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Cold sweat - Tibetan yoga, Wim Hof and wild swimming

Jumping into a freezing lake (in winter or summer it doesn't make much difference if you live in the UK!) can be counterintuitively refreshing, energising, even addictive! There's a resurgent movement to do this these days. It's now called 'wild swimming', or when I was a lad it was just 'swimming' (but done opportunistically outdoors). There is a wealth of scientific evidence now backing claims by the likes of Ice-guru Wim Hof as to long-lasting health benefits of cold exposure training. This also hails back to ancient Tibetan yogic practices, and a Masters thesis I wrote back in the dawn of time about all of this! Curious? Fancy a dip??!

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“As the Wim Hof method asserts (along with other sources emerging on the back of its popularity), we have latent capacity to thrive, and enhance our health, when exposed to environmental stresses such as exposure to extreme cold. Our physiology adapts to the shock that at one time was a consistent feature of daily life but to which now we are insulated in our climate-controlled surroundings. We try not to disrupt our homeostasis at all costs. But a little disruption can help our systems unlock potential, adapt and grow stronger for it. "

Getting cold feet!

Ask most people if they’d like to jump in an icy lake and they’d say “not on your nelly” or thereabouts. Likely invoking stronger turn of phrase to reinforce their reluctance.

As a rule we really really don’t like being cold. And wet.

Yet there is a surgence of interest these days in the therapeutic benefits of doing just that. Wim Hof, the idiosyncratic Dutchman, has been partially ‘blamed’ for this. Along with a slew of scientific reasoning extolling the health benefits and physiological adaptations that associate with bouts of cold water immersion.

I came across a paper recently (from 2013) which piqued my interest, given that my own thinking and research predated the findings by around 18 years. This paper talks about the effects of a type of Indo-Tibetan meditative yogic practice known as g-Tummo (see reference at end). As it happens, Wim Hof was very influenced by this practice early in his quest to be The Iceman and spread the word about cold exposure training as a panacea for body and mind optimisation.

As it also happens, I talked about this a lot in my Masters thesis back in 1995, being an advocate of Tibetan meditative traditions from an earlier age.

g-Tummo yoga, as we learn, is practiced by a fairly niche demographic in remote Tibetan provinces (though the authoritarian powers that be prefer to call this historic region ‘China’). It has its origins in Vajrayana Buddhism and Bon (the latter being a native Tibetan shamanistic folk religion predating Buddhism). In a nutshell, g-Tummo is a pragmatic, experiential rather than theoretic, tradition, with adepts required to perform isometric breathing exercises in conjunction with imagery visualisation in order to generate ‘inner heat’. Allegedly this means controlling the autonomic nervous system and raising core/peripheral body temperature. The culmination of this process sees graduates expected to walk or sit outside more or less naked in very cold Himalayan surroundings wrapped in wet towels, and to dry said towels using this method of producing heat from within.

I studied the basis for this back in my foundational research days, already conversant with various meditative and yogic traditions, along with various Oriental and western philosophies. All this subserving my own quest to transcend mind and body using whatever pragmatic or indeed mystical techniques were at my disposal.

I have always been drawn to the cold. I would throw myself with wild abandon into cold water gleefully from a young age. I have loved to range into the Arctic regions of the world, mesmerised by the beauty and starkness of icy landscapes, above and below frigid waters in the far north. Some of my most formative experiences have been in remote places testing my character and ability to withstand extreme cold (I still have some of the scars to prove it...). There really is nothing quite like camping in near minus 30 degrees temperatures to test one's mettle.

I suppose I practiced my own version of g-Tummo when I was a teenager pursuing my mystical path, even then fascinated by the interplay of outer environment with the inner world of the mind. Growing up in the north-east of England I was accustomed to biting winds and cold winters. I remember I would walk to school feeling the cold but using a successful strategy to overcome that sensation: vividly imagining that I was still wrapped in my thick duvet. It really seemed to work.

I would sit meditating in next to nothing prior to sleeping, always with the bedroom window open. I would train similarly bare-footed and bare-skinned in a cold concrete garage even in the depths of winter, generating plenty steam from my exertions (practising martial arts).

As my scientific leanings became consolidated at university I was driven to understand what are the psycho-physiological mechanisms that can enable one to overcome environmental extremes, particularly in the contexts experienced by mountaineers or in those operating in cold water-based regions.

Many of my friends were required to undergo a right of passage participating in my psychology experiments involving having their feet placed in buckets of icy water for as long as they could ‘stand’. All this whilst performing meditative chanting (derived from the Tibetan Bon tradition).

Actually, the results were very promising. The strategy certainly seemed to prolong tolerance compared to other non-chanting control conditions.

