New York City winters are notorious. Temperatures drop below freezing and Con Edison, the company whose steam pipes keep some of the city’s most iconic buildings warm, generates as much as eight million pounds of steam each hour to help maintain manageable building temperatures and heat up water.
In January water left in a plastic tub outside takes just a few hours to form a crust of ice an inch thick and that crust gets thicker each day and will not melt until March. Admittedly it’s not every day that you get to see a man out in winter using a hammer to break that ice with the specific intent to step inside the tub but that’s exactly what Errol Doebler, a former Navy SEAL who coaches corporate execs on leadership skills, is doing. It’s early morning, there’s snow on the ground and he’s barefoot and dressed in swimming trunks. There’s concentration on his face as he hammers at the ice, breaking it into tiny chunks to reveal the sub-zero water underneath. There is a sense of excitement too.
Hydrotherapy the use of water to treat the various systems of the body and induce beneficial physiological changes is a really old practice. Legend has it that Spartan warriors had to stand under the running water of a cold mountain spring, vying each other for who could withstand it longest. And as adults, they went about their homeland, in winter, dressed in sandals and covered by a thin cape which would be their only protection from the cold as they lay to sleep, on the ground, at night.
In 17th century Japan, samurai warriors would practice a ritual purification called Misogi that required them to immerse themselves in freezing cold water or stand under an ice-cold mountain spring.
The human body has a core temperature of 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit). A ten degree drop may be enough to set off hypothermia that messes with the body’s liver, heart and brain and makes it impossible for the body to keep itself warm. Death can occur at any time the body reaches 27 – 22 degrees Celsius (80 – 71 Fahrenheit) but it’s the affect cold has on cognitive functions that’s most revealing. Paradoxical undressing (a misreading of extreme cold as extreme heat and the taking off of clothes) and terminal burrowing behavior, the instinct to dig and huddle under some cover, are both evidence of brain stem heuristics that occur when the brain is convinced the body is about to die.
In British literature swimming in icy-cold seas and plunging in cold water pools goes as back as the Romans who invaded the mainland and the Nordic traditions left by the Viking raiders who came after them. Our love affair with ice-cold baths is not restricted to hardy warrior types. The Victorians valued the tradition and presented it as a cure for mental illness, amongst other things.
In our days a Dutch, extreme athlete, by the name of Wim Hof has made headlines globally thanks to his ability to withstand extreme temperatures. A feat he can teach others in just a few days:
The corpus of literature, the anecdotal evidence and the cold-water devotees throughout the ages suggest that the moment a warm body hits a body of cold water something takes place that results in physiological and neurochemical changes that rewire the reward center in the brain. What happens then reveals a lot about the way the body fits into the world and the brain interprets reality.
Back in present day New York however Errol, who is a Wim Hof student learning to be an instructor, is getting ready to take the plunge. He’s finished breaking the thick ice covering his makeshift bathtub in the garden outside his house and he is preparing himself to dive in.
“I get excited when I decide it's time for an ice bath," he says. “Then the excitement turns into some mild stress. The excitement comes from the knowledge of how I will feel when I settle in to the bath and how I will feel after I get out, which is euphoric. There is also some excitement from the knowledge of the many long term health benefits derived from ice baths; mental, emotional, and physiological. Keeping these long term benefits in mind is especially helpful on days when it is a little more difficult to get in the proper mindset. Depending on how much time I have, I will do anywhere from 1-3 rounds of deep Wim Hof breathing to get my mind in a place of calm and full awareness of my emotions and feelings, which come to the surface quickly the closer I get to stepping into the bath. The stress is a natural flight or fight stress which I work to recognize and embrace, mostly because it is unavoidable. Finally, I acknowledge the courage factor, especially when I'm procrastinating stepping into the bath. No matter how much prep I do there is still that moment of truth when you have to decide to get in. The more I practice this method the more I attempt to get in touch with the feelings and emotions that inevitably come over you prior to entering.”
Modern science has been looking at the Wim Hof method and its claims and there is a scientific report on the physiological changes that Wim Hof experiences. Before him, Stanford scientists investigated Buddhist monks living high up in the Himalayas who claimed they could elevate the temperature of specific body parts using nothing more than the power of concentration.
Doing The Impossible
Such things were considered impossible, the purview of charlatans and science fiction devotees. University of Harvard researchers who study the effects of meditation showed that Buddhist monks can indeed achieve such states of control over their autonomic nervous systems and proved Muhammad Ali who’s said that “impossible is an opinion”, right.
The physiological effects of taking an icy bath and training yourself to overcome the limitations imposed by it are being documented. Mental control over such considerations as cold, discomfort and the willpower required to motivate yourself to do something that will physically, mentally and psychologically discomfit you is found at the all-encompassing junction at which the body meets the mind.
