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An Icy Plunge in Playa del Carmen

I am taking a few months in Playa del Carmen, on the so-called Mayan Riviera, to teach meditation and to enjoy life a bit. One of the first things I did was to track down my buddy, Kevin Connelly, whose company, Reconnect ( (, organizes breath work and ice baths in Playa del Carmen.

Now, it's not impossible that some people would detect a certain irony in talking about enjoying life and taking ice baths in the same breath. I must say that I agree that plunging into ice water up to my neck was not high on my list of highly anticipated pleasures when I arrived in Playa del Carmen the other day.

Meditating on the beach at sunrise? Yes, indeed.

A nice hatha yoga class? Yes. A peaceful moment listening to the surf on the beach? Yes, again. A fish taco and a beer? Yes, please. Long sandy walks on the beach with the breeze of the Gulf of Mexico on my skin? Absolutely. Lowering myself into ice water for three and a half minutes as I hyperventilate and only stay in the water to maintain some shred of dignity? Hmmmmm...

Well, I must admit there's something to this breathing and ice bath thing, after all. Reconnect suggests that, "Ice baths train us to remain calm during stress. We thus build resilience to situations that could otherwise cause anxiety." They further suggest that an ice bath, "Builds a strong immune system, decreases inflammation, and aids in weight loss by generating heat in your body." And last but not least, "Ice baths increase testosterone, aid in infertility, and stimulate healthy blood flow to all parts of the body."

Sounds good to me! All I know is that, even though the ice bath was a real shock to the system, I felt fantastic afterwards...

Now, as for the process...The ice bath experience began with a talk from Sarah, who reminded us that the first minute of the three and a half is the worst--I can attest to that!-- and that you just need to stay calm and breathe slowly because your body may be slightly in shock. We would do 15 minutes of breathing first to prepare both body and mind. As she spoke, Kevin quietly filled the portable baths with sea water and large bags of ice. (I'm sitting in the back, listening carefully! Thanks for the pictures, Kevin and Reconnect team.)

Next, we lay down and did a variety of breathing exercises to increase circulation and calm the body and mind. Quick breaths, long breaths, holding breath...And all the while thinking, "What am I doing? I don't even like a cold shower!"

After 15 minutes of breathing, assurances from Sarah that the first minute is the worst, and that we can all learn to deal with discomfort and recover our equanimity...The plunges began!

Sarah first asked for volunteers. I did not jump to the front of the line. There were enough ice bath veterans who immediately leapt into the breach, so I just watched as they casually lowered themselves into the ice water. Even though they didn't make a fuss, I knew that I was not going to take it so calmly.

After a couple of others took their turns, another guy and I stood up and approached the baths. Sarah said they like the participants to high five before they take the plunge, so...

And after that high five, I turned and looked at that bath full of ice water and hesitated. I thought of all those times I had approached a cold body of water and stuck a toe in, then a foot, then a shin, then a knee...And with each inch of cold water I pulled my leg back out and thought, "I should probably just jump in, but..."

Well, thank god there was a crowd of people there to assure that I wouldn't chicken out! So, as Sarah encouraged me just to pop right in, I girded the loins and put both legs in--and thought, "No thanks!" But I wasn't going to allow myself to back out, so I lowered myself into the bath and almost immediately felt that shock to the system that absolutely took my breath away.

That look on my face doesn't lie!

I began to hyperventilate immediately. Sarah patiently reminded me to slow down my breathing, to remember that the first minute is the worst, and that I just need to remain calm while I adjust to the sensation...

And I slowly, slowly, brought my breath more under control--all that meditation and yoga does come in handy here!--and sought to remind myself that I can handle this for a few minutes.

Thirty seconds. Sarah says, "You can do it!" One minute. It's still pretty crazy, but not quite as bad. I look out at the waves, feel the breeze on my skin. "Half way there!"

More focus on the waves and breeze, my mind calms down a bit, I feel slightly better. "Thirty more seconds. You're almost there!" I decide that I won't jump out until the full three and a half minutes. "Okay, time's up!' I stand up and get out without a second thought.

And I felt fantastic. Still a bit shaken, but my body felt vibrant and alive. I walked into the water and laughed with relief. My fellow ice bather and I exchanged a few words as we splashed about in the surf, and I have the impression that he has handled himself better than I did. But no matter! We both feel great.

And I am pretty sure that this is one of those experiences that every meditator should try at least once. Do you want to sit with powerful emotions and sensations? With the voice of the ego telling you that you can't take it? With all of those narratives circulating in your mind that say, "No, this is too much!'

And then you discover that you actually can do it and that you're just fine...And who was that babbling in my mind as I sat in the ice water, anyway? It's well worth a try.

Now, the postscript to this story is that I was telling my daughter, a wonderful athlete who recently graduated from college, about how painful the ice bath was, how it was a shock to the system, etc. She just smiled and said, "I loved taking ice baths while I was in college! They were great!"

Hmmmm...So apparently an athlete with sore muscles has a very different experience of ice baths than does a meditation and yoga teacher! But still--we both felt great afterwards, so that, at least, we had in common!

If you're in Playa del Carmen and want to do some meditation, get in touch through this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

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