Scientific and public support for cold exposure’s therapeutic attributes has been gaining traction over the past few years. Several forms of cold exposure therapy exist, with cryotherapy, cold water swimming and cold water immersion therapy being amongst the favourites.
Though mostly made famous and propounded by a Dutchman, Wim Hof, cold therapy actually has a long tradition in South East Asian yogic communities. It’s unsurprising: the mindfulness, willpower and curative health benefits of each are deeply complimentary to the other.
For those wanting to follow a modern yogic lifestyle, reintroducing this ancient form of therapy and using it to augment your practice could be just what you’re looking for.
Cold therapy boosts the immune system, strengthens willpower, and brings about a host of additional benefits to the practitioner, making it a good bedfellow for yoga practice.
Therapies like cold water immersion make use of a combination of the complete immersion of the body in (cold water in cold immersion therapy- between 2°C (35.6°F) and 10°C (50°F) – as the name suggests) often in conjunction with controlled hyperventilation, as with the Wim Hof Method. Most forms will use some variant of traditional breathing exercises to accustom the body to being comfortable and relaxed in the cold.
Though, like yoga, cold immersion therapy has a long, illustrious history, just like yoga, its claims are only just beginning to be borne out by scientific data. Since its explosion into the mainstream a few years ago, research has started to look into its many health, fitness and wellness benefits.
Many of the aims of cold water immersion, and many of the benefits to be gained from it, go hand in hand with yoga- either complementing them, replicating them, or augmenting them.
Though there are many benefits to cold water immersion, there are a few in particular that should be of interest to any modern yogi.
Cold water immersion and yoga
Cold water immersion improves cardiovascular function and circulation
Cold water immersion stimulates the circulatory and cardiovascular systems, strengthening both.
The cardiovascular system is surrounded by epithelial muscles. These facilitate blood circulation, moving blood through our veins and arteries to muscles and organs.
These epithelial muscles surrounding the veins and arteries in our extremities constrict at low temperatures. Evolutionarily, this is to preserve nutrient rich blood for the vital organs in the torso and head.
Artificially eliciting this contraction through cold water immersion acts as something of a workout for the epithelial muscles, in the same way that maintaining warrior two asana works the quads and glutes or holding a plank works the core, arms and shoulders. The epithelial muscles get stronger as a result, which leads to greater circulation over time.
Greater circulation means more oxygen and nutrient rich blood getting to your muscles. During training, this will mean more energy. Afterwards, it will mean speedier recovery. Overall in your life, it will mean boosted energy levels and a greater sense of wellness.
Cold immersion builds towards improved meditation practice
There are a few cognitive, mental and emotional benefits to be gained from cold immersion therapy.
To begin cold immersion therapy means literally taking the plunge- submerging yourself in cold water and keeping yourself there. The willpower needed to do this, and the boosted willpower that comes from doing this, is quite profound. You will build up mental fortitude, which is a cornerstone of the yogic mindset.
You will do so in quite a non-aggressive way. Long-term practitioners of cold immersion therapy report a stillness of mind during practice, with a post-practice sense of euphoria (most notable in cold swimmers). This can be likened very realistically to yoga practice and meditation- the skills needed and developed, and the mindsets elicited, are eminently comparable.
Long term practitioners like Wim Hof are actually able to maintain reduced insular cortex activity during cold exposure. The insular cortex is engaged in regulation of emotional attachment, especially with regards external stimuli and mindfulness.
Activity in the insular cortex has perhaps unsurprisingly been linked with meditation and emotional control. Being able to train insular cortex response and bring it under control will therefore be of profound benefit to meditation practitioners.
As meditation is one of the eight limbs of yoga- and as stillness, emotional control, willpower and control over response to external stimuli are key to yoga practice- the benefits of using cold immersion therapy to aid in insular cortex control are self-evident. In this regard, cold immersion therapy will work as the perfect augmentation to yoga practice.
Add this to the improved flow of oxygen rich blood to the brain that comes with regular practice and you will find harmony and happiness will be yours.
Cold exposure helps to overcome fears
Both yoga and cold immersion therapy are demanding over a number of systems, including the musculoskeletal system, circulation, the adrenal glands, and the metabolism and healthy metabolic function.
These things can all instil a sense of fear as they are worked. Whether it is the fear of going into a new pose, pushing yourself to a new standard, or allowing your body to use the energy it needs, working out in such a comprehensive manner as yoga requires can be a challenge- as can taking part in cold water immersion therapy.
Cold immersion therapy elicits our fight or flight response in the amygdala (a small, almond shaped part of the brain- amygdala being Greek for ‘almond’). This activates the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, which in turn switches on the body’s stress responses.
Regularly taking part in cold immersion therapy, and thus regularly provoking this response, can adapt our bodies to fear and stress. It will do so in a controlled environment (in this case, in a Cryotubs ice therapy bath as part of a cold water immersion practice). This will help us to prepare our minds and bodies for situations that are out of our control, or to allow us to bring a sense of control to otherwise stressful events.
This will both aid yoga practice (we have all felt out of control during asana practice, surely?) and work in concert with yoga’s aims, a core use of which is to help us master ourselves and build our own willpower towards a sense of comfort, peace and harmony.