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Icelanders skip hot springs for ice baths

They breathe deeply, move slowly and say this therapy melts away stress and fatigue

Using slow, deliberate movements and deep breathing, bathers immerse themselves in the waters of a lake in south-western Iceland. The temperature above the frozen lake of Kleifarvatn is minus six deg C.

Grindavik, Iceland

USING slow, deliberate movements and deep breathing, bathers immerse themselves in the waters of an ice-covered lake in south-western Iceland.

While others might opt for the soothing hot springs for which the country is famous, this hardy group prefers an ice bath, all in the name of wellness.

The temperature above the frozen lake of Kleifarvatn, one of the country's deepest, is minus 6 deg C.

Equipped with an axe, Andri Einarsson, the co-instructor on this unusual seminar, cuts a hole through the sheet of ice covering the lake, located less than an hour's drive from the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, the milky-blue waters of which average 38 deg C.

Up on shore, a group of about 15 who have come from the outskirts of the capital Reykjavik is getting ready. Clad in puffer jackets or thick sweaters, they warm up with a series of movements and breathing exercises reminiscent of the traditional Maori haka war dance.

"They were just working on getting the system ready (for the cold), challenging their mind, just tapping in and doing what we call the 'brown fat activation'," said Mr Einarsson.

The breathing technique is one of the pillars of the Wim Hof Method, named after a Dutch athlete.

Nicknamed the "Iceman", Wim Hof has been setting world records and pursuing extraordinary feats of cold resistance for decades. In 2007, he climbed to an altitude of 7,400 m on Mount Everest dressed only in shorts, and he has completed a barefoot half-marathon north of the Arctic Circle. He lauds the benefits of his cold therapy - which combines breathing techniques, exposure to cold and meditation - as helping combat fatigue and stress, strengthening the immune system.

On the Kleifarvatn shore, despite the freezing cold, one by one, the jackets and sweaters are discarded in favour of swimwear, and the participants begin to take the plunge.

Many do not even hesitate - the exercise marks the end of a four-week programme in which they have progressively been exposed to the cold.

It began with water at 10 deg C, followed by a bath full of ice, before finally braving the frozen lake. For two minutes, they endure the icy water, concentrating on inhaling and exhaling, which according to the adepts, is the key to ignoring the biting pangs of the freezing temperatures.

Once out, walking back to dry land presents another challenge, as the cold water makes most people's legs go numb. "There is this feeling of needles and everything starts itching a little bit," said Marco Pizzolato as he returned from the hole in the ice.

When it comes to pain relief, the benefits of cold exposure have been known about since ancient times.

The practice has been gaining popularity among athletes for the last 15 years to help them recover faster from workouts and injuries. Scientists however are not yet fully convinced. "We need more research before we can say for sure that it helps," said Haukur Bjornsson, a doctor with the Icelandic national football team.

"Cold-water immersion is part of what is recommended to help with recovery. But the most important thing is sleep and nutrition, those are the only things for which we have some strong scientific proof," he added.

Different forms of cold therapy have found favour among the general public in recent years, with health clinics offering cryotherapy and fitness blogs preaching the benefits of cold showers.

Most public baths now offer pools with water between 2 and 10 deg C. But Andri Einarsson stresses that it takes practice to actually enjoy the experience. "Everybody can go in an ice bath, sit there and ... be tough. But surrendering to it is totally a whole other ball game," he said.

While the science of the Wim Hof Method is still not understood or universally accepted, participants questioned by AFP swore by its merits.

Ingvar Christiansen said that the practice "completely changed" his life and way of thinking, as he recovered from a trying time in his life where he battled weight, burnout and divorce proceedings. He now prefers cold baths to vacationing abroad.

"When I got out, I felt like I was coming home from a two-week vacation in Spain. You dump everything: all your worries, all your anxiety, it goes away." AFP