Invigorating. Refreshing. Exhilarating. These are the words I use to describe the newest part of my morning loosening-up ritual.
Everybody I tell about it has a different word for it: crazy.
As a student of Korean martial arts, I've been aware for some time that many Koreans and other Asians believe exposure to cold to be therapeutic.
Over the years, I've seen many photographs of Korean martial artists standing under icy waterfalls or working out in the snow bare-chested.
My hapkido instructor, Master Mike Morton, has kept this tradition alive by personally embracing cold water therapy on a daily basis by refusing to hook up the hot water heater in his home. Additionally, he has shared this tradition with his students by having us immerse ourselves in the frigid waters from a spring on the Eleven Point River during campouts.
After reading about a 106-year-old man who claimed his long life was due to his habit of counting to 100 while standing under a cold shower, I decided last summer to give it a shot.
It certainly made stepping out into the hot, wet summer air a bit more bearable in the mornings. It's also a great way to cool down enough to stop sweating following a summer workout.
But I have to admit, as winter set in and temperatures dropped, I chickened out at first and dropped the cold showers.
After a month of winter, however, I began to feel ashamed of myself. After all, how bad could it possibly be? Fresh water can't get any colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit or it becomes ice. Winter air - especially with a wind - gets MUCH colder than that, I reasoned.
Frostbite won't set in at that temperature after only a minute or so. Besides, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger," as Friedrich Nietzsche put it.
So I resumed my cold shower routine while the temperatures were still low. It's kind of like jumping in a cold pool, only instead of jumping, you just reach down, turn the knob to "freezing" and brace yourself for the shock.
The next step is to take back control of your breathing - slow, deep inhalations through the nose and slow exhalations through the mouth instead of the quick gasps and pants your body tries to take.
I do my best to keep my count slow and steady. As the initial sensation of cold goes away after 10-15 seconds under the stream, I turn every 20 counts, letting my entire body share in the fun.
According to the Wikipedia, hydrotherapy, formerly called hydropathy, is probably the oldest form of medical treatment.
Proponents of cold water dousing claim it makes them feel healthier, breathe better and have more tolerance to the cold; that it is a way of rejuvenating the body, mind and spirit.
The Earth Clinic Web site claims "cold showers are also excellent for clearing electrical static from your energy field that can accumulate from cell phones, airport and courthouse x-ray machines and powerful electrical lights in museums and electronic stores."
It also claims cold showers bring blood to the capillaries, therefore increasing circulation throughout the body; clean the circulatory system; reduce blood pressure on internal organs; provide flushing for the organs and a new supply of blood; strengthen the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems; contract muscles to eliminate toxins and poisonous wastes; and strengthen the mucous membranes, which help resist hay fever, allergies, colds, coughs.
An extensive "reader feedback" section is full of testimonials about the benefits of cold showers.
A Russian named Porphiri Ivanov also endorsed cold water therapy as part of his "natural tempering" program.
"I think it triggers the reflex which brings us to life at birth. As we're born, the temperature drops by 20 or 30 degrees, and this triggers our first intake of breath," wrote Jonathan Christie, Ph.D., on his primal therapy Web site. "As you turn the temperature down in the shower, there comes a point for many people when the eyes open wide and there's an involuntary intake of breath, usually accompanied by a renewed sense of focus on matters at hand and a lift in the spirits."
Gurumustuk Singh of Espanola, N.M., suggests on his Web site, www.mrsikhnet.com, that "You will probably become very holy the moment the cold water hits your body, because it is likely you will shout, 'Oh my God!'"
All I know is I better live to be 106.