Immersing yourself in freezing cold water might not be at the top of your relaxation list, but at Jacqueline Steele discovers, it’s well worth the effort.
Usually, relaxation and wellness means a hot stone massage, a warm bath, or perhaps lazing on a sun lounger in the tropics. But Covid days have seen more of us turn to cold pursuits in the name of health. Whether it’s wild-water swimming, bare-skin winter running (yes, it’s a thing), or exploring the teachings of Dutchman Wim Hof, who’s earned the nickname ‘Iceman’ for enduring freezing temperatures, could cold actually be good for both our bodies and minds?
A boost to the body
Fans say that increasing resilience to cold temperatures, in the form of regular cold showers or bathing in ice, leads to improved immunity and circulation, better sleep, enhanced mood and stress relief. Benefits we could all do with after the year we’ve had. Some ‘Hoffers’ even go as far to say that the method has been life-changing.
Various scientific studies back this up too. It’s been shown that Wim’s method allows him to voluntarily influence his ‘autonomic nervous system’ – a startling discovery found after researchers invited him to their labs to refute his claims.
The reason he is able to withstand extreme cold temperatures, it is thought, is because he can control certain parts of his brain.
A study carried out in the Netherlands in 2014, which involved injecting healthy volunteers with dead eColi bacteria, revealed that like Wim, they were able to control their immune response through breath-work and ice bathing.
There was a 200 per cent improvement in the volunteers’ innate anti-inflammatory response and a 50 per cent reduction in the body’s pro-inflammation response after practicing breath-work.
The same study revealed that anti-inflammatory effects were still detected in the body six days after a two-minute ice bath.
Further studies are also underway to learn more about how the method could potentially help with conditions including autoimmune disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine, asthma, high blood pressure and MS.
Embrace the cold
I was first introduced to the method at a day retreat run by South African, Will Van Zyl – one of only a handful of certified instructors teaching the Wim Hof Method in the UK – in his garden in Berkshire. Will himself has seen first-hand the apparent miraculous benefits of cold therapy, claiming practicing the techniques has helped cure him of a lifetime of leg and back problems.
A convert, the dad-of-three and yoga teacher trained to become one of just 500 certified Wim Hof Method instructors across the globe, offering small, intimate workshops and retreats – covering the method’s theory and breathing, as well as an optional ice bath.
Will said: “Exposure to the cold for just two minutes, even a cold shower below 15 degrees Celsius, triggers significant immune, cardiovascular and mental wellbeing benefits immediately in our bodies. Practiced regularly, this step out of our comfort zones will build a lifetime of strength and resilience in body and mind.”
Focusing the mind
Sat on yoga mats, Will explained that we can learn to control the rhythm of our breath, and in so doing, we can calm our bodies and minds, which can be a big stress reliever and aid concentration. Proper breathing can also help muscles to perform at their optimal level, and can even improve your immune system.
We lay down on our mats in a meditative pose, with our knees supported by a cushion and closed
our eyes, ready to begin Wim Hof’s famous breathing technique. The method involves several deep
breaths – through the belly and then the chest, before letting go, unforced, and then this is repeated in focused, powerful rounds.
On the final exhalation of the round we were told to hold our breath, with empty lungs, until we
felt the urge to breathe again. We then drew one big breath to fill our lungs, held it for 15 seconds, and then let go. We repeated this cycle three times.
We were also taught about the importance of the ‘horse stance’, a common posture in martial arts, in preparing for, and recovering our bodies, after the much-anticipated ice bath. Even after only two minutes in the ice bath, there is some risk of an ‘after drop’ – where the core body temperature can plummet after getting out. The ‘horse stance’, allows the blood to flow in a way which heats up the body from within.
When my time came to enter the five-degree ice I was scared and, even after a day of breathing exercises, I was still not convinced I could go through with it. But then something happened. I suddenly felt determined, I told myself that not only would I try, I knew I’d complete the task.
I stepped in with an inhale, sat down with an exhale and submerged myself to my shoulders. After an initial wobbly breath when the ice pricked my skin, I felt relaxed. Dare I say it, I felt hot-stone massage, sun lounger in the tropics relaxed. And just like that my two minutes was up. I was ecstatic, energised and super proud of myself.
Five benefits of ice bathing
- Body boost
Cold showers or bathing in ice is said to lead to improved immunity and circulation.
- Relax and recharge
‘Hoffers’ say they sleep better after a cold burst.
- The ultimate pick-me-up
The cold is believed to enhance your mood, as well as help you manage stress.
- Change your attitude
It’s a real case of mind over matter. A useful mantra for life: if you can withstand freezing temperatures by controlling your breath, imagine what else you can do?
- Beat the pain
Ice bathing and breath-work has been found to have significant anti-inflammatory effects, to help with the suppression of chronic pain, and to improve endurance.