An Absolute Doorway to the Soul

“The cold is an absolute doorway to the soul.” – Wim Hof, The Ice Man

I’ve run four Tough Mudders and five other obstacle course races.  Why do people do this?  Everyone has their reasons, but for me, when I’m in the freezing ice-water, crawling through claustrophobic pipes half filled with water, jumping off platforms into more cold water, crawling through mud, getting electrocuted, and pushing my brain and body through 12 miles of that shit, it’s a vacation!  A vacation from the mundane and the rigmarole of distraction throughout our daily lives.  The chatter, the multi-tasking, the dishes, dinner, laundry, phone, news, work, the lawn, traffic, and wait … what’s for lunch?  All that goes away and you’re there, completely engaged with the universe.

I’ve trained and worked with MMA fighters and many will say this about being in the octagon: When you’re in there, everything else goes away. It’s not office politics or life drama.  For that short period of time, you’re there; completely.  All that outside noise is gone.  It’s liberating and refreshing.

As for training with Wim Hof, it’s not something I’ve done.  Not yet.  Maybe not at all; I haven’t made up my mind.  I’ve read his books and follow the method on his website.  I love the breathing and concentration part.  I hate the freezing cold water part.  So, we’ll see.  But as he says, when you’re in that cold water, all you can focus on is survival.  Your mind, body, and soul are all engaged in the same place and it’s an amazing thing to experience.

So, if we don’t want to get our face kicked in, get hypothermia in a lake near the north pole, or use our body as the bottom of a twenty-foot tall human ladder, while eating someone’s muddy Adidas, what can we do to get this same feeling?

Binge watch Game of Thrones?  Stranger Things?  Billions?  No, that’s not it.  But yes, watch these shows.  It’s not yoga, but not everything needs to be.  Sometimes it just feels good to see what The North is going to do next.

Run a 5k?  A half-marathon?  A whole marathon?  An ultra- … wait; no, just stop.  I’m not running that far.  Ever.  After two miles, my brain strobe-lights content due to the boredom.  I’m everywhere, but “there”.  Ugh, running sucks!  But, for those people who immerse into the run, it’s their yoga.  The breath, the rhythm, the trance.

The gym?  Yeah, because wearing earbuds with our face in a cell phone between sets, sitting on a machine, surrounded by TVs is total focus, right?  No.  But, there are some people who lose the world around them, during that squat and for them, that is their yoga.  The focus, the technique, the effort.

Yoga means union.  Union with the universe, where our brain, body, spirit and focus all come together as one with our environment.  Whatever our yoga is, it should be an absolute doorway to the soul.  For me, it’s yoga.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash


A Gray Matter

Gray matter: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s (f)ears and the summit of his knowledge. You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”

Thank you, Rod Serling.

Our gray matter; as much as we know about it, is still kind of a mystery in how it actually works.  We could, almost verbatim, plug in our latest weird dream into a hit twilight zone episode.  It’s crazy what goes on in there.

Our brain is our CPU and as we age, it ages with us.  It takes longer to upload, download, and process information.  It’s slower to access the memory cache.  It gets sluggish, maybe a glitch here and there, and we forget why we walked into this room.  Where are my keys?

We used to think we couldn’t do anything to prevent this and thoughts about reversing damage was just as crazy as the fifth dimension.  As it turns out though, we can, through neuroplasticity.

Our brain has the ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment.  Our brains are malleable, like plastic.  And this plasticity can be improved.

Through neuroplasticity, undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were damaged.  Basically, if the outlet on our wall is damaged, the television won’t function, so we reroute the power cord to another outlet that works and we’re able to watch Stranger Things.

While neuroplasticity is rewiring, neurogenesis is growth.  The production of our brain’s neurons is most active while we’re still in the womb, but we can still develop new neurons into adulthood.  Yeah; this is big.  Really big.

As we age, or get closer to our twilight years, our gray matter shrinks, but we can prevent it and maybe even increase it.  Wait … what?  How?  Movement.  Nutrition, sleep, and removing toxic substances such as aluminum all play important roles, but the star of this episode is movement.

Engaged, whole-body exercise.

By “engaged”, I mean mind and body together.  Yoga and many forms of martial arts produce incredible results, because we have to move our bodies through space in a specific way that requires concentration, mindfulness, and focus, as well as lots of breathing.  Social aspects and connectedness also play a big part.  Cortisol (stress hormone) causes significant damage, but engaged mind-body exercise regulates this problem.

Regular exercise is associated with increased size of the hippocampus (memory) and reversing volume loss.  It increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain and produces a greater release of accumulated toxins, while producing Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which increases neurogenesis.  We also improve angiogenesis, synaptogenesis, and the synthesis of neurotransmitters through exercise.

Anything else?  Yes.  Meditation.

Meditation can actually alter the physical structure of the brain.  According to researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT, meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and overall well-being.

Neuroplasticity:  It will keep our gray matter from getting lost in the twilight zone.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash