Mindfulness Over Matter: Breathing Through Extreme Temperature

September 27, 2021

I’ve always found it fascinating the way my mood, habits, eating patterns and preferences totally transform based on my body temperature. I can only speak for myself, but an ice cream in December just doesn’t sparkle the same way it does in July. Beyond my tastebuds, I notice myself becoming a lot more sluggish in high heat and a lot more tense during cold weather. A few years ago I started to wonder if I could apply the principles of yoga, mindfulness and breathwork to help override these patterns. That’s when I learned about cold exposure and heat therapy.

Don't want to read? Listen to Victoria's reading of her experience.

Freezing the body to calm the mind

Now a household name, Wim Hof truly set the stage for the power of the mind over the reaction of the physical body. His unique method involves breathwork and mental training that has been scientifically proven to override the nervous system, resulting in stunning capabilities to withstand extreme cold.

Whilst travelling through Puerto Escondido, Mexico I came across an event for an ice bath ceremony, led by a certified Wim Hof Method facilitator. I jumped at the chance to find out what this was all about. The morning of, I made sure to get my 20 minute meditation practice in. I also completed a few rounds of nadi shodhana pranayama, which has always been one of my favourite practices to feel centred.

Prior to taking the plunge, a group of twenty of us were encouraged to set an intention and share it with the group. As a yoga teacher, setting intentions is second nature to me now, but having the opportunity to share mine with the group felt like a great way to build community. We were then led through a series of breathwork exercises. In terms of breathwork I’ve done in the past, this type of breath felt most similar to kapalabhati, as a form of controlled hyperventilation. This breath however involved a more powerful inhale and passive exhale.

We took 30 breaths in this manner and after the last exhalation we held our breaths for as long as it felt comfortable. We took a break and completed this cycle three times in total. This breathwork was delivered as preparation for the ice bath and we were encouraged to breath as normally as possible whilst in the ice.

Finally, we entered the ice bath, and let me tell you it was shockingly cold. Four of us at a time stepped into the inflatable pool, which had been filled up entirely by bags of ice. The goal was to stay submerged for six minutes, and I’m happy to report that we all managed. I felt very grateful for my yoga practice and awareness of my breath during those six minutes. While my body immediately tried to go into a state of shock, I was able to use my focus to slow down my breath and continue to come back to the present moment, knowing it wouldn’t last forever. When the six minute timer went off, we all smiled and laughed, collectively agreeing that time went by much faster than expected. After the blood rushed back to my fingers and toes I felt refreshed, energized and very happy to be defrosting in the warm Mexican sun.

Turning up the heat

Through my yoga practice, I’ve become a big fan of opposites. I love to balance my physical effort in yoga asanas with my mental intention for ease. That’s why I again jumped at the opportunity when I found the complete opposite type of extreme temperature ceremony. A month after my cold dip, I travelled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and found a type of sweat lodge called Temazcal.

What is Temazcal? In short, it's a ceremony in a clay sauna. The sacred tradition started in Mexico about a thousand years ago and is said to bring physical, mental and emotional benefits to those who partake. The word temazcal comes from the word temāzcalli which translates to ‘the house of heat.’ and let me tell you, it lives up to its namesake.

As the ceremony began, 12 of us piled into the small clay dome. Hot rocks were placed in the center, with splashes of copal and sage-infused water being added in. A shaman guided the experience, leading chants and facilitating a family-like atmosphere. We passed through four "doors" or rounds, with a little bit of air & more rocks being let in each time. There were many moments where I noticed how fast my heart was beating and had to remind myself to dissociate that feeling with danger. Just like in my ice bath, I felt grateful to have the foundations of mindfulness in my toolkit to notice the physical sensations of my body and dissociate them from panic or fear. I worked with a slow deep breath throughout, and included a short hold at the top to try to distract my mind from the heat and calm my nervous system.

Clay sauna for Temazcal ceremony at Terra Noble retreat.

Victoria Maybee l Mukha Yoga
By Victoria Maybee; All Rights Reserved @2021

I’m grateful for both of these extreme temperature experiences I had during my travels. Both were equally challenging, in polar opposite ways. What they did have in common was their capacity to show me that my breath practice matters. The daily meditations I partake in and the yoga philosophy I’ve come to know created a solid foundation for me to move through these two experiences, knowing that I was safe and that I could overcome my mind chatter. I highly recommend taking on your own version of cold and heat exposure therapy to test out the power of your breath and boost your confidence in your ability to overcome adversity.

Victoria Maybee l Mukha YogaBy Victoria Maybee; All Rights Reserved @2021

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