Polar Bear Club

In the rural alpine setting of the Talamanca Mountains in central Costa Rica I found myself filthy after four days of building a cottage where there was no bathroom or showers. I had one alternative, bathe in the river. My reluctance to wash myself in the river was mainly because at 9000 feet of elevation the water hovers around 41 degrees fahrenheit. That’s cold. On this day I couldn’t escape the fact I needed to jump in. My body was covered in rock powder and chiggers had started to colonize my belt line. After pumping myself up for about 15 minutes I lept off this semi flat boulder into the calmest river pool I could find. The exhilaration of being immersed in such a cold flowing current made me feel instantly clean. I mean really Clean. Dr. Bonner’s and I did our little sudsy dance for all of about a minute and than I jumped out of the river as quickly as I jumped in. My cold water baptism was a revelation.

All my soreness was gone and what ever brain fog I had going on vanished. I had this experience before when I was in college. Our training facility was revamped my senior year and we got a cold pool that had a running current. Many athletes could swim in place receiving anti-gravity like joint mobility exercises in these wondrous immersion tanks. I would hop in for fifteen minute intervals between my practices. For those of us that could handle the chilly climbs we gained a considerable competitive advantage. Any inflammation that had occurred from our morning sessions would be frozen out of our bodies. Being able to go hard during afternoon practices amid 'two-a-days' ingratiated me well to our 'Tough' minded football coaches. The cliche of being mentally tough is that it almost always come down to environmental conditioning. How ironic, a Florida boy swimming with icebergs in the heat of Michigan.

On the other end of the thermal spectrum we boys from the south seemed to be more athletic. If you were to look at college athletic recruiting as an indicator of where most big time players come from in team sports it’s the southern United States. There is a higher per capita ratio of ‘ethnic’ folk in these areas but there is also HEAT. I mean real, melt your face off, humidity combined with astronomical temperatures. The Great John Madden dubbed it ‘Humature.’ In non- football parlance it’s described as heat index, humidity + temperature. The Heat Index in the southern United States breeds a type of mental toughness that makes northern environments quite easy to play in. Running around in these Mega sauna’s also generates a tangible physical adaptation within our bodies called Heat Shock Proteins(HSP’s). HSP’s arise from extreme heat exposure in an effort to maintain cell shape integrity. Once these babies are cooking they generate more of themselves enabling greater cellular resilience. Being able to handle the physical stress of Florida sun probably contributed to much of my 'Southern Moxy.'

So what happen’s when you combine both cold therapy, such as mountainous river bathing and heat therapy like a Sauna? Just ask the Scandinavian’s. Apparently, many bath houses in Northern Europe incorporate hot + cold hydrotherapy. This tradition is a very old one. One example is in Finland where farmers of yore would relieve themselves of pain at the end of their day by sitting in ‘Sauna like' hot huts used for drying and curing meats than jump into cold running water when available. My good friend, who played professional basketball in Austria, would 'get his legs back' after practice by utilizing this type of hydrotherapy. Mineral rich thermal pools would be positioned directly next too ice cold dunking stations. Going back and forth between the two, once initiated, has remarkable regenerative capabilities. In sport’s we call this, ‘Shortening the Recuperation Window.’

An added benefit of alternating between hot and cold is your heart get's 'Beated.' The heart is an electrically driven organ. When your body's temperature differential flip flops in quick succession there is an increase in electrical potential which pumps the heart. Also, changes in dynamic pressure within your circulatory system stimulates a higher heart beat. That is one of the mental hurdles of getting a good sweat. Sometimes, within a sauna or a sweat lodge, the heat can be anxiety inducing because your heart starts to race. One of the more profound 'Spiritual' experiences I ever had was facing the fear of having a pounding heart while in a sweat lodge. Thankfully, I had the guidance to become aware of the link between my emotional response(fear) and my physiology(pulse). By watching the mechanism of pulse/fear I was able to modify my breath to adapt. Surviving the ‘sweat’ made me a long time lover of anything that would vary my temperature differential.

In short, Hot/Cold hydrotherapy, has been extremely pleasurable and life affirming. When ever possible I look for Sauna’s that either have an icy plunge pool and/or cold shower. The ’Fresh’ feeling after touching both extremes of the temperature spectrum has inspired me to build a Mexican style Temezcal, dome shaped masonry sauna, with an adjoining flow through cold pool. Temezcal’s are brilliant because they combine the benefits of infrared sauna’s with a typical Finnish hot house. Having both conductive and convective heat signals the body to make more HSP’s. Also, having cold running water to jump in afterwards, not only stabilizes normal body temp, it reduces the use of chemical laden body products. Jumping between the modernized and Agrarian world's that I do has highlighted the utter dependency on chemicals in the west. Hot/Cold hydrotherapy gets me 'cleaner’ than most soaps ever could. Plus my conscience is clean by not adding to the chemical load of the biosphere. By mimicking and condensing Mother Nature's temp cycle, on a micro level, we can vastly improve our health and longevity and have fun doing it!

********Disclaimer, Please consult a doctor if you have any medical conditions involving your cardio/pulmonary system before partaking in Hot/Cold Hydrotherapy.