The popularity of cold exposure has increased over the last few years. Whether it is through cryotherapy or cold water immersion more and more people practice and/or hashtag #coldexposure. What are the benefits of cold exposure for the modern yoga practitioner (yogi or yogini)?
Cold exposure as a meditation TECHNIQUE
Those that practice cold water immersions for some time report a sensation of stillness in mind (usually 30 seconds to a minute after the initial exposure). A friend of mine Luke Wills (founder of the Optimal Health Method) said he reached the same state of mind in his 2nd ice bath, with that on the 7th day in a vipassana meditation retreat. Anecdotal evidence like this were confirmed to be valid in a study published in May 2018 titled “Brain over Body” . In this study participants with no previous experience in cold exposure and Wim Hof (a Dutch man with chronic practice in cold environments) were interchangeably exposed to cold and neutral temperatures. One of the most striking differences between the inexperienced subjects and Wim was the Dutchman’s ability to reduce activity in the insular cortex part of the brain during cold exposure. Insular cortex is an area involved in emotional attachment to external stimuli and self-reflection. Activity in this part of the brain has been shown to be linked with meditation and control in emotional eating.
Meditation is the 5th of the 8 limbs of yoga.
Cold exposure To overcome fears
Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga” has the subtitle: “the yoga journey to wholeness, inner peace and ultimate freedom.” In our yogic journey (our journey to wholeness) we will have to ultimately face our fears. I believe that cold exposure offers a unique opportunity to learn how to do that.
Cold exposure is demanding on many levels; the adrenals, musculoskeletal system, circulation and the brown fat tissue (if existent) are activated at low temperatures. Aside though the multiple biochemical adaptations in the rest of the body, our brain also changes when we are exposed to cold. The initial response is that of: “fight or flight” . A small area of the brain called amygdala (Greek word for almond) – by activating the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) axis – signals a Stress response to the rest of the body. While this initial stage is universal the way one deals with cold thereafter depends on her experience and ability to use her breath.
By training the body to deal with a stressful situation (ie. a cold immersion) in a controlled environment (such as a shower or a bath) we can reprogram our mind to deal with stressful situations which are out of our control. Our main tool in this process is our breath. Dealing with fear was the focus of a workshop I gave in 2017 to a group of actors. You can see footage from it in the video.
Cold exposure to improve Circulation / Cardiovascular Function
The benefits of an asana practice to physical health are far reaching. The improvement of respiratory function, the increase of muscle flexibility and joint mobility are just a few. Depending though on the style of yoga one practices she may be getting more or less of a cardiovascular workout. Cold exposure is a unique way to strengthen one’s cardiovascular system.
Our cardiovascular system is surrounded by epithelial muscles which facilitate the circulation of the blood. At low temperatures the epithelial muscles surrounding the veins and arteries of our extremities constrict – preserving the blood and the nutrients carried in it for the more vital organs in the trunk and the head. When the body returns to higher temperatures the epithelial muscles in our extremities dilate again allowing for the blood to flow freely there. In a similar way that our biceps get stronger as they contract during chaturangas our cardiovascular system can get stronger through cold exposure.
Good circulation means no athletes foot, no cold extremities, better cognitive function, ability to heal/recover faster and perform better in sports.
The list above is not exhaustive of the benefits one can get from cold exposure; controlling pain perception , generation of Brown Far , strengthening of the immune system , improved tolerance to cold  are also good reasons for modern yogis and yoginis to practice cold exposure.
Future workshops are listed here.
- Muzik, O., Reilly, K. T., & Diwadkar, V. A. (2018). “Brain over body”–A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure. NeuroImage, 172, 632-641.
- Kanosue, K., Sadato, N., Okada, T., Yoda, T., Nakai, S., Yoshida, K., … & Kobayashi, K. (2002). Brain activation during whole body cooling in humans studied with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Neuroscience letters, 329(2), 157-160.
- van der Lans, A. A., Hoeks, J., Brans, B., Vijgen, G. H., Visser, M. G., Vosselman, M. J., … & Schrauwen, P. (2013). Cold acclimation recruits human brown fat and increases nonshivering thermogenesis. The Journal of clinical investigation, 123(8), 3395-3403.
- Buijze, G. A., Sierevelt, I. N., van der Heijden, B. C., Dijkgraaf, M. G., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. (2016). The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PloS one, 11(9), e0161749.
- Vosselman, M. J., Vijgen, G. H., Kingma, B. R., Brans, B., & van Marken Lichtenbelt, W. D. (2014). Frequent extreme cold exposure and brown fat and cold-induced thermogenesis: a study in a monozygotic twin. PloS one, 9(7), e101653.