How Taking Shockingly Cold Showers Helps Steamroll My Anxiety
Level-up your meditations with Philly’s latest trend: breathing your way through bone-chilling water.
The other day, I reached into my shower and turned the knob all the way to cold. I inhaled and gingerly stepped into the biting, freezing water. My body immediately started to rebel — my breath quickened, and my whole system shuddered in a reflexive panic. I counted the seconds in my head, trying to stay in this uncomfortable state for as long as I could manage. Eventually I stepped out, shaking but proud: 30 seconds. That was 10 seconds longer than I’d lasted just two days before, and way longer than the time I tried to stand barefoot in the snow (do not recommend!).
I wasn’t freezing my ass off just for kicks. I was dabbling in Wim Hof, an on-the-rise meditation and breathing technique that’s paired with cold exposure. The idea behind the practice is that shocking our systems and learning to breathe through the pain builds mental and emotional resilience — something I could use a lot more of right now.
Just before my arctic shower, I attended an online Wim Hof session hosted by Ignite Sadhana, a wellness organization founded by local yoga teachers Jason Muscavage and Peter Reyes. (They also offer workshops around the region and breath-and-ice classes at Mind Over Matter yoga studio in Old City.) I worked through a 35-minute cycle of rapid breathing, breath-holding and release, then closed my laptop, stripped down, and stepped into my self-made bathroom igloo.
My sessions are really Wim Hof-lite — experienced practitioners regularly spend two minutes in a 32-degree ice bath or take a dip in a near-freezing lake. “Your brain is instantly saying, ‘What the hell are you doing in this cold? Get out of here; you’re going to die!’” explains Muscavage. “But you try to come back to your breath. Eventually, your body relaxes, and you realize you’re fine.”
Really, all of this is just another form of increasingly popular cold therapies. Cryotherapy tanks and modern bathhouses have been popping up in Philly for years, while ice-filled tubs continue to be go-to recovery aids for athletes. The iteration I’m currently practicing was invented by a Dutch extreme athlete named, you guessed it, Wim Hof, whose very average exploits include climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts. His breathing/cold therapy combo has gained fame thanks to devotees who include Gwyneth Paltrow, Jim Carrey and Liam Hemsworth.
Despite having spent half a minute nearly blacking out, I can’t deny that the cold shock left me feeling instantly energized, not unlike the push-the-body-to-the-limits adrenaline rush I’ve felt while running marathons — no training (or even leaving the house) required. Other practitioners love the way the intensity of the rapid-breathing meditation steamrolls anxiety — and provides new tools to manage it. “It’s that feeling of being uncomfortable, wanting to get to comfort right away, then realizing you can get through it,” says Muscavage. “You have a lot more control over your body than you think.”
I don’t know if dousing myself in cold water will be a regular practice in my future. But I have to say, in these stressful times, it didn’t hurt to put everything on ice for a minute.
Published as “Ice, Ice, Baby” in the April 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.