Author: Sara Barnes
From ice baths to breathing techniques and even a guided woodland conscious walk, what follows is a direct account kindly supplied by Sara, a one to one breathwork and cold water therapy client.
When I checked in with Ryan aka @urban_iceman my initial impression was of a tall, calm and welcoming person who immediately put me at ease. I had a limited idea of what to expect from our day together other than it was an opportunity for me to experience some of his teaching methods and sample a couple of workshops on breathwork. I’d end my day with full cold water immersion in an ice bath, something I was greatly looking forward to, I am no stranger to ice baths, as I bathe in my own Japanese bathtub every morning as part of my routine to steady myself and bring myself into my day gently and calmly.
The tools I already had with me, or my own resources, were an awareness of breath, how I breathe and how it makes me feel, and an instinctive connection to my body: physically and emotionally. I have been a keen athlete and regularly pushed my body to extremes, both in cycling and trail running. My heart rate is naturally very slow and I am generally a quiet, calm person with bouts of childlike playfulness.
After chatting for half an hour or so about Ryan’s extensive background and knowledge in his subjects and then exploring how I came to practising daily cold water swimming, we were ready to start the first session of the day: a gentle, silent walk through the woods behind Ryan’s property. I am a natural nose breather, which may have helped me get into this activity more easily. But, I haven’t ever examined the benefits of this type of breathing, or tried to control my inward and outward breaths while walking. At first, I felt lightheaded and didn’t enjoy holding my breath while still moving: it felt counterintuitive and I desperately wanted to open my mouth. I was hungry for air, but persevered.
My first impression of Ryan was deepening: not only was he tall, calm and welcoming, but he was also compassionate, self-aware and persuasive! He has this way of making you want to do what he tells you or asks of you. The trust you place in him is huge, but I found it was easily given, which came into its own when we went into the conscious connected breathing session later that day! It’s also abundantly clear that he is extremely passionate about what he does and extremely knowledgeable in the world of breathing techniques, ice baths and cold therapy.
We walked at our own pace, mostly in silence for around an hour, taking note of how our breathing felt and how we needed to adjust our pace to prolong the breath-holding comfortably. I soon realised that I wasn’t going to actually pass out or be sick, which gave me the confidence to play around with my own breath and movements. My senses tuned in more deeply to my surroundings, in particular sight and sound. I heard every crack of twig under my light step and caught shadows and sunbeams on the periphery of my gaze. My nasal passages felt alive and sensitive to temperature and scent: the deeper woodland areas exuded fungi and damp bark, cool mounds of leaves and warmer hues of fresh-fallen conkers. All too soon we emerged into a pasture, fenced off from the real world of No Trespassing signs and security guards, brutal in the shift from nature bathing to brisk words and hand waving. But not before I realised there had been a deep sense of movement somewhere down inside me, as if chinks of light had opened up in my being, purely through the work of my breath.
I was excited to explore the power of breathing further in our next session, which Ryan explained as an opportunity to see where I went: I might go nowhere, I might find it difficult to relax or sink into myself, but whatever happened, he reassured me, he could hold me.
Those words “I can hold you”, have become, to me, the four most powerful expressions of human compassion and nurturing. And this is the gift that @urban_iceman wants to place in your heart: the gift of humanity, knowledge, trust and security. It is the key to discovering your authentic self, to leveraging the layers imposed on you by years of upbringing, daily pressures and demands.
A combination of deep relaxation, appropriate and guiding music led me into an experience I find hard to describe, but it has stayed with me and I know it will never leave me.
I went into the session with a completely open mind and heart, prepared to just feel comfortable and rested as I might do at the end of a yoga session when you’re lying on your mat, silently praying the person next to you won’t break wind and mentally writing your shopping list. However, it was totally different.
First, Ryan asked if I was comfortable with touch and explained that during the session he might sense that I needed to feel reconnected to another human being just to act as reassurance or to bring me back a bit into the room. This may not be for everyone, but, at one point in the session, the simple pressure of his hand on mine made all the difference.
The breathing was nasal, entirely, apart from one gasp and frantic exhale that I am aware of in the middle, deepest part of the session. As my breath lengthened under Ryan’s guidance I became acutely aware of every inch of my body and where the inward breath was going.
I found that as I breathed in I drew it right up from my belly, into my diaphragm, chest, throat, head and arched my neck as if I wanted it right up into the top of my head. It was an instinctive and animalistic urge to draw every single fragment of oxygen into my soul to protect me and empower me as I dived down below layers of clutter that had been there for years.
The music in the background guided me intelligently and instinctively, or maybe I was reacting to the change in tone, lyrics and intensity. As the pitch, rhythm and bass accumulated in the room, it echoed within my body. To say that it was akin to physical passion is not an exaggeration, nor is it suggesting there was anything happening to me other than within my own body.
It started to feel as if there was a storm brewing in my chest and guts and I knew that something wanted to get out. I was feeling a mixture of fear and anger, both of which I still cannot explain, merely recount. And then, my mother’s wedding ring jumped across my nape on the thin gold chain that carries it. Just a tiny, but absolute movement, which, later, Ryan said he had witnessed too.
The feeling of disturbance and turmoil was continuing to build within me along with a compulsion to lash out, to fight something. I felt a gentle touch on my left hand and because my eyes had been closed from the moment the session began I can only assume it was Ryan taking my hand. I struck out, I needed to go through whatever was happening to me on my own, but then a hot rush of emotion washed over me, my face screwed up in pain and I groaned, tears squeezing out of my tightly closed eyes.
