As the coldest months of the year start to bite, the winter warriors among us embrace the crisp morning air, while the sun bunnies shuffle head-down in search of the warmth of indoors.
Auckland wellness centre Hana has a treatment in store no matter which season you favour – contrast therapy. It’s the process of repeatedly immersing the body in extreme temperatures in order to stimulate myriad health benefits.
The effects of contrast therapy are immediate, says Hana’s founder, Sara Higgins. As well as a feeling of invigoration and alertness, “you can experience some benefits straight away, such as reduced muscle pain and inflammation, and increased energy”. A solid night's sleep is virtually guaranteed, too.
For those seeking sustained benefits, Higgins recommends continued weekly or twice-weekly sessions for greater results.
The interchanging between vasodilation (blood-vessel expansion) and vasoconstriction from the hot and cold temperatures improves circulation and assists in muscle recovery and muscle lactate reduction. Contrast therapy also aids the lymph vessels in moving fluid to reduce swelling, help boost the immune system and increase metabolism. For those with chronic inflammatory conditions, a few sessions are needed to start seeing results, says Higgins.
While it may seem too good to be true, bear in mind we all use temperature therapy in our daily lives – an ice pack on a twinged ankle, a heat bag on a niggly back.
The concept of contrast therapy has old roots, too: the ancient Greeks and Romans dipped between hot and cold pools at bath complexes.
At Hana, contrast therapy involves moving between an infrared sauna and an ice-cold plunge bath. The idea is to swap between the two temperature extremes a few times, but it’s not a strict rule; guests can start in one and finish in the other, moving as little or as often as they desire. It’s not for the faint-hearted, however: “extreme temperatures” means extreme temperatures.
Clients start in Hana’s luxurious infrared sauna, where the temperature is hiked up to 70C for 20 minutes. Compare that with the kinder 50C in a standard 40-minute session and the difference is instantly noticeable. The heat has an immediate impact on the body, prickling the pores open within the first minute and causing heavy beads of sweat to fall soon after.
The intensity of the sauna’s heat causes you to keep your eye on a handy wall timer nearby, counting the minutes to 20. As soon as the last second ticks over, it’s straight under the rain shower to cool off and rinse away a slick coat of sweat.
The first plunge into the cold bath is by far the most challenging part of the contrast-therapy process, although, thankfully, it’s over before you know it. A mere one to four minutes in the cold bath is all you need, which is just enough time to control your breathing and lose sensation in your toes.
Higgins has a cold bath almost every morning, which she says has given her increased energy, reduced stress and smoother, more hydrated skin.
The cold bath is set to 6C, which although doesn’t sound terribly cold, is in fact painfully so. The temperature is such a shock to the body that both breath rate and heart rate skyrocket, and it takes your entire mental strength to focus on controlling your breathing.
Higgins encourages you to let your nervous system calm you down by pushing past the shock and allowing yourself to “drop in”. Once you’ve managed to bring your breath rate down, a hopeful check of another wall timer indicates it's time for round two.
The second time in the infrared sauna is the most heavenly feeling imaginable. It's a similar sensation to getting drenched in the winter rain on the way home from work, taking a hot shower and getting into your pyjamas. It’s a cosy hug, a hot tea, a summer afternoon. You could sit there for hours. The intensity and discomfort of the first sauna don’t eventuate, and the timer ticks over to another 20 minutes far too soon.
Rinse and repeat the final cold bath. You might think the second cold bath wouldn’t be so bad, since you know what you’re in for. Unfortunately, the cold shock is just as immobilising as it was the first time, but the timer is still on your side.
The final few minutes are dedicated to enjoying the rain shower one last time, and making the most of the natural Sans [Ceuticals] body-care range.
With the wall timer counting down the final minutes, it's easy to allow it to dictate your time in the contrast-therapy room. While it’s integral to making sure you spend time at each temperature, the experience would be more relaxing if you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock. But perhaps relaxing isn’t the intended mood, despite the tranquil aesthetics.
The hour is over quickly, and it’s clear to see why contrast therapy is a popular treatment. Hana has been offering it for only a few months, but it’s already a hit with sports people looking for effective recovery from strenuous activity. If you’re fatigued, aching, or simply curious, it’s worth taking the plunge into contrast therapy.
Hana, The Scrapyard, 18 Westmoreland St West, Grey Lynn, Auckland