My rationale back then, and which formed a firm basis for my continuing research 25 years later, was concerned with how the brain’s executive functions (higher cognitive processes) govern mental and physiological responses to environmental stress and situational demands. How we draw upon an evolutionary capacity to think strategically, and inhibit our baser responses to our surroundings, determines how we thrive in life. I introduced this idea in a previous blog (Don’t Stress) concerned with the stress response and what we can do about it to take back control over our behaviour and attitude in order to prevail against adversity.

As the Wim Hof method asserts (along with other sources emerging on the back of its popularity), we have latent capacity to thrive, and enhance our health, when exposed to environmental stresses such as exposure to extreme cold. Our physiology adapts to the shock that at one time was a consistent feature of daily life but to which now we are insulated in our climate-controlled surroundings. We try not to disrupt our homeostasis at all costs. But a little disruption can help our systems unlock potential, adapt and grow stronger for it.

Which is largely why ‘wild swimming’ can be deemed good for you. Aside from the fact it can leave you tingling all over, feeling refreshed and energised!

The paper I have mentioned (and which corroborates much of what I was proposing much earlier) details how g-Tummo practices elicit differentiated brain states, with characteristics of increased brain activity associated with executive processes. The practice correlates with increased attentional focus, and inhibition of perceptual processing of external stimuli. The mind tunes into the visualised internal fire that the practice seeks to generate, whilst tuning out the source of external environmental stress. At the same time there is some evidence of core body temperature increases which help offset the effect of exposure to cold.

The CognitvExplorer approach is very much about becoming attuned to the potential to train and enhance executive functions, using awareness of factors that influence our attentional focus. At the same time this involves regulating the emotional responses that are evoked by physiological disruption of homeostasis in situations that are stressful – particularly from an environmental point of view. The cold is of particular interest in this given the wealth of information that seems to corroborate benefits of cold exposure in terms of adaptive mechanisms that can potentially confer lasting health advantages.

It's why I have daily cold showers, occasional cold baths, and from time to time, jump in cold lakes!

There is nothing particularly mystical about any of this, it just requires awareness and a little discipline. That is: awareness of one’s interoceptive processes - I.e. being in tune with the bodily signals that give rise to more elaborated emotional responses. Awareness that we can reframe the context or interpretation of these signals – seeing the situation as engaging, challenging, not aversive and threatening. Awareness that we can choose to respond this way or that, and therefore can take more control of the situations we find ourselves. And of course, awareness of our breathing – keeping this slower and deeper in order to activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic system and instil calmness in our being. This is the ‘brake’ to slow things down, allowing us to relax and digest things (literally) in a calm fashion. As opposed to the sympathetic system which provokes the flight-fight (and over-stressed) state we might otherwise find ourselves in as we react to circumstance. Indeed, the exhalation in our breathing loop activates the parasympathetic system whilst the sympathetic system is activated when we inhale. The two work together (setting the tempo of heart rate variability), but as a rule, slower deeper breathing with longer exhalations give us enhanced capacity for parasympathetic control to counteract sympathetic dominance inevitably associated with faster shallower breaths.

So breathe more slowly and deeply to exert greater control over your responses. Particularly if you are stressed, such as when exposed to cold!

Awareness is one thing, but to elevate this beyond a one-off novel insight, you need some discipline to ensure you keep practising the techniques that develop a skill to become more in control over your responses...

This isn’t necessarily complex, despite the technical knowledge that goes into understanding what is going on with mind and body when confronted with stress. Indeed, as my original research contended, what we are trying to do is use simple strategies that do not further stress the brain, as it is already dealing with high situational demands when exposed to the cold. This was another reason why I believed meditative chanting to be a useful strategy. As opposed to, say performing a mathematical calculation as a means to distract from the source of stress. If we place too much demand on the executive functions, we risk overwhelming a brain that has to choose how to spend its resources: performing the cognitive task, OR dealing with the signals that are screaming that the body needs to be elsewhere as its really cold down here!!! A tendency to fluctuate back and forth attentionally will likely ensue which ultimately leaves the mind unfocused and more likely to say ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’ and bail out...But to occupy the executive centres with a more simple task that aligns with reframing the situation using a pragmatic approach seems to help as an adaptive strategy.

It all boils down to a single syllable: OM.

What could be simpler than that!

Gallagher, D. (1995). Cognitive-Induced Analgesia - Attentional Processes and Meditative Chanting. MSc Thesis, Lancaster University

Kozhevnikov M, Elliott J, Shephard J, Gramann K (2013) Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality. PLOS ONE 8(3): e58244.

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