I have always had a fascination for cold showers, because I thought it to be the natural way for us to bath. It would be ridiculous to suppose that our species had access to warm water before fire was discovered. Even with the technological prowess, imagine how many civilizations before ours would have even had mass access to water heating or hot water springs. As a rule, most of our ancestors showered regularly (if they were lucky) in the cold water a lake or river near to them offered.
As you can observe in nature, most of the animal kingdom takes pleasure in lavishing the cold water directly from rivers and streams for cleaning themselves throughout the year. It is natural to suppose then that humans, doubtlessly the most advanced species on the planet, must have certainly been prepared by evolution to deal with cold water on their skin. (Examples of such adaptation are the Mammalian diving reflex and Cutaneous vasoconstriction.) And if there’s any truth to the ice-age theories, early humans and primates (with less than ideal clothing and shelter) must have routinely been exposed to below freezing temperatures for a long time during their evolution.
That leaves modern proponents of hormesis with an interesting question, is there more benefit to (really) cold showers than mere stimulation? It seems plausible because we have evolved through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution where our bodies were in contact with very cold water and air. Indeed, our bodies have adapted to many other environmental stimuli and eventually reaped benefits out of them. The theories of evolutionary biology show that we have adapted to use stressful stimuli like intense physical activity and even starvation to our advantage in survival.
If this is the case, why does the average modern man shiver at the thought of surviving a winter night outside? Why are we too scared to step into a cold shower? Why do we so crave the comfort of warm water?
Enter the Iceman
While science may not have definite answers to these questions yet, a 54-year-old Dutch man who broke 20 world records certainly has. Popularized throughout the world as The Iceman, Wim Hof is an ordinary man with an extraordinary ability — to withstand the lower extremes of temperature with nothing but his bare skin. Forget frostbite, Wim enjoys being immersed in ice for hours together infront of popeyed spectators. Wim also has the uncanny ability to run a half-marathon barefooted in a -20C (-4F) weather above the polar circle (also wearing only shorts). When you ask Hof or the scientists who studied him whether he is a genetic freak or has a different physiology than the rest of us, the answer you receive is a definite “NO!”
Wim Hof himself states that anybody can be like him with training; and conducts workshops around Europe where he trains people to become icemen and icewomen. Wim is not just an iceman but also an experienced rockclimber who conquered his fears by executing many difficult climbs without any gear. He explains why we need to face the cold in a natural way:
“To keep our bodies strong, we need to train ourselves in nature. The cold is a powerful voice with a wise lesson. With the right adaptation we can bring back control over the internal workings of our body. It helps us be more alert and reactive to any negative disturbances in our body.”
Wim says in his workshops, “Practicing gradual exposure can lengthen the amount of time you are able to stay in the cold.”
However, the real treat is when you understand the Iceman, who is also an extraordinary philosopher, through his lectures and books. This man is fighting a cause, and it is to conquer disease by mastering our bodies and minds. Wim believes that “if we can go deep enough into our minds to influence the autonomic nervous system, as well as the immune system, we can prevent diseases from harming our body.”
Wim Hof explains the way our body can be trained to withstand both cold and disease:
“The cardiovascular system is made up of muscles that we can train. By exposing them to natural stimuli, such as the cold, we can make the muscles stronger. This is easy as taking a 5-minute cold shower after a warm one.”
“With cold exposure, the muscles in the arteries are trained. The opening and closing of the muscular walls are like lifting weights at the gym. With training, it builds up strength.”
“With each cold shower, the body improves immensely. The onset of natural adaptation happens rather quickly. Once the muscles in the arteries are strong enough, you will be ready to go on to the next phase.”
Indeed, Wim’s pulse is an exemplary 39 times a minute, a figure that outstrips even the world’s most well-trained athletes.
The essence of Wim’s extraordinary technique of taking control of the autonomic nervous system and the immune system starts with mastering the body’s response to cold.
“In the next phase a psychological aspect comes in. Here, you don’t want to take a warm shower before turning on the cold. Try stepping directly into a cold shower. This takes a lot more determination. The aim of this exercise is to be able to close your veins by sheer will.”
Wim Hof is not just a theorizer however; he demonstrated his mastery over immunity by getting away with just a headache in the Endotoxin experiment, which would normally induce a host of unpalatable symptoms in a young and perfectly healthy person.
Wim, a nature lover, also practices and teaches breathing exercises to supplement the nervous system’s ability to conquer cold. He is also a regular practitioner of meditation, which has helped him master his mind to the point of confronting his worst fears.
The true answer to fear
Modern science recognizes that all disease starts in the brain (neurochemically), as it is the seat of the nervous system that controls the body. A healthy brain reflects itself through a healthy body, which is quick to adapt to any challenge nature presents to it. However, the most dreadly disease that our brains frequently get infected with, owing to our separation from nature, is to escape fear by means of comfort.
If you understand by now why we crave the comfort of a warm bath, you would be quick to realize the impact fear has throughout our lives. We have become overly lazy and constantly try to live in a comfort zone that we work hard to create throughout our lives — avoiding confrontation with the truth or the raw elements of nature. While nature is the only teacher we have, we avoid her like the plague, wary of facing our true fears. When it comes to learning something new or adapting to a difficult situation, we hate being the first to answer the difficult questions, and we learn to quiet our inner child when it’s too curious. Instead of using our fears to discover the answers, we learned to avoid the questions themselves. Why? Because we think the easiest way to survive is escapism.
Wim shows us just one way to end the consequences of this escapism so ingrained in modern culture — by going back to nature to master ourselves. Whether it’s meditation, or cold showers, or even rock climbing, you start by confronting your fears head-on, rather than escape them through creative means.
(Julien Smith also offers the remedy to this modern disease in “The Flinch.”)
Have they really died from cold?
Imagine how many lives could have been saved from the danger of hypothermia, if humans were properly educated and trained to adapt to the cold, before being exposed to it in the wild. Sometimes the limiting beliefs that a culture of escapism instills in us can cost lives.
Instead of misteaching our children to fear the cold as a merciless demon and hide from it till they face a helpless situation, why don’t we teach them how to conquer it, to develop invincible spirits and lead healthier lives?
While I don’t expect you to jump into an ice-bath right away, my sincere advice to you is to start conquering your mind and body by gradually adapting to the cold. Just as a weightlifter exercises his/her muscles to their limits to grow bigger and stronger, you must exercise your mind and willpower to face the challenges of life better. For anyone starting on the conquest of cold and fear, I highly recommend the book “Becoming the Iceman – Pushing Past Perceived Limits” by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.