Growing up, my grandparents had an ofuro; a Japanese-style wood burning hot tub. It was made of redwood, with a copper bottom. We would build a fire in the firebox underneath it to heat the water, and then step into the tub, carefully balancing our weight on the wooden grate so it would evenly settle to the bottom. The wooden grate offered a buffer between the body and the copper, which would send waves of heat upwards as the fire crackled below.
When we could no longer stand the heat, we would emerge, bodies steaming, and hose ourselves down with cold water. We would then stumble to one of the built-in benches that surrounded the deck by the tub. My dad would often say that three rounds of this would make you see God; there’s no doubt it became a spiritual experience.
I recently visited Scandinave Spa outside of Whistler, British Columbia. Here I learned that the hydrotherapy circuit, exposing your body to heat, then cold, then rest, is based on a Scandinavian tradition, and has well documented health benefits.
The experience began with a walk through the forest from the parking area, where there was that unique kind of quiet that happens in a forest blanketed with snow. After checking in, I was reminded that in addition to the hydrotherapy cycle recommendations, the common areas were meant to be silent; no talking allowed. Since I had left my two kids and husband on the slopes, I was perfectly happy to let my mind and body rest completely.
I began my cycle in the eucalyptus steam room, happily inhaling the steamy, scented air. After the suggested 10-15 minutes, I walked outside into a freezing cold plunge pool and dunked my body in with a gasp. I scrambled out, hastily drying off with a towel, and wrapped myself in a fluffy robe as I entered a ‘rest zone’. Comfortable lounge chairs filled the temperate room, with views out to the distant mountain peaks, covered with snow. As I settled into my chair, I could feel a layer releasing. After visiting the wood-heated sauna, an infrared sauna, and another steam room, all following the cycle of 10-15 minutes in heat, a few seconds in cold, and 10-15 minutes of relaxation; I felt like I had peeled off months of tension that had burrowed its’ way into my body.
This cycle of hot-cold-relax has been utilized for hundreds of years in civilizations around the world. The most well recognized benefits include increased circulation; the heat increases blood flow to the outer layers of your skin, and the cold constricts blood flow to the extremities and brings it to the brain and vital organs, bringing fresh oxygen and nutrients, and removing waste products. This circulation also aids the lymphatic system, which helps the immune system function. In response to this thermal cycle, the body releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones our system creates as a pain reliever. Some studies have also shown that key stress hormones, such as cortisol, decrease as a result of hydrotherapy. I revelled in the experience of feeling these effects at play in my body as the hours passed by.
As I made my way back to my family, feeling tingly from head to toe and at the same time deeply relaxed, I found a new appreciation for the thermal cycle I had been introduced to in my youth. I’ve brought this into my routine at home as well, ending hot showers with a few moments of cold, and taking my hot bath in cycles, repeating the hot, cold, relax series that I learned has such rich rewards. It has taken my evening ritual to another level, complete with silence.