To say that I feel incredibly chill upon exiting the sauna, seems contradictory, particularly when after a cleansing shower – and another cup of de-stress tea, this one savoured in front of the fireplace of the tea room – I’m heading to the bathhouse proper, where four tubs filled with transparent icy water await.
Jef is going to guide me through my first plunge. This begins with me standing on a wooden platform, overlooking the ice bath, while he leads me through some breathwork. Deep inhale for four long beats. Hold. Deep exhale for five long beats. Hold. Repeat.
After a couple of minutes, Jef sets the timer at the head of the bathtub and counts down five seconds. At zero, I step into the calm water, at first feeling nothing. Then everything.
Jef had warned me that when you set foot in an ice bath, during the first 10 seconds, your nervous system automatically kicks into fight or flight mode.
Instead of taking flight, I’m staying put by breathing for all I’m worth.
In truth, I feel as if I’ve become my breath.
I also feel amazingly calm inside, this despite the fact that I am indeed experiencing the sensation of being attacked by thousands of little stabbing points of pain. Strangely, however, it’s not a pain that “hurts.”
Jef is beating a sound bowl and the gongs reverberate with my breath.
“Thirty seconds,” he announces.
Thirty seconds is when the benefits of the cold begin to kick in as your stressed body activates hormonal responses. Such benefits include reduced inflammation and muscle soreness, improved circulation and a strengthened immune system. Cognitive performance gets a boost, as do energy levels.
“One minute,” says Jef, announcing the halfway mark.
Long inhales. Long exhales. The breath is all that matters. It feels like an eternity. It feels outside of time.
“Two minutes,” Jef calls, his voice triumphant.
I stand up and step out. My legs, initially unsure, are vibrating with a million tiny pinpricks. But I feel so alive and cleansed, not to mention filled with “I did it!” braggadocio. According to research, extreme cold nearly triples normal levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which are serious mood boosters. Aside from elated, I feel purified, maybe a little bit reborn. I feel so good that I maybe want to cry.