“I can hold you” he had said. I felt Ryan’s warm hand take mine once more and this time I accepted his presence. Whatever was inside me suddenly jumped out of my body and disappeared off to my right. Immediately, I relaxed and tears flowed more easily.
It was at that point I took one raw, desperate breath through my mouth and then closed it, somehow aware that by holding onto the regular pattern of nose breathing I would stay safe and be able to guide myself back out of wherever I had been.
Ryan must have sensed that I was done. He let go of my hand and I wriggled my numb fingers to let the blood flow again. Slowly I became aware once more of my limbs, not just my internal world. Toes wriggled happily, legs flexed and straightened. Ryan’s voice and lighter music guided me back out into the room. It took me a good few minutes to feel fully aware of where I was and to want to open my eyes and let any light in. I held my hands across my hands to filter the daylight beam by beam. Nothing had changed in the room, and yet everything had changed in me. Where before had been a constant chatter and questioning was now a pool of stillness and strength.
And there was more…
For those that are not familiar with Ice baths and their potential benefits, they can be hugely beneficial for active recovery and sore muscles but also cold exposure can have tremendously positive impacts on mental wellbeing, your immune system, health conditions, sympathetic nervous system, blood pressure, weight loss, stress and sleep, among many other health benefits.
The ice bath awaited me out in the garden in the afternoon sunshine. The thermometer told us it was a brisk 2C in the ice bath, which made me smile. This is what I had wanted and Ryan had delivered it, guided cold water immersion.
When I climb into my own tub back home I have virtually no ceremony of preparation, physical or mental, so today I was keen to learn the method of straw breathing, which is something Ryan has developed from his own practice. It triggers the biochemical changes required to embrace extreme cold water immersion. And provides you with a tool to hang on to when the pain of the ice bath bites into your brain and you just want to leap out of the galvanised steel bath tub.
We sat for around 20 minutes on the grass working through the stages of breathing until I was ready. My immersion was slow and controlled, in spite of my excitement about embracing this intense cold. I haven’t been in water/ice this cold since the winter when I lay down in a semi-frozen mountain tarn in the Lake District. I think my scanty, but relevant, experience in very cold water immersion helped me to appreciate rather than fear the ice bath, so I was able to relax and enjoy every second.
The pain on my feet was intense, but by continuing to breathe in and exhale as if through a straw, I kept my movements fluid and strong. I didn’t gasp or falter as I planted both feet squarely on the tub base and started to lower myself into a lying position in the ice – literally ice floating on top of 2C water in the ice bath. There was a fleeting moment when I wanted to get out, my brain screamed at me to get out! But I have experienced a similar automatic protective response many times during my four years’ winter swimming and each time have paid attention, checked I’m okay and then overridden it.
I wanted this so badly and felt completely confident with Ryan squatting down by the tub next to me, guiding me once more into the realms of the seemingly impossible with warmth, sincerity and authority. Just what you need when you’re pushing against the limits of resilience and mind over matter!
I was in, except for the final few inches of submersion and the most difficult – the back of the neck. Ryan placed his hand against the end of the tub and told me to lean my head back against it. As he gently withdraw his hand the ice water seeped right around my skull – this triggers the mammalian response, which makes the blood scoot away from the peripheries and into the core to protect it. Without this trigger, the experience of being in the ice bath is far more excruciating and the benefits will be significantly reduced. I wanted to feel the full force of the ice and cold, so did exactly what Ryan suggested. And then I relaxed deeply into myself, with my eyes closed and my breath regulated.
At that point I couldn’t hear or sense anything of my surroundings, just what was going on inside my body and the lingering, stabbing pain of the cold, mostly in my hands and feet. I barely heard Ryan ask me to open my eyes and reconnect with him. He was smiling and I smiled back. This human gesture broke the trance and allowed my senses to kick back in too.
What a beautiful experience, to lie buried under ice, but with the warmth of a September afternoon filtering through the leaves on the overhanging branches of the beech tree.
Three minutes passed and Ryan gave me the option of climbing out of the ice bath or staying in a little longer. He gets everyone out at 5 minutes. I didn’t really want to get out, but after another minute I felt ‘cooked’ and slowly climbed out of the ice bath.
My huge grin told the world how happy and exhilarated I was! To help increase my core temperature, get the blood vessels flowing and force the blood flow back into my limbs I did a few horse squats and danced around in my swimsuit on the lawn. Very important to do after cold therapy and cold immersion, to get warm, reduce blood vessel constriction and enable your body temperature to increase, the recovery steps when getting out of ice baths are important. Luckily I had the Urban Ice Man on hand to guide me. And then we sat wrapped in blankets with our hands nursing comforting mugs of hot tea and chatted some more.
I left Ryan’s workshop a different person from the one who had arrived. The breathing techniques and cold water therapy have enabled me to bring home more tools to use in my own daily practice and life. At moments of stress, indecision or sadness, I now have that pool of stillness within me. Whatever was released from me, or whatever moved during the conscious connected breathing session, has not reappeared, I’m thankful to say.
And, now I know how to let go of chaos, if that is what it was, maybe it never will.
Thank you to Sara for her wonderful words and insightful account of her experience. View the workshops and retreats available or contact us with any questions. Also, be sure to check out our range of ice baths here.
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