In partnership with Nike Swim

ESEA Sisters on How Water Can Connect Us Spiritually

BY Amelia Abraham

ESEA Sisters


For different cultures around the world, water has different meanings, especially connected to spirituality. Nowhere is this more visible than across East and Southeast Asian cultures. For Buddhists In Japan, water can represent a model for continuous and steady faith.. In Thailand, water is used as part of the cleansing ritual at New Year, and in Catholic Filipino culture, for example in the form of Baptisms, water can represent rebirth and renewal.

These different understandings became apparent when ESEA Sisters – a volunteer-run international collective for people from East and Southeast Asian cultures – formed in 2021, envisaged as a way to connect and build ties between women, trans,non-binary and genderqueer people with shared heritages. The collective quickly blossomed from 40 members on Whatsapp to thousands of people across the Instagram page and Discord groups – showing just how needed a safe social hub was, particularly during the wave of anti-Asian hate sparked by covid.

It also demonstrated just how many cultural nuances can co-exist, both culture to culture and person to person. But despite members’ differences, connected threads around the experience of living in Britain and being of Asian descent emerged, from the richness of being mixed heritage to the microaggressions or stereotypes that can come with it, too. Through events that range from festivalsto healing circles to nature walks with swimming, ESEA Sisters tackle this by facilitating new friendships and fighting isolation.

ESEA Sisters

“The nature walks began as a different way of healing that was more active, as well as a way of meeting people [that’s] less intimidating than networking,” explains Isabella, one of ESEA Sister’s members. “On the walks there’d be a lunch where we'd all talk and share things”, they say. “It was really beautiful” – but it was also political: “Many people [in ESEA Sisters] want to explore places around the UK, but racism exists, so when you're part of a group, you have that safety in numbers,” they say. Adding that “it's really important that we keep going out and keep our faces out there because if we retreat into ourselves then we just become invisible. Co-member Kim agrees, explaining that heading into nature was a way of reclaiming the countryside: “With the nature walks, it’s about saying ‘this space is free, and we're allowed to be here’.”

Involving water in the next nature walk felt like a natural evolution, given that in many Asian cultures, water is a core means of reconnection and upholding tradition. The UK often has an attitude to water that’s more functional than spiritual, points out Isabella, “Here in the UK, swimming can be this really competitive, rigid discipline thing.” Swimming lessons at school come to mind. But what if we viewed it differently? “Swimming is about disconnecting from that, and choosing how we want to swim and when we want to swim can be a really empowering activity.” It can be inherently spiritual, they say.

ESEA Sisters

ESEA Sisters' latest walk took them to Seven Sisters Cliffs, right by the water, and included a trip to the Birling Gap, where you can check out rock pools, collect fossils, or if the tide is right, go out swimming. It’s not essential to dive in though – “there's no one standing over you with a clipboard saying you must do this,” jokes Kat from ESEA. Whilst there they ran sessions on Qigong and Tai Chi on the beach.

“Like swimming, they can help us rebalance our energies around ourselves, building up mental health and also physical health – a really good way of focusing on intentionality, the power of the body, and being more self-aware.” - says Isabella.

For Isabella, the metaphor of water in Buddhism sums up the power of being by it – while fire is quick and tempestuous, water means steadily going along, being fluid, continuing onwards. “So it's like, whenever I engage with water, it gives me that reminder to just keep going and not to rush things so much, which I – living in London – [find] it's really hard to remind yourself of when you get caught up in everything.”

We all have different philosophies of course, they say, but water encourages them to take things a bit slower and more steady. “I think that's something that can come into all our relationships with water, culturally.”

Brought to you in partnership with Nike Swim, helping people of all backgrounds navigate the waters.