Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Yoga & Other Bodily Defenses from Cold

Jynne Dilling Martin, Antarctica poet-in-residence, strikes a glacial pose. (source:

by Tom Haushalter

Cold enough for you?

It's not even officially winter yet, but I swear my phone's weather app laughed at me when it displayed -18 degrees at sunrise yesterday.  Whether you're in northern New England like us—or elsewhere in the snowed-under world (a foot fell in Jerusalem!)—you get good at rationalizing the virtues of four, full seasons. But that doesn't mean our subarctic sanity is automatic. Thanks are owed to layers—many, many layers. And working wood stoves.

And our biological ability to adapt!

No, really. Just out in its 4th edition, Peter J. Marchand's essential Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology offers a comprehensive picture of the interactions of plants and animals—including humans—with their cold weather environment, and it's brimming with fascinating did-you-knows about how our bodies learn to cope with plummeting temps.

1. Shivering is your body's built-in rattling radiator. Increased muscle activity, such as through shivering, says Marchand, "remains our prinicipal mechanism for increasing heat production." At rest, our muscles contribute about 20% of our total heat output, but shivering can raise the metabolic rate fivefold. Marchand adds, "Even before shivering, a measurable increase in muscle tone occurs, often felt as a tightening of the neck and shoulder muscles, and this alone can double heat production."

2. Yoga is the thermal wear of physical exercises. Yes, yoga builds tolerance to cold! A study of some Tibetan Buddhists who live in unheated stone huts in the Himalayas showed that their practice of an intense meditative form of yoga, emphasizing relaxation and controlled breathing, created, according to Marchand, "an extraordinary ability to elevate skin temperature in their extremities by as much as 8 degrees within an hour of assuming their meditative posture."  

3. Canadians really are more chill. Marchand cites a case study of Quebec City mailmen, whose "blood pressure and heart rate were found to be substantially lower at the end of winter, as compared to the beginning of winter." And that calmer blood flow, a la those Tibetan yogis, might lead to a rise in temperature receptors in your brain. (Probably these shirt-sleeved Manitobans blowing bubbles at 45 below would assure you the cold is all in your head.)

4. Maybe think twice about that New Year weight-loss plan. Fattier skin acts like a layer of clothing! According to Marchand, "one centimeter of fat is said to have an insulative value [equivalent to] a layer of dry, uncompressed wool or cotton clothing." 

As if I needed another excuse to plunk my hand back into the holiday popcorn tin. 

Stay warm out there.

1 comment:

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