7 years ago, during a rite of passage in a snowy Connecticut forest, I learned firsthand the power of cold and hot temperatures to transform us.
I had been invited to spend some time with a traveling shaman, who we’ll call Juan, and his inner circle of friends for the weekend. I knew that anything was possible, but I never would have predicted the lesson I was about to receive.
On the second day of my visit, I was sitting on the stone hearth of a warm fireplace, connecting with some very fascinating men and women, when I heard my name called from the other room.
“Nick, come with me.” It was Juan.
I walked into the kitchen and over to the back door, where he stood waiting.
“I want to show you something.” With that, he turned the knob and pushed the door, which carved an arch-shaped path in the thick snow outside as it opened.
He remained in the doorway as the freezing winter air rushed into the cozy house. “Ok, take off all of your clothes.”
“What?” That was the last thing on earth I wanted to do.
Juan looked up at me as he was taking his shoes and pants off. “Believe me. This will be good for you.”
I reluctantly did as he said and out we walked, bare feet disappearing into about 12 inches of frozen powder with each step.
My survival instincts kicked into high gear as the skin on my feet, ankles, and calves became engulfed with frozen white.
We couldn’t possibly last out here for more than a minute. I grew up in these parts and knew that frost-bite was a very dangerous thing to mess around with.
Not wanting to “fail” this test of spiritual fortitude, I involuntarily began to hunch and hug myself. Juan stopped in his tracks and silently turned around to face me in the yard. He saw what I was doing and began to smile a big child-like grin.
“We think we’re so frail, don’t we? Raised with so much fear. It wasn’t always this way.”
“Put the strongest man or woman out in the cold for a few moments, and they become overwhelmed with an urge to tense up, as though that will somehow keep the cold out. But if you can do the unthinkable and let the sensation flow into and through you, observing it without emotion or fear, and just let it pass – your reality is transformed.”
As he spoke, the biting cold that was assaulting me from every angle began to transform into something different.
A natural self-scanning mechanism that was showing me where I was blocked, where I needed to let go.
“Your body knows what it needs to maintain equilibrium… don’t let your mind get in the way.”
As he was talking, my eyes began to move to the tall and equally naked trees that loomed up around us. In the dead of winter, everything was silent. But as we stood there, I began to hear the birch and the pine.
With each subtle creak and groan of living trees, my body became less shaky. The needling prickles of cold snow and winter air on my flesh melted away.
“Ah, he’s connecting with the trees. ” Juan said to himself (or someone I couldn’t see).
I nodded, as if the idea of walking through an arctic landscape completely naked was old hat to me. Off we went, trekking through the woods, “listening” to the trees, rocks and wind.
An hour later, as we approached the house in the final light of day, I remember thinking to myself, “This was either a huge spiritual opening, or I’ve gone mad and will need to have my toes amputated.”
Sitting in the warm kitchen a few moments later, I was startled to see that my feet and calves (which had been submerged in snow for over 60 minutes) weren’t even red. They looked and felt perfectly normal.
I’ve been exploring the therapeutic wonders of cold and heat ever since. From jumping into glacier lakes in the High Rockies to sitting and praying in native sweat lodges and temazcals.
So what is really at play here and how long have our ancestors been harnessing hot and cold to elevate their bodies and spirits to the next level?
The Healing Power of Fire and Ice
From the bath houses of Russia and Europe to Native American sweat lodges, people have been using hot and cold to purify both body and spirit for millennia. In Maya culture, the temazcal is used in place of the the sweat lodge to detoxify the body during sickness, connect to higher realms, and as a sacred place for women to give birth.
Controlled exposure to hot and cold environments has many scientifically proven health benefits. It increases blood circulation, flushes toxins, and kills bacteria and viruses that can’t survive at certain temperatures.
It’s interesting to note that many cultures who haven’t had much contact with one another utilize very similar hot / cold techniques for health and wellness. Is it an innate understanding in us humans?
Similar to the Maya temezcal, the Russian banya is a small bathhouse, usually situated near a source of ice cold water. This structure is used to harness the health benefits of intentional temperature variation. Found all over Eastern Europe, banyas often contain branches of fresh or dried leaves or herbs for bathers to hit or massage themselves with, further improving circulation. Much like the bundles of herbs used by the Maya in a similar ritual…
Like a temazcal or traditional sweat lodge, participants in a banya come together to heal and purify in a communal setting. It’s customary to take breaks in between “rounds” in a banya, during which bathers often cool off in a cold lake or roll around in the snow.
The cycle is repeated: hot, cold, hot, cold—in order to achieve the maximum health benefit.
Don’t fear the cold
Cold has been used as a means of healing since the ancient Egyptians, who recognized that cold can minimize pain and reduce inflammation. The ancient Greeks regularly bathed in cold water with the belief that it improved their vigor. Hippocrates, often referred to as the “Father of Medicine,” recommended a regimen of alternating temperatures, switching between hot and cold baths, to improve circulation and digestion. While heat relaxes, cold stimulates, and both can be utilized for healing.
There are many proven health benefits of hot and cold therapies, but ancient peoples also understood these rituals to be medicine for the mind, spirit, and heart.
Across cultures, the aim of hot and cold rituals has to do with purification – the sweat lodge, temazcal, banya, and bathhouse serve as a sacred refuge where we can release physical, emotional, and spiritual toxicity.
There is nothing I know of that awakens the soul like a hot steam followed by a plunge into ice cold water or snow – I think Hippocrates might agree!
Although the examples I’ve shared here are specific to their regions, you can find ways to use hot and cold therapy in your own bathroom at home. Something as simple as taking your shower head (even better if it’s hand held) and switching it between hot and cold water every 30 seconds on a spot where you have aches and pain or tenseness – just be careful with sensitive skin areas like the face and neck.
Sometimes we need to be a little adventurous to evolve and grow. I encourage you to explore the powerful properties of fire and ice for cleansing and healing both body and spirit.
Director, The Sacred Science