It is a sunny Siberian winter morning. I’m 6 years old. I’m standing outside my grandma’s apartment building, wearing nothing but swim trunks. Snow melts under my bare feet, but I don’t feel the cold yet, just a sense of excitement. No matter how often you do this, you can never prepare yourself for what is about to happen.
In my hands, I hold a plastic bucket filled to the brim with cold water. Freezing winter air envelops my whole body (image my luck: what people pay for these days in cryotherapy sessions I got to experience by simply going outside). There is a moment of hesitation. I look at my grandma – she’s smiling at me from the porch, cheering me on. Then, my body springs into action, somehow independent of me, forgoing the hesitating mind. I let out some sort of a battle cry and empty a bucket of cold water on my head in the middle of Siberian winter.
Immediately when exposed to cold, you often don’t feel as cold. Instead, it’s a thought-stopping jolt of energy: the mind is clear or, more precisely, hyper-focused on one unintelligible exclamation, something like “Oh my God!” In a moment, I regain an ability to reason and the world around me reappears. I see my grandma waving me back in, and I run, as fast as I can, back to the building, back to warmth and comfort.
Often, when I get into the cold plunge at Archimedes Banya, I remember this episode from my childhood (just as constantly, I am reminded about it by my wife, who half-seriously believes that it made me lose the ability to experience the cold). Yet, I did not give this experience a second thought and just assumed it to be some sort of a Soviet health fad. That is, until recently, when I tried to see if there was more to it.
Pouring cold water on children and adults in the middle of winter was known as “tempering,” a part of a long Russian tradition of deliberate cold exposure. It is an exercise in humility: in a harsh climate, you cannot avoid the cold, so you might as well embrace it. If you can beat them, join them type of thing.
The tradition of tempering in Russia is recorded and studied by historians and confirmed by archeological findings. The Russian epic “Tales of Bygone Years” describes citizens of Novgorod pouring buckets of cold water on themselves after banya. In the pre-Christian period, the chronicles tell us about the tradition of plunging babies in cold water right after birth. This procedure was repeated more often if children got sick, giving Russian children an incentive to remain healthy. Russians also seemed to refuse to make adjustments for the climate in the Christian practice of baptism: If you must get in the river for it, just do it, no matter the weather.
Tempering was used not only as a way to prevent diseases but also as a method of building mental fortitude. Russian general Alexander Suvorov forced himself into the cold and prescribed tempering to be a part of a regiment in his army. It seems it also supports creativity and clear thinking: Leo Tolstoy, the author of “War and Peace,” and world-renowned physiologist Ivan Pavlov practiced deliberate cold exposure all their lives.
Benefits of Cold.
For most of our readers, appealing to a weird old Russian tradition won’t be sufficient to force themselves into the cold regularly. Luckily, modern science can come to the rescue.
A study of Finnish winter swimmers demonstrated positive mood changes, decreased tension and fatigue, and improved energy levels associated with cold water exposure. Another study showed a significant decrease in upper respiratory infections associated with cold exposure.
Even more exciting, cold water exposure is associated with protection from neurodegenerative diseases like dementia (a detailed lecture explaining potential mechanisms is available here), and improving depression and anxiety symptoms, promoting general well-being.
How does it work? Not all mechanisms are clear, but they likely include an increased release of hormones regulating mood (such as dopamine) and activation of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which causes the body to relax after a stressful event. Additionally, these physiological changes calm down the inflammatory response often associated with depression.
Where Heat and Cold Meet.
Cold and heat are like peanut butter and jelly in Russia – made for each other. British traveler Giles Fletcher, who visited Moscow in the 16 century, observed a peculiar practice: naked Russians ran out of the extreme banya heat and dove right into piles of snow. Another traveler, Adam Olearius added that they also like to rub their naked bodies with snow instead of soap. Having participated in these seemingly insane activities, I can wholeheartedly recommend them.
In the same spirit, the cold plunge is a crucial component of Archimedes Banya experience. After the hot humid air of parilka, aided by venik platza, the cold plunge triggers a further change in body chemistry, well-being, and mindset.
Traditions that survive centuries are likely to survive centuries more – this is the famous “Lindy Effect,” formulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb of the “Black Swan” fame. These traditions crystallize human knowledge collected over generations of incessant trial and error. This knowledge is a Road Runner to the Wile E. Coyote of our understanding: easy to see but hard to get.
Scientific research into heat and cold exposure will help us understand what our ancestors knew from experience (read the last week’s Banya Journal article on the benefits of heat exposure to see the summary of the benefits of heat exposure).
With that, it is not the knowledge but regular and systemic practice of banya – the heat and the cold – that will strengthen, restore, nourish, and “temper” our minds and bodies.