With the increased use of technology in our daily lives, the cure for that tired and groggy feeling after too much screen time may be as simple as getting up and going for a walk. Studies indicate that seeking out green space can not only make you feel better, but can boost creativity, reduce anxiety and may help with other more serious ailments. There is now a growing body of scientific evidence that spending just 120 minutes per week in a natural setting is enough time to reap the benefits of being in nature.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

John Muir

forest bathing fern, healing benefits of natureHealing through nature is not a new phenomenon. Famous naturalist John Muir may have been ahead of his time when he recommended ambling walks through the woods to help clear the mind. The Japanese have also been practicing forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku), a form of ecotherapy since the 80s. They discovered that when people spend more time in the forest it drastically improves their mood. Breathing fresh forest air has positive measured effects on our health. The science behind this phenomenon is that conifer trees emit forest aerosols, that fresh piney scent that we know and love. According to the study found here, fresh organic compounds, called terpenes have been proven to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic and even anti-tumour properties.

Curious to dive deeper? There are a growing number of books on the subject of trees and the complex world both above and below the ground. Scientist and professor of forest ecology, Dr. Suzanne Simard wrote the groundbreaking book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, which uncovers the way trees communicate in the forest setting and author Peter Wohlleben penned the wildly popular book The Hidden Life of Trees. Both are worth a read – ideally while sitting underneath the branches of a nearby Fir or Maple.

“Forests hide wonders that we are only beginning to explore.”

Peter Wohlleben

nature bathing, blue landscape negative ion benefitsThe advantages of spending time outdoors doesn’t stop in the forest. Ever wonder why you feel so great after inhaling a lungful of invigorating ocean air? Scientists have suggested that oxygen atoms found near blue space (aquatic regions like oceans and waterfalls) contain extra electrons which can be used as a form of negative ion therapy to help with seasonal affective disorder.

And the science doesn’t stop there. It’s not only what we are breathing that may help us relax outdoors: nature sounds and soundscapes can also contribute to our sense of well-being. (Think of the calming effects of a soft breeze rustling through the leaves or the ebb and flow of the ocean as it laps the shore.

Don’t live near the open sea? Here are some related ideas to get you going:

  • Heading outside to stargaze (dark nature) counts as positive outdoor time. Studies indicate that time spent staring into the cosmos may increase our sense of awe in the natural world and may provide us mere mortals with a feeling of profound peace.
  • Committing to walk regularly with a friend or group can help clock in more outdoor time. Seeking other outdoor enthusiasts via online meetup groups is another great way to up your weekly nature therapy. Here in Victoria BC, why not check out Victoria Nature Walks, a weekly meetup of like-minded walkers.
  • Need inspiration for new walking and hiking trails? Try Theo Dombrowski’s series of useful guide books such as Popular Day Hikes: Vancouver Island — Revised & Updated (RMB 2019) or check out these 10 top rated hiking trails on Vancouver Island.

The best part of nature therapy is that it is free and easy to get started. Just don your outdoor shoes, throw on a jacket and head to the nearest park to start feeling the benefits of the great outdoors.

A guide to getting out of your comfort zone and into cold water.

What to Expect

Plunging into the cold is an amazing way to rinse off toxins, release endorphins and show yourself what you’re capable of. Even Hippocrates avowed the benefits of soaking in cold water. When your body first experiences the shock of cold water, you won’t be thinking anymore, you will just be feeling. You will feel stillness, pure energy, the flow of blood delivering oxygen and nutrients into the deepest parts of your brain, and the true power of your mind. Once you get a taste of that feeling, you will crave it, chase it and want more of it. Let’s dive in.

How long in the cold?

The immediate impact of cold water can be uncomfortable, even downright painful, but your body can adapt with repeated exposure. The result of sacrificing your comfort is extraordinary. Cold is a stressor and if you are able to learn to control your body’s response to it, you will better be able to control stress in its many forms. The more you integrate cold plunging into your life, the greater the payoff will be.

A good target time for a cold plunge is three minutes in the water. Eventually you will be able to add more time, but the most important thing is to listen to your body. For complete cold plunge beginners, you can develop your tolerance by taking a quick dip (30 seconds) or regular cold showers. Start with a warm shower and end with five minutes of cold. This will help you become more immune to the cold.

how to cold plunge with Marci Hotsenpillar, Nordic Ritual Spa Victoria BC

What The Iceman (and the Experts) Say

If you’ve taken a look online and started your own research on this topic, you’ve likely come across a range of interesting medical studies and papers on the topic. And no doubt you will also have found the “grandfather” of cold plunge Wim Hof (aka the Iceman). Hof’s dedication to the practice is impressive. He has been a major force in introducing many newcomers to it.

“There is scientific evidence that cold exposure in combination with conscious breathing, meditation and a positive mental attitude, has far-reaching benefits to human health.”

Wim Hof

And for a more measured (and medical) view on how cold can shock the body in a good way, check out what Dr. Rhonda Patrick has to say about cold plunge and the effect it has on metabolism, muscle soreness, recovery, athletic performance and the brain.

