat and press) with the permission and supervision of a zookeeper. My form was so strong (my trainer would be proud) that I felt secure in my body and ready for whatever comes next. Bravo, Neda, for getting me out of my own head and reminding me that I’m tough.

At 3:30 p.m., we meandered a short distance from BearPark to the Marzili pool, which is actually a lush, green lawn with changing stations, bathrooms, and, yes, a pool on the river’s edge. Half-naked bodies sunbathing, socializing, or eating ice cream from Gelateria di Berna covered the promenade, making it a perfect pseudo-beach on this 87-degree afternoon.

Carrying our belongings in our individual dry bags, which also serve as a float or lifesaver, we joined the bathing-suit-clad procession along the river to find our entry point. The longer you walk, the longer you float, Neda told me. Walk 20 minutes, drift for 10. As we walked and watched people begin their swim, it still hadn’t sunk in what was about to happen. There were no clear rules, signs, flags, or safety whistles. When I saw people cannonballing from an iron footbridge up ahead and Neda finally piped up about some of the dangers of what we were about to do, my fight-or-flight response kicked in.

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Facing fear and jumping into the Aare River.

Facing fear and jumping into the Aare River.

Ready to take the plunge—literally

We found a short, unoccupied staircase with a red rail leading into the water and opted to take it. Neda sweetly held my hand as we began our total immersion into the 70-degree water. I wasn’t convinced I was making the right decision, especially since I still felt so uncertain about when and how I was going to get out. But the reason I was getting into this water was to change my negative narrative. So, into the water I went.

In seconds, the fast-flowing river had me in her grips, pushing me in the direction from whence I came. Neda instructed me to hug my float and frog-kick toward the middle of the river, where the water is deeper, so I’d be less likely to hit rocks. All of this was alarming, especially as the distance between Neda and I began to widen.

I found myself automatically reciting my Transcendental Meditation mantra. (And yes, I know I’m not supposed to use my sacred mantra in this way but I find this anchor helpful in grounding my thoughts in, well, ungrounding situations.)

Once Neda and I were side-by-side again, I noticed she was smiling and not moving much. She was just letting herself drift.

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I wanted to do this, too, but was still fighting to work with the current, kicking to keep my body steady, streamlined, afloat, and, most importantly, near Neda. I looked around and saw that others—there were literally hundreds of people in the water with us, either ahead or behind, and only a few adjacent—had given in to the river’s hold, like Neda. I don’t know how to do this, I thought. I have to stay alert to avoid rocks, people, and missing my exit, right? I mean, I’d like to relax. I know that’s the point. But I’m still so much in my head and so scared of the unknown.

Seriously, I say to myself, how are we gonna get out?

To stave off panic, I closed my eyes for a minute and slowed my breathing, this time implementing meditation techniques as they were taught to me—minus the sitting comfortably on a cushion part. As my mantra worked its magic in the back of my mind, at the front, I told myself to be present and experience the thrill of the moment, as it would be short-lived and may not happen again. When I accepted my mind’s proposal to simply be present, I opened my eyes to fully soak up this experience. That’s when I saw what was really happening: We were all just bobbing ice cubes in this refreshing drink, melting away our stress on a stunning summer day.

Finally, I stopped trying to control my movements and let the river’s current take control.

Feeling weightless and free, I started smiling. I had no idea what would happen next, and yet, I felt calmer than ever. I flipped on my back to change perspectives and watched a few clouds moving faster than usual in the sky. I noticed some people riding inflatable tubes downriver, and others playing volleyball. I looked at my unmoving feet and wiggled my purple-painted toes like a curious baby. Last time I floated on my back like this I was waiting to be rescued in New Zealand. Now, I don’t want to be plucked out, I mused. I never want this to end.

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Neda entered my gaze, crossing behind me and making her way toward to the shoreline. She told me to follow, stay close, and keep my legs up, as the river gets shallower by the banks. I followed without thinking too much. The transition was so smooth: Neda extended her hand toward an upcoming red railing and effortlessly latch on. She pulled herself out of the way in time for me to latch on right after with total ease.

Letting go of control is one step closer to learning how to go with the flow.

Letting go of control is one step closer to learning how to go with the flow.

The Aare fought to hold onto me a little longer and I was sad to get out. Then, I banged my knee on an underwater rock, expedited my exit, and we were back at Marzili “beach.”

I immediately begged Neda to float again. This time, we walked farther to gain a few extra minutes of floating. The second time is heavenly. I let myself completely go with no reservations. I kept my eyes wide open and needed no breathing exercise or mantra to channel my inner zen. I felt like I could do this for days. But with the sunset chasing us (maybe an hour and a half away), this would be our last swim, and I’d learned a sweet lesson I didn’t realize this river held for me.

Fact is, life will always force me to relinquish control here and there, and in these moments, I have to learn to wait—as calmly as possible—and see what happens. Sometimes, there’s literally nothing to do but just be. My only option in these instances is to not make the wait feel like purgatory. I have the tools to take care of myself so that I can face the wait with grace, and maybe even enjoy uncertainty just a little bit. And I can’t think of a more fitting, and even poetic, place to learn more about who I am than in a river called Aare.

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