Acute stress activates endocrine pathways that assist in our ability to adapt to environmental stimuli. When all is said and done we are still biological entities embedded in our particular environment and subject to a massive amount of information bombardment gathered through our senses. What happens inside our heads then leads to the mind which has thoughts and ideas that are the direct result of all this information processing. This is a gross simplification of something way more complex that takes into account deep breathing techniques, the conscious control of O2 intake and CO2 exhaling, posture, muscular control, focus and awareness and mindfulness in the way that sensory input is prioritized, acknowledged and processed.
Practitioners of Tummo a form of Tantric meditation that’s been scientifically studied for the cognitive adaptations it brings about will be familiar with all of this, but for most of us in the west this is novel ground. Astounding claims and extravagant promises.
Errol is living proof of the efficacy of the technique when it comes to withstanding the sensation of cold: “I've not yet measured the temp of the water. However, we had a particularly rough winter so I'll share what the majority of my ice baths looked like. For about a one month stretch the temperatures were in the single digits (degrees Fahrenheit). I left my tub outside filled with water all winter. I would always have to take a hammer, or in a couple of instances a sledge hammer, and break the ice so I could take a bath. The ice would typically be one-two inches thick. I would go out and break it every morning. So, in short, single digits outside, breaking the ice, getting in.”
The longest he’s been able to last in that water to date has been 10 minutes. “When I first started it was a test for me...an ego test I'm embarrassed to admit.” This is the Navy SEAL in him speaking. “But as I got deeper into the Wim Hof Method the ego part of it faded (same with breath holds during breathing exercises). It became, and is now, a place to get centered under extreme circumstances. If it takes me one minute to get centered and feel great in the bath, I'm done. If it takes a little longer then I'll stay in a little longer. Once I transitioned from ego to spirituality I stopped caring about how long I'm in.”
His words reveal the see-saw between the insubstantial qualities we call ego and courage and the very real effect they have on our perception, belief and actions which are then reflected large in every decision we make. “If ego is at the center of getting into the ice bath, meaning only a focus on how long you stay in, it will become harder and harder to get into the bath and eventually you will stop. I had to transition from ego to purpose...real purpose. My purpose evolved to the meditative and emotional awareness benefits, along with other physiological factors. Courage is a constant. Every single time I step into an ice bath or cold shower there is still the moment you have to decide to do it. It's something your body is screaming at you not to do! I believe this regular test of courage can be contagious for your entire life. It can be used as a moment to reflect back on with regularity as perhaps you are trying to make positive changes in your life that require courage. So, in short, if you are big on ego or short on courage, you will struggle to do cold exposure with consistency.”
As a future Wim Hof instructor Errol is a man fully aware of the space he occupies at the junction where professional aspirations meet personal beliefs and become a seamless reality: “Wim Hof is re-writing what we know about science and what the body is capable of. The ability to control our auto-immune system, which he and his students have proven to be able to do in controlled scientific experiments. The mountains of anecdotal evidence suggesting a slowing of the effects of such diseases as Parkinson's and auto immune diseases (and it appears some evidence is suggesting Parkinson's may be an auto immune disease), allowing a better quality of life for those inflicted while significantly (in some cases entirely) reducing the need for pharmaceuticals. A non-drug induced method for effectively battling depression and PTSD. The ability to show that we have so much more control over our mind and body that we ever believed. As a leadership consultant, if I can show people these things it will be much easier to convince them that they can control their behaviors, like a momentary outburst of emotion.”
Better Than Medication
The approach to dealing with discomfort, controlling emotions, managing thoughts, making better decisions and enjoying better outcomes is a philosophical as it is practical. In the west we look to our external environment to supply solutions for problems that are, essentially, internal.
As a result we rely on medicine and technology to manage every physical and mental challenge we encounter. While this has led to rapid advancement in both medicine and technology it has also glossed over inconsistencies which this approach cannot quite deal with and has, in some cases, resulted in over-reliance on ‘easy’ answers. We can’t sleep? We take sleeping pills. We need to get somewhere? We hop in the car, even if it’s just a kilometer or two away.
This creates a methodology that permeates an entire culture and as the world becomes flatter in context and more complicated in content the approach delivers fewer and fewer benefits. The counterintuitive benefits of stepping from a comfortable, heated, modern house into the cold back yard, half-naked, and then diving into sub-freezing water force us to challenge these assumptions. It’s an approach that can lead to an inner awakening from which others things arise:
“[I hope] That they will see what I see; a life changing method that costs nothing,” says Errol. “My hope is they will find one thing to latch on to as they first try it because they will eventually see all the benefits. Once they see all the benefits they can begin spreading the word. They may initially like the challenge of the ice bath, fine. But I think they will begin to see the spiritual side after some time as opposed to the ego centered or competitive aspect of the ice bath. Or, they love the meditative aspect. Great, then they will begin to see the science and the physiological benefits. And vice versa, someone who loves the science will find the spirituality. I hope those who try the Wim Hof Method will see that we are in so much more control of everything that happens to us then we ever thought. Medication for use in only the most extreme circumstances! What a vision! That then begs the question: what is so extreme that we need medication? I think as the scientific and anecdotal evidence grows we are going to find that there are not many things that are so extreme we need medication.”