Every morning I wake up before sunrise, go outside, and pour five gallons of ice cold water over my head, back, and chest. Twice. Then I do it again just before bed. The weather is cold at night and early in the morning, around mid-30s these days. It’s never easy, but I think of it as one of the most important parts of my daily life.
Folks who become familiar with this practice are often skeptical (I haven’t interviewed the neighbors yet, but I can only imagine what they think I am up to). Nikki and the kids thought I was nuts at first. Essentially it is like doing a double ice bucket challenge twice a day, every day. Why would someone do such a thing?
In our modern lives, we expose ourselves to extremely narrow temperature margins. We keep our indoors at a steady 72 degrees and make a mad dash for our cars so we can blast the heat in the winter in the AC in the summer. But our structure is capable of tolerating much greater temperature diversity.
Have we considered the effects of under-utilizing our thermoregulatory potential? Have we considered the benefits of exercising it?
Cold exposure is beneficial to the nervous system and immune system, as well as circulation and metabolism. It promotes energy and alertness, and has even been used for healing injuries and weight loss. Some of these cold water practices include cold showers, ice baths, cold water swims and cold water dousing.
For our ancestors, diversified temperature exposure was a simple fact of ancestral life. There are also many cultural practices that promote this exposure. Yogis, Buddhists, and several Eastern martial arts all practice cold exposure of one kind or another. The Scandinavian and Russian cultures have long utilized cold water swimming, bathing, and dousing as health practices. Even today in Russia, on the Feast of the Epiphany, thousands of people plunge into cross-shape holes carved into the ice of lakes and rivers.
Or consider the heroic Ice Man, Wim Hof, who has sensationalized breathing and cold exposure as a health practice. Through his remarkable practices he has managed to set twenty world records and has provided stunning results on tests in laboratory settings in which he has demonstrated hormonal control. Olympic athletes, serious CrossFitters, runners, and many others swear by ice baths for healing muscle soreness and injuries.
What Is Cold Water Dousing?
I first encountered cold water dousing in my Systema training. Systema is a Russian martial art that that includes many health and rejuvenation practices. Vladimir Vasiliev, founder of Systema Headquarters and the father of Systema in North America, has always encouraged Systema practitioners to douse.
In terms of the process, it’s pretty simple. You slowly pour a bucket of very cold water over your head, breathing deeply the whole time. It takes about thirty seconds.
While cold showers baths and swims are the endurance versions of cold water therapy, the douse is the sprint. This quick exposure is biologically stimulating. Whereas taking an icy bath feels, well, cold, dousing results in a thermal spike that fills you with an intense warmth.
Why Would You Do That?
1. It Gives You Energy
Cold water dousing makes you absolutely present and energized. When I wake up in the morning I feel closed, protective, and linear. The moment I douse, the world unfolds and expands, and I feel infinitely open to it.
2. It’s Good for Your Health
According to Kevin Secours of Combat Systema,
“[E]xposure to cold water causes blood vessels to temporarily tighten, draining blood out of the extremities and carrying the lactic acid and toxins that have gathered there away. A moment later, the body surges with a wash of ‘new’ blood that invigorates the muscles with fresh oxygen and improves cellular function. This response carries a wide number of measurable physical health benefits that include:
- Stimulating glandular activity;
- Stimulating and increasing muscle tone and nerve force;
- Improved digestion and increased metabolism;
- Increased immune system activity leading to better resistance to illness;
- Increased blood count;
- Brain and central nervous system stimulation;
- Improved oxygen intake in the tissues.
Toxins from overuse can collect in the tissues like bruises and cramps and over a long period time can contribute to a feeling of fatigue, heaviness, limitations in ranges of motion and poor motor control. Dousing regularly helps improve the internal circulation in your body and encourages a higher degree of cleansing and function.”
I have noticed several health changes since I started dousing:
- I rarely get sick (my friends and family note this, although they remain reluctant to douse with me).
- I have a burning energy throughout the day, and even though I am hungrier, any weight I put on is muscular.
- When I was younger I used to get cold hands and feet but now I seem to thermoregulate far more effectively.
- I also believe it has built my psychological strength and endurance.
3. It Builds Psychological Resilience
About two years ago, I decided I was going to do something brave that pushed me beyond my comfort zone every day. I climbed difficult trees and cliffs. I performed pistols on precarious surfaces. I took a stand in difficult social scenarios. It was a good idea, but it was hard to sustain and difficult to maintain creativity.
Now cold water dousing is my daily dose of courage. It is always requires a firm will. Sometimes I do some breathing exercises, some spinal twists, free stretching, and meditation just before the douse. But the most important thing is to do it. A thousand rationales for not dousing might present themselves to your mind leading up to the moment of truth. Just do the douse.
Do the Douse!
- Get two 5 gallon buckets.
- Get your water cold!
- For morning dousing, if the temperature is dropping down at least into the 40s, simply fill your buckets and leave them out overnight.
- For the evening douse, usually leaving the buckets out for a few hours after sunset is sufficient for a cold douse.
- For warm weather, you can fill your buckets with a mixture of ice and water or place them in a freezer for several hours.
- Lift the buckets carefully (they weigh about 45 pounds each when full).
- Pour slowly, keeping your breath steady.
- Pour the water on your head, shoulders, back, and chest.
- When the first bucket is emptied, pause until you feel the heat burst in your chest.
- Douse with the second bucket.
What Does It Feel Like?
When I first began dousing, I always noticed a heat burst in my chest a few moments after the douse. Now that burst has become more powerful and floods down, even to my toes. Systema founder Vladimir Vasiliev describes it best:
“It’s almost like having a mini-explosion take place inside of you. Your body temperature rises to nearly 42.2 degrees Celsius (that’s nearly 108 degrees Fahrenheit). It feels like a pleasant warmth and surge of energy inside. Meanwhile, this explosion of warmth will kill off most bacteria and viruses. Indeed, 40 degrees Celsius is deadly for most viruses and bacteria and this procedure raises body temperature 2 degrees Celsius (and nearly 4 Fahrenheit) above that.”
– The Russian System Guidebook