I've been to Anna's retreat twice already, and the third session is in the diary. The trio of breathwork, cold water immersion and infrared sauna therapy I experienced there are challenging and calming on a cellular level.
With Anna, I broke new ground. I never thought I could hold my breath for 2.5 minutes. I can. I never thought I could sit in an ice bath - outside, in winter - for a full 5 minutes. I can. And that niggling back pain I've had two MRIs for? It definitely felt better after the contrast therapy of hot sauna and cold water.
Reach a certain age and we're more likely to suffer stress, aches and pains and decreased immune resilience. I asked Anna to explain how breathing correctly, cold water immersion and infrared sauna exposure have the power to transform us all for the better.
Anna, how and why did you become a breathwork coach and discover the potential of cold water therapy?
I became curious about breathwork after many years of trying to find ease with the chronic anxiety I suffered, and to find natural ways that could regulate my nervous system. I first became aware of the powerful benefits of connecting consciously with my breath whilst studying to become a pranayama breath coach through a wonderful teacher called Michael Bijker of Yogalap and the brilliant Patrick Mckeown, founder of the Oxygen Advantage. It was through Patrick's teachings that I became much calmer, but also learnt about the importance of how we bring oxygen into our body. This also coincided with a deep exploration around cold water therapy: I was looking for ways to control one's 'state' with just the breath during an uncomfortable experience. These interests, combined with a diploma in physiology and anatomy, became the foundation to my daily life, helping to support me physically and emotionally. I'd finally found something that quietened my very busy mind and that was accessible to me 24/7.
What are the symptoms to look for that improved breathing could alleviate?
As we've evolved we've become primarily mouth breathers which can cause a host of complications. If your stress levels are high, if you suffer from brain fog, poor sleep and digestion, fatigue, body aches and pains, these can all be greatly improved if we can bring some awareness to how we are breathing. Our brain requires 20 percent of our oxygen uptake, so if we aren't getting the biomechanics right - meaning slowing down our inhale, using the nose only and engaging our diaphragm - in the long term the body will start to send signals of distress, manifesting as the aforementioned symptoms.
What are the physiological benefits of cold water therapy? And what happens if we combine this with infra red sauna, as you do at your retreats in Buckinghamshire?
The cold is hugely powerful in controlling our stress levels and our adaptation to stress. The sensation of the 'uncomfortable' is simply signals to the brain to instigate the need to control our response. The natural reflex is to gasp, whereas if we use the anchor of our breath to move from 'fight or flight' mode we can soon move more into a parasympathic drive, known as 'rest and digest'. We also get a burst of endorphins - our feel good hormones - that can help relieve pain and inflammation in the body, along with an increase of dopamine (by 250%) which can increase our clarity, motivation and pleasure.
Incorporating Infrared heat therapy is a magnificent addition alongside the cold. Sauna therapy encourages detoxification: as our core temperature warms up our blood rushes to the surface of the skin and our body adapts to the heat 'stress' with sweating. Our internal cooling system is at play here and simultaneously helps to eliminate toxins. I've found infrared heat helps me unwind - the warmth promotes muscle relaxation and can reduce stress levels. The heat induces blood flow and studies have shown that with regular use - 4 to 7 times per week - we can reduce our risk of sudden cardiac arrest, coronary heart disease, dementia, stroke and Alzheimer's by up to 60 percent. It's also a natural reliever for sore muscles, aches and pains.
What can we expect at a retreat with you?
My studio, tucked away in rural Buckinghamshire, provides a tranquil, natural setting to create a memorable experience. For those I've had the pleasure to guide into the cold and help with respiratory health, the most important part of the session or retreat is building connection. It isn't a 'one size fits all' experience. I adapt the session to each person, giving them time to ask questions, so thatthey can leave empowered and informed, and able to use these practises at home. Trust, safety, time and listening are crucial when holding space for my clients, and I would say the relationships and bonds I've made have been just as rewarding as the work itself.
How regularly do we need to practice to really absorb the benefits of cold water? Can we simply sit in an ice bath at home?
For those who may not be comfortable with water yet still want the benefits of the cold, simply taking some layers off whilst out in the colder months can have a positive impact according to studies. We mustn't get too caught up in extreme temperatures and long durations, this can in fact have the reverse effect and stress our adrenals causing more fatigue. In the water, anything below 16 degrees is enough. I recommend starting gently and slowly turning the temperature down as you adapt. We are causing hormetic stress so it's important to know our limits.
Cold water can be dangerous without knowledge and preparation - I had a scary experience myself once at Hampstead Ladies Pond after staying in too long. What do we need to be mindful of?
Always have someone with you as you begin this new practise in case of any adverse reactions and keep well hydrated as the cold can lead to increased urine production. Studies have shown that just 15 minutes a week broken down over different days, and anything from 16 degrees and below is beneficial.
These are my key points to be mindful of when practising cold water therapy:
Start gradually - shorter durations to start with and gradually increase over time.
Know your limits - Pay attention to your bodies signals. If you experience a sudden headache, dizziness or extreme shivering you must get out immediately.
Health considerations - Consult with a healthcare professional first, especially if you have cardiovascular issues, respiratory conditions or other health concerns.
Warm up afterwards - Gradually warm up afterwards, and as naturally as possible as this increases the benefits. Very gentle movements and a warm beverage is great to help bring our core temperature back up with ease.
Avoid in certain conditions - If you're sick and fatigued or recovering from intense physical activity then do not consider cold water immersion.
Educate yourself - Understand the proper techniques for cold water immersion and be aware of all the potential risks and benefits.
What else do you have in your wellness toolkit that we can draw on this year? Which routines are fundamental you?
I think it's so important that we create a platter of wellness tools, that on certain days we can choose what our body and mind need. For me, the fundamentals are connecting with my breath, my anchor, first thing; a sauna and cold dip along with movement, sometimes resistance training in addition to long walks daily out in nature with my dogs - whatever the weather!! I love to listen to podcasts - those that I can learn from and feel inspired by - and a good book is always a treat. These habits give me clarity, peace, and boost my overall health.