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Yogis and Cold exposure

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” [1].  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” [2]. 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.

 

Conclusion

The list above is not exhaustive of the benefits one can get from cold exposure; controlling pain perception [2], generation of Brown Far [3], strengthening of the immune system [4], improved tolerance to cold [5] are also good reasons for modern yogis and yoginis to practice cold exposure.

 

Future workshops are listed here.

 

References:

  1. Muzik, O., Reilly, K. T., & Diwadkar, V. A. (2018). “Brain over body”–A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure. NeuroImage172, 632-641.
  2. 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 letters329(2), 157-160.
  3. 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 investigation123(8), 3395-3403.
  4. 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 one11(9), e0161749.
  5. 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 one9(7), e101653.

5 things I learnt from Wim Hof

It’s not every day that you meet a 20 times Guinness record holder. When you come to meet him though [ & you train under his supervision in the method he developed], the chances are you will get some insights. Wim Hof (the “iceman”) is a amazing person – like we all are. However there are 2 good reasons why you will hear this expression about Wim all the time:
i. he has stripped himself off what he calls: “the programming”. He doesn’t dress his true self with a politically correct behaviour (i.e. he encourages people to breath, breath deep – not caring which hole the air comes in) neither takes himself seriously.

 


 

ii. he didn’t hold back in life. He “went deep”. I cannot pay justice to the importance of this comment but basically what it means is he went where he didn’t feel comfortable.

 

1. Nature is the teacher

Nowadays, science is, unfortunately in my opinion, perceived as the only source of truth. Science started as an attempt for humans to systematically understand nature.

“Nature is the teacher.” ~ Wim Hof

 

science-then-now

 

He encourages students to go to nature and learn everything he knows.

“Nature is merciless but righteousness” ~ Wim Hof

 

2. Train your body to adapt not tolerate

Up until recently cold exposure was for me similar to weight training. I lift weights → I get stronger → I can carry heavier bags from the supermarket [ i.e. I expose myself to cold → I become more tolerable to cold → I am less likely to get sick in the winter (or something among these lines anyway) ]. While partly true there is a 2nd degree of benefits more significant.

We can moderate our body temperature whether we are exposed to cold or not. Cold offers feedback but the environmental temperature should not determine our body temperature. The day prior to the ascend of mount Snezka Wim told us: It will not be very low tomorrow* but you should go high.

* meaning the temperature will not be very low

 

3. Zorba the Buddha

Osho Rajneesh (1931-1990) spoke about how life should be a meditative practice, which should be equally enjoyed at the same time. Zorba the greek (according to Osho) is the foundation and Buddha is the palace, on top of the foundation.

“If everything goes according to me, every man will die as Zorba the Buddha. Between the Greek and the Buddha there is not much distance, but first you must be the Greek.” ~ Osho

Wim is such a model. The word joy is not foreign to him, yet every breathing practice and exposure to cold is an opportunity to go into meditation.

 


 

 

4. The body’s calling, pick up the phone

Have you heard the phrase holistic approach? Well I do all the time and I have become more allergic to it than dracula is to garlic. The reason is that while in principle the idea is good, it has become a marketing hashtag for pre-prescribed (usually expensive) protocols.

What’s Wim approach then: He gives you 3 basic tools (breathing, cold exposure, focus), encourages you to practice regularly and focus on the problem at hand. If you now think that’s one size fits all approach, I encourage you to go try some visits to a local cold lake or some deep breathing sessions. You will only go as far as you can. And why I am so confident about that?

These approaches are engaging. They are on the opposite end of the spectrum where drugs, vitamin supplements or massage treatments will deal with the problem without your participation.

 

change

 

5. Be humble to be great

Wim is a warm hearted man prior to be an iceman, in my eyes at least. I could list myriad examples I witnessed in 1 week which confirm that. Instead I would bring to your attention the reason WHY he does what he does: To empower people.

He is not competitive or tries to be an illusionist. In his own words:

“What I can do, everyone can do.” ~ Wim Hof

I remind you: 20 Guinness Records.

 

ps: Big part of the training was delivered by Kasper van der Muelen, a brilliant coach.