Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2020 issue.
Spa stands for Solus per Aqua and means healing by water. On a recent trip to the alpine village of Brand, Austria, I was intrigued to learn more about the small glacier-fed pool accessible to visitors and the sign in German that explained the “Kneipping” process. Since my German is limited, thankfully the other people there guided me through it: “Come on, walk slowly through this ice-cold water, lifting your feet out of the water with each step! Twice around the circle!”
As I grimaced my way out of the uber cold bath, they explained I had to walk barefoot on each surface until I reached a wood bench by the fire pit. Stones, cedar chips, grass and even glass were part of this outdoor circuit, so I obliged, enjoying a different yoga pose on each for grounding benefits. This rather “cool” experience led me to search for who was this Sebastian Kneipp, touted as the founder of naturopathic medicine that lived from 1821 to 1897.
There are many published health studies on the “Kneipp Cure” form of hydrotherapy. Kneipp was a Bavarian priest. Revered for hot and cold water therapeutic uses, his approach actually included five tenets: hydrotherapy, phytotherapy (use of plants, warm bags with herbs, herbal teas and essential oils), overall exercise, nutrition and balance. He believed a healthy mind was the foundation of a healthy person. Kneipp’s book “My Water Cure” was published in 1886 with many subsequent editions and translated into many languages.
After his death, various organizations were created to teach his methods. In 1891, he founded an organization that promotes water healing to this day, and in America, Kneipp Societies were founded which later became the Naturopatic Society of America. Kneipp’s definitive “water contrast therapy” involves alternating between hot and cold baths. The heat draws blood to the surface, activating sweat glands and eliminating toxins, while the cold-water drives blood away from the surface and has an invigorating effect while closing up the skin’s pores. Alternating hot and cold water can reduce inflammation, may be used to improve circulation in the digestive area, and stimulate blood flow and lymphatic drainage. As the body aims to warm itself up in response to a cold plunge or shower, it boosts the metabolic response and activates the immune system in the process, strengthening the body’s natural defences. In addition to the physical health benefits, cold water is also believed to positively affect the mood; it is believed to prompt the brain to produce noradrenaline, one of the chemicals responsible for keeping you upbeat. (I’d say once the initial shock wears off!)
Seriously speaking, we must keep in mind that there are some risks associated with cold water plunges for certain situations (such as heart conditions, pregnancy, etc.). It is always best to consult with your health care provider first. Medical peer reviewed studies tout countless wellness benefits, but remind everyone that hydrotherapy shouldn’t be used as a substitute for standard care in the treatment of any health condition.
Fast forward to 2019, it does seem that cold-water training or cryotherapy has become the latest trend for athletes and non-athletes alike. Back in Canada, I regularly enjoy the soothing powers of the various Scandinavian spas which usually involve a few hot cycles in the sauna for at least 15 minutes, followed by cold water river or waterfall rinse and controlled breathing. Resting is then key to complete this cycle, to let the heartbeat and body temperature naturally adjust to these self-imposed stressors.
Last spring while on a ski trip to Whistler, British Columbia, I heard about a local mermaid … the mythical woman who made her way down to the lake, day in and day out, to bravely shed her layers and slip in a mountain lake from the ladder of the dock. No matter the season or the floating ice around her, most often with a friend each carrying a towel and hot tea; her name is Asta Kovanen.
In the Whistler tourism blog she had described the feeling of immersing her body into the freezing cold water as feeling of “heightened sensation of cold climbing its way up your body as you lower yourself down … your body wakes up immediately, encouraging you to reconsider. But you keep going.” I caught up with her by phone and we immediately hit it off, hearing her describe the rush of her daily ritual and the beautiful community that such activities attract.
Born in Canada from Finnish parents, she explains that the sauna culture was very strong in her veins. “Early on, I recall the saunas and the snow baths or cold showers. They like to say ‘A Finn without a sauna is lost’ – like a fish out of water, literally.”
Nowadays, Kovanen has access to the outdoor sauna of the Scandinave Spa where she works as a massage therapist. After discovering the joy of the cold lake dips over the year, it helped her recuperate from injuries, reduce pain from inflammation and improved the occasional seasonal blues.
I had to ask how it felt after so many days in a row …
WERE YOU SHIVERING LESS, DID IT GET EASIER?
“Yes. I felt like I’d woken up. We were truly connecting with the seasons. We started with maybe a few seconds and gradually increased the time.”
WHAT ABOUT THE RISKS INVOLVED? WOULD YOU ADVISE ANYONE LOOKING TO TRY TO ALWAYS HAVE SOMEONE WATCHING THEM?
“Yes. My husband Leslie is very safety conscious, with his adventure background and all. So, safety first and skip a day when you feel run down or otherwise under the weather.”
I HEARD THAT COLD WEATHER PLUNGE HAS BEEN USED FOR CENTURIES TO HELP ALLEVIATE CERTAIN MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES TOO, LIKE A MILDER FORM OF SHOCK THERAPY FOR THE SYSTEM.
“I would agree it helps boosts your mood. This lake ritual cut through that feeling and really turned the lights up, addressing that feeling of heaviness. The way you feel after is so worth it, I would say I am addicted to this habit now. Even turning to cool water at the end of your shower for a minute can be beneficial.
I am someone who likes to experiment on myself, and I would say this cold-water experiment, after over 300 days, is a definite success. Life is basically your own experiment — it is what you choose to do.”
Of course, on New Year’s Day, the popular Polar Bear Dip tradition brings out the friends and the community. But don’t do it just for an adrenaline rush — there are many other ways to get a rush especially in the Rockies! This approach is a gentler way to self-care.
COLD WATER IMMERSION HAS MANY PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS ON THE BODY:
Stronger immune system
Quicker cooling after sports activities
Improved physical recovery
According to an article in the Journal of Medical Science, applications of cold water can have local anesthetic-like effects for pain relief.
Photos courtesy of Tourism Whistler and Asta Kovanen.