Standing in front of a chamber resembling a giant white refrigerator with a window, I inhaled for a count of four, then exhaled. The attendant was talking to me, but after I heard the temperature in this human freezer would reach somewhere around minus two hundred degrees, I didn’t hear much of anything else.
Two minutes in sub-zero temperatures? Why was I doing this again?
I pulled the robe tighter and stepped in as the employee smiled and nodded, cued up one of my favorite songs and agreed to leave the window halfway open. I wore a hat, gloves, socks and earmuffs and still the idea of standing in the freezing cold was intimidating, even for this Chicago native.
Cryotherapy, I thought, was for biohackers who are mostly male and seek to optimize the body using tech gadgets and injectables. I’m a middle-aged mom who hikes occasionally and doesn’t need the kind of deep recovery that this treatment reportedly brings to athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
But the minute I walked in the door at Restore Hyper Wellness, I had noticed it wasn’t overrun with buffed up bros. It was filled with women who looked a lot like me.
Medical doctors use cryotherapy to freeze warts or cancerous cells, but in non-medical settings the benefits of full body cryotherapy, which cools the skin and tissues, narrows blood vessels and reduces blood flow to prevent swelling and inflammation, are still being studied. Nevertheless, claims that it would boost the immune system, improve general wellbeing and enhance sleep had me wanting to try it, and that required I stand inside the oversized freezer.
As soon as I stepped in, cold air swirled around my feet, up to my calves and crept toward my thighs. After what felt like just a few seconds, my calves began to tingle, a feeling just on the safer side of pain and only mildly uncomfortable. Had it already been one minute and 32 seconds? I shifted my feet, closed my eyes and tried to relax.
My upper body wasn’t as tingly and I knew the robe and the open window were reducing the effects of the cold. I could tell the difference when I exited the chamber and even later as I went about my day. For several hours, my calves, which had reached a temperature of 46 degrees (down from 90 degrees), tingled with energy. I was relaxed but my legs were ready to party. This was my first foray into biohacking and some part of me was hooked.
Better health is consistently one of the top New Year’s resolutions, and wellness has taken on a broader meaning in recent years to include health, fitness, nutrition, appearance, sleep and mindfulness. In the U.S., we spend more than $450 million annually on wellness products and services, and that amount grows more than 5% each year, according to 2022 data from McKinsey & Company.
But with so many different pills, potions and treatments flooding the wellness market, it’s hard to know what is beneficial and what is questionable. I spent two weeks testing out some of the different experiences and treatments that might once have been considered fringe but are increasingly part of mainstream health maintenance. And while I’m not endorsing any specific treatment, I do have some thoughts about my experiences.
I found Restore Hyper Wellness through a web search for cryotherapy, the service that launched the company back in 2015. Now, with more than 200 locations nationwide, the company offers many other treatments. Red light therapy and compression caught my interest, so to try them out, I purchased a holiday special that offered three core therapies.
After completing a medical waiver (some treatments require a doctor’s approval depending on your medical history), I stripped down for red light therapy. Standing between two panels of red or near-infrared light for 12 minutes feels a lot like lying on the beach on a sunny day, except that you are standing up and you are naked. Small dots of light that appeared more orange and yellow than red glowed with heat. It was hot, but not hot enough to make me sweat.
Red light therapy is an emerging treatment in general wellness that in the past has been used by medical doctors in conjunction with photosensitizer drugs, creating a chemical reaction to treat certain cancer cells, warts, psoriasis and other ailments. Some scientific studies have shown it can also reduce inflammation, improve blood circulation or stimulate collagen production, though medical experts say research is ongoing.
For the last few minutes, I closed my eyes and pretended I was in Mallorca instead of on Marietta Boulevard. By the time the session ended, the dull ache in my temples and neck from a hectic morning had faded, but I imagine this type of therapy would require multiple sessions — Restore recommends three to five times a week — to feel any deeper or lasting benefits.
My last treatment at Restore Hyper Wellness was compression therapy. I sat in a recliner fully clothed as the attendant put me in giant air compression boots — think compression stockings on steroids — that stretched from my feet to my hips. Once the boots were in place, the device began to pulse at different points along my leg. First it was a light throb, then a full squeeze that, even at a lower level, sometimes felt uncomfortable. At least once or twice, I desperately wanted the contraction to move to a different part of my leg, but somehow, tucked beneath a plush blanket, I still managed to take a quick nap. The treatment lasts for an hour and while it is said to mimic a massage, I would have preferred an actual massage.
I spent a week focused on treatments that could bring hyper levels of wellness to my body, but I also wanted to explore wellness of the mind. So on a brisk Wednesday afternoon, I met up with Robin Hancock and a few of her friends at Woodlands Garden in Decatur. We huddled together, shifting side to side, hands in our pockets as Hancock, a certified guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, explained the practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.
Hancock seemed unaffected by the weather, dressed casually in pants and a light jacket, her silver hair glistening in the sun. She carried a pack with a thermos of tea and a box of teacups that we would use at the end of the walk for a ceremony.
Forest bathing evolved in Japan in the 1980s to combat worker stress during the tech boom and