I Did Water Circuit Therapy While Meditating—And I Felt Transformed

Here's what happened when I did hot and cold plunges at Othership while listening to a guided meditation.

I’ve been in talk therapy for nine years (and counting!). It’s lead me to a greater awareness of what I need to work on. But recently, therapy alone hasn’t been cutting it. I have the tools to acknowledge what bothers me, but it isn’t helping me move past physical trauma responses. I needed a change.

So, on a friend’s recommendation, I turned to Othership, a Toronto bathhouse specializing in emotional and physical wellness. Here, the cold plunges are accompanied by guided meditations and group sauna sessions.

My experience with water circuit therapy

When I first stepped into Othership, I was in awe of how beautiful the space is. There are rooms with tubs with stone features and a wood-panelled sauna, setting the stage for a grounding experience. Earthy incense and herbal teas are incorporated throughout. As an employee circulated around the ice baths with a water quality device in one hand and an incense stick in the other, I couldn’t help but raise a brow. Of course, Eastern practices are common in wellness spaces. However, without acknowledgment of their origins or purpose, it can feel like they are just being whittled down to aesthetics.

A starter pack of three sessions for “new journeyers” is $110. The water circuit therapy class I attended alternated between a sauna and cold plunges up to three minutes long. This is all accompanied with guided group meditation, which focuses on emotions and acknowledging the bodily sensations that come with them.

My goal was to work on my anxiety around heat. I tend to avoid humid spaces because I feel like I can’t breathe, and the sensation of heat is associated with a negative moment in my life. (I can thank talk therapy here for the self-awareness about this!) Throughout the sauna session, the instructor encouraged us to sit in the uncomfortable sensations of heat instead of running away. Surprisingly, despite the numerous conversations in talk therapy about why the heat bothered me, we never developed ways to tolerate it. But at Othership, I made it through the entire session. I felt so proud to conquer that fear.

The health benefits of a cold plunge

Then it was time for the cold-water plunge. My curiosity with cold as a way to regulate emotions first came up when my talk therapist. She taught me that holding ice cubes in my hand can help when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Aimed at decreasing my feelings of panic, cold water has a variety of health benefits overall, as any obsessed cold-plunger will tell you. In a study by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, a test group of young men were immersed in a variety of different temperatures of water. The results showed a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. Additionally, there was even an increase in metabolism and dopamine as the water got colder.

The physical benefits of water circuit therapy, cycling between cold and hot water, are a bit murkier. J. Sawalla Guseh, a sports cardiologist at Mass General Brigham in Boston, says that “the short and long-term benefits of cold-water immersion therapies for the regular population are unproven, especially beyond their impact on the musculoskeletal system.”

And there are short-term physiological responses to cold therapies, like an increase in adrenaline and elevated blood pressure, to keep in mind. “If you have [arterial disease] or heart muscle disease, extreme cold immersion may not be the best approach,” Guseh says. He also warns patients about the risk of hypothermia and certain rheumatologic conditions.

The health benefits of hot saunas

Resting in a hot sauna can boost serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, says neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius . The combination of all three—dopamine is the happiness hormone, serotonin encourages a sense of calm and oxytocin helps you relax—is what results in that post-sauna good mood.

While the physical and mental benefits of water circuit therapy may vary from person to person, one thing is for sure: The shock of immersing yourself in a tub of cold water is an unforgettable experience. Although I was hesitant about whether Othership was a gimmick, I was proven wrong. When I emerged from the cold water, I felt proud of my resilience. My internal monologue of racing thoughts was silenced and I stepped away feeling calm.

Othership helped me find a level of healing I wasn’t able to reach with talk therapy. I appreciated the space to not just work through things in my head, but also to get in tune with my mind and body.

And if you’re my therapist and you’re reading this? Don’t worry, I’ll still make it to our next session.

Next: My Phone Makes Me Anxious—Can a Meditation App Help?

Originally Published in Best Health Canada