Taki-shugyō: In Praise of Cold Showers

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It’s summer in Tokyo. It’s hot and humid, in a way that can really take it out of you. I’ve discovered, however, that cold showers go a long way in helping get through these sauna-like days. I pretty often have two or sometimes even three a day (one in the morning and one in the evening; usually one after the gym or dojo). 

I started off doing the “James Bond shower” (also known as a “Scottish Shower”): starting hot, and gradually dialing back the temperature until at the end of the shower it was fully cold. That’s a pretty comfortable way to approach it, especially starting off. However, reading this inspired me to skip the gradual dial-back and just switch to simply flipping the water straight over to cold at the end, as a practice in controlling the flinch mechanism.

But cold showers aren’t just a great way to cool off (and learn to control your flinch mechanism); they can also have a meditative aspect (as well as a number of reputed health benefits).

In Japan there is a tradition known as taki-shugyō (滝修行): “waterfall training”. The practitioner, usually clad in a ritual white loincloth, headband, and sometimes robe, stands or sits directly under a (usually extremely cold) waterfall for a period of time.  Depending on the particular sect (this practice is conducted by a number of different ones), the practitioner may chant, be chanted at by a priest, do a series of mudras (esoteric hand positions), or simply meditate. This practice is believed to be extremely purifying and strengthening.

It certainly is a test of one’s meditative abilities.  To focus and quiet one’s mind is difficult enough under the most tranquil of circumstances, never mind the shock of being pummeled by cold water. However, if the practitioner can stay with it, the rhythmic beating of the water on the head and shoulders can actually be an enhancement to meditation, and the feeling of being centered in it: feeling the sometimes even painful cold fully and yet being at the same time dissociated from it is really quite extraordinary.

You might not want to run right out and find the iciest waterfall you can to go meditate under (if you do, bring a large, dry towel and be sure to warm up immediately afterwards – hypothermia is no laughing matter), but you may want to try incorporating a little “mini taki-shugyō” into your daily routine, as I have taken to doing. Just finish off your usual shower with cold water and spend a couple of minutes in standing meditation (or sitting, if you prefer and have space) with the cold water running on the top of your head.

You’ll probably want to start this practice in the summer, when it is very refreshing and the cold water is not icy cold. As the weather gets colder you may want to gradually work up to it (rather than the “cold blast” method) and may also even want to return the water to warm or hot before leaving the shower, depending on the temperature of your rooms.

In any case, whether you just want to try them for health purposes, or want to try incorporating them into your meditative practice as well, I recommend cold showers very highly.

What about you? Have you used cold showers (or baths – I didn’t even get into the mizu-buro, the cold baths that sometimes accompany the onsen hot-spring baths in Japan, which I love…)?  Have you ever done a taki-shugyō, or something similar? Let us hear about your experience in the comments!

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