One of my first health heroes was known as the “Father of Physical Culture.” Even before Charles Atlas and Jack Lalanne became household names, the controversial Bernarr Macfadden was shocking people out of their lethargy. “Weakness is a crime! Don’t be a criminal!” he would implore. In 1903 he established the “Polar Bear Club” at Coney Island, New York.
I lived in Brooklyn during the 1940s, and my grandfather would take me to Coney Island. This was the era of the old-time strongmen. Names like “The Mighty Atom,” Warren Lincoln Travis, Slim “The Hammer Man” Farman, and Joe Rollino all performed there. The Bayridge section of Brooklyn, where we lived, certainly had its share of physical culturists and avid health enthusiasts. Joe Rollino, as an example, swam in the ocean every day until the age of 104. He was tragically hit by a car and killed before his 105th birthday.
To this day, thousands of people flock to Coney Island on New Year’s Day for a swim in the icy water.
Just what is it about conquest of the cold that is so alluring? Is it healthy? Is it safe? Such questions float on people’s minds. Many people have found this practice safe and quite invigorating.
Cold water immersion and the ability to generate internal body heat by control of the autonomic nervous system have been around for a long time. Yogis and qigong masters have practiced them for thousands of years. In recent years, a Polish man, Wim Hoff, has been breaking world records for exposure to cold, simply through breathing techniques and meditation. He mastered this without making it a religious practice, though some of his techniques have been connected to Eastern philosophical ideas.
When Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School studied Tibetan monks’ ability to dry icy sheets on their bare bodies by increasing their body temperature, he was astounded that they could raise it by 17 degrees. On another occasion, on a winter’s night in 1985, Benson and his team watched monks sit comfortably all night on a 15,000-foot rocky ledge in the Himalayas in just their robes, without shivering.
I found this of interest when exploring the strength, endurance, and mental states of physical culturists and strongmen. They employed very similar mental and breath control skills. Cold water immersion is a common practice among athletes. On a smaller scale, all athletic people understand the importance of icing an injury, for example. Cold water immersion lowers the temperature of the injured tissues, reducing inflammation and swelling. Even just taking cold showers can treat depression and mood challenges. Cold water triggers a massive flow of neuropeptides, endorphins, and mood-altering hormones like dopamine and serotonin. It improves the immune response and cardiovascular health.
When a person’s body isn’t sufficiently oxygenated, their first exposure to cold water will cause a gasping reaction, followed by involuntary hyperventilation. This is because the cold draws oxygen out of the tissues by contraction of the vascular pathways. However, this isn’t the experience of qigong masters, yogis, or others who practice deep breathing exercises.
Little by little, one can begin to gain control over the autonomic nervous system.
I personally do a breathing exercise to circulate energy flow along the two major energy channels in my body. One is straight down the front of my torso and the other is directly up my back and over the top of my head. When I do this, my lower abdomen becomes quite warm as I settle my concentration there.
Before I get under a cold shower, I’ll flip my abdomen back and forth by reflex action while holding my exhaled breath out. Then I’ll breathe rapidly, creating a purposeful hyperventilation, which makes my nose very hot. This stimulation of the internal part of the nose is directly connected to the nervous system and the location of the pituitary gland. The pituitary is responsible for releasing TSH, or thyroid-releasing hormone, which creates tyroxine. T4 controls our body’s heat. That’s why people with low thyroid production suffer from the cold so easily and often suffer from improper breathing.
I certainly don’t expect you to start jumping into icy lakes or cold ocean water without preparation. However, you can experiment with taking a hot shower followed by a short exposure to colder water. Little by little, you’ll find yourself getting more cold-hardy and having greater vitality levels. It’s my belief that you can bathe yourself to incredible health.
I often simply stand under a cold shower while holding a basic qigong pose and enjoy the sensation of increasing my body’s energy. It’s actually very pleasant.
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When you make a commitment to yourself and vow to maintain it, the rewards in health, vitality, and self-esteem are beyond measure. You’ll be amazed at how your willpower soars and benefits all areas of your life! As the very outspoken Bernarr Macfadden would say, “Weakness is a crime! Don’t be a criminal.” Your choice today will determine your health tomorrow!
From the icy water of Turtle Lake,