Prep for Plunging

Here are a few practical tips before taking the plunge:

  • Prepare yourself by visualizing how you will enter the water and how you want to feel.
  • When you’re ready, confidently get in, taking deep breaths to calm your brain and nervous system.
  • Allow your breath to slow down and get even deeper when you’re actually in the water. This helps signal to your brain that “I’m ok.” (This techniques can even help with feelings of overwhelm, anger, frustrations and anxiety during other difficult times in life and rewire your brain to not always go into “fight or flight” mode.)
  • Be aware that you may experience hyperventilation, or quicker breathing, which is an involuntary physiological response that subsides over time as the body relaxes and adjusts.
  • Stay strong and remember to breathe. It will get easier after the first minute. Try letting out a long “hummmm” on your exhales to stay present through the cold.

To get the most out of cold plunging, submerge your entire body, even your head briefly if you can. The total body dip exposes your whole body, thyroid and back of the neck, which elicits a more dramatic hormonal response. After you fully dip, you can also dip your face in periodically throughout the plunge, which will send a dramatic message into the nervous system to maximize the benefits you desire. Once enough time has passed—based completely on your own decision for what is “enough”—exit the water and dry off, warm yourself in a robe and if possible, rest with your feet up, ideally at the same level of your heart.

If you are cold plunging as part of your sauna circuit, be sure to rest at this point (as the relax phase) before going back into the heat of sauna.

Customers enjoying their time at Ritual Nordic Spa's sauna circuit

The ability to withstand cold increases with practice and improves your body’s circulation, ability to regulate heat, and mental fortitude.

Practice and Integration

The key is sticking to a schedule and turning cold immersion into a ritual. Once you do so you’ll see the wonders that cold plunging can have for your mental, spiritual and physical well-being. Plus, it only takes five minutes—at the most! As mentioned, you can start small. Try a one minute cold shower in the morning—a common practice of many during recent Covid-related lockdowns—and build up from there.

We guarantee at the very least, you will go into your day feeling more awake, alive and present. Think of cold immersion as an intense workout that pushes the limits of your body and challenges your mind as well.

Meet the founder of Ritual Nordic Spa, Mari Hotsenpiller

“My first sauna experience was on the shores of a cold lake in Ontario at my Grandmothers’ cottage,” explains Marci Hotsenpiller, founder of Ritual. “She came to Canada from Finland in the 1920s with her sister, and one of the first things they did after saving enough money was build a sauna beside a lake. The cottage was built second.” That sauna is still standing (catch a glimpse of it in the Ritual Instagram under “saunas we love”).

“We would fire up and stoke the sauna in the evenings as it was getting dark. After a session we’d run into the lake, then float around looking up at the stars before going back inside.”

Back in the city Marci learned about Finnish culture and traditions—like how to bake Pulla bread and evoke feelings of the forest, even in the middle of a city. “I remember staying with my Grandmother in Toronto and she would heat up a cast iron pan on the stove and fry pine needles. This was in the middle of winter. I loved that tingly smell of pine, like a campfire.”

But a different experience in her teens led Marci to the recovery aspect of hot and cold therapy as a way to relieve sore muscles.  “I grew up in a ski racing family and in summer we would train on the glaciers in the Austrian and Swiss Alps. After the end of a hard week, the treat was to visit a local mountain spa.”  (These places were and still are clean, straightforward and affordable: more like a recreation centre than a fancy spa and seen as a necessary part of wellness, not a luxury. Sometimes even covered by medical benefits.) “We would do the sauna and steam room, then cold plunge, and sit outside and look at the mountains. Our muscles loved it.” 

Years later, living in Victoria, she yearned for a similar experience: “I ran the Victoria marathon and then drove to Willows beach and stood in the ocean, then I drove to a rec centre to have a sauna, and the next day I drove to go get a massage.”  Having all three things in one place became the vision for Ritual. 

It took time to find the right downtown space to accommodate a cold plunge pool, but eventually Ritual found its spot. ”It’s our mission to connect with people who love sauna, and to introduce new people to it as well. We built Ritual as a place to do exactly that.”

How Finn’s like to sauna

As more Nordic spas have opened across Canada and the US, some of these facilities have chosen to follow a silence policy, where guests are asked to keep quiet in the sauna or when using the pools. People wonder if this is an ancient Finnish or Scandinavian tradition or requirement.

Ask a Finn and you will get a laugh—or a smirk—and a “no.” In Finland the sauna is a place to meet with friends and family, and converse with others who are present. It is a place of equality as well, with many believing the popular saying that everyone looks the same in a towel. The usual markers of class and status aren’t present when you are naked or in a bathing suit sitting beside someone in sauna.

“All people are created equal, but nowhere more so than in sauna.”

Finnish Saying.

One benefit of being able to talk in the sauna is the opportunity to hear from other people, who may not be the usual people you chat with in your usual, everyday life.  You can chime in if you feel like it or walk out into the fresh air to clear your mind.

Today in busy North American cities, it can feel like there are fewer options to informally meet or interact with others in real life, away from phones, the internet or work. The rise in popularity of the Nordic spa, modern sauna house or “social wellness club” (as some of these place are called) offers a kind of neutral “third space” between work and home.

Sauna  – where the unrelated can relate (if they wish)

At Ritual, we provide both types of sauna experience: the large sauna in the Nordic circuit area suits up to 12 people and can be a busy, social, fun space. (Especially in the evenings when it tends to get busier and more active. For a quieter visit try for a midweek morning sauna circuit booking.)  And for those who prefer a less-social sauna experience, there are private sauna suites. Beautiful spaces to be on your own, with a partner, family, or close friends, enjoying sauna on your own terms. In silence or discussing whatever comes to mind.