Quite a delight to visit the newly renovated swimming baths in Reykjavik. Sundhöllin, is the oldest of the public baths in Iceland and a real treat. Taking a bath is to enter into a delicate, well considered, wholesome experience. So I found Sundhöllin, next to the Church, as it happens, to explore the ins and outs. Geothermal immersions and vapours are the go for squeaky clean pipes and pores. Guðjón Samúelson, the architect, did a fine job feeding the pleasure-seeking souls with orderly and majestic Art Deco lines and an empathetic colour tone. Tub after tub, hot and cold, I felt like Goldilocks testing the waters, not porridge, though I would have tried; rice and milk, that is. Imagine… the waters were a feast for the old bod.
I looked on curiously at the silence of a lady in the tub. She was in a cold bath. We smiled at each other with a certain knowing. She was meditating. Well, she needed to. This cold bath thing takes a lot of mindful strength. She had been practicing, of that there is no doubt. I went in and I came out again. I moved into the steam bath and back into the cold, executing the process with an element of elegant decorum and the body, with the mind, in wilful child mode, trailing a little uneasily behind. This went on for quite some time. Mental resolve. The breath. The counting. Count yourself in and count yourself out. I could look forward to reduced inflammation in my body, a fortified immune system, the rebalancing of my hormones and improved sleep and of course, the production of endorphins to make me oh so happy. I am in, and then out again. With pranayama, the yogic breath is focused on the continual rhymical count that no thought can penetrate, if you have been practicing regularly. I had been, so I took this into the cold bath. With my inner strength reignited, armed with focus and determination, I could observe the sensations of cold on my skin. Penetrating pores, cells oscillating to attention. It is said that mindful awareness can be heightened in this way and I could feel it. My toes became numb. I was becoming increasingly aware of my feet. I considered exiting on all fours, like when I scrambled up the volcano ridge, but that would mean a deeper immersion up to my chin. I needed time, just a bit more. Where was that critical point when I let go of mastering my mind and accepted my human fragility and stepped on out? About now.
Build. With breath and a counted rhythm moving between cold and hot tubs can be executed with increased mastery. Of course the internal body and external temperatures play a part in the length of time you can tolerate these intense sensations.
In Iceland it is common practice to scrub the body thoroughly before entering the bath, which are shiny. Feeling stripped of any toxic residue, I encountered a nifty device to extract water from my bathers in eight seconds. Neat. Hairdryers were on tap and I sensed that for Icelanders beer might be too after the cleanse. Defeat the purpose? Maybe. Another common cultural practice is to discuss politics, business or the weather during your immersion. On heating the coals, my sauna companion turned out to be from SkagastrÖnd, where I was travelling to. We discussed the weather. It is a known fact that when clothes are discarded, everyone becomes equal and this provides the perfect platform for social interaction. Obviously the cold tubs were silent spots. I went there.
And it has a name, all this cold/hot tub hopping. Despite being embedded in Icelandic culture, Wimhof, a Dutch Iceman, got hold of it. Everyone is doing it, well almost, and my time in Iceland will ask me to keep at it. My patience, dedication and determination will be something else, apparently. And it can be done at home. You will need two baths, a good hot water system, functioning breathing apparatus and a lot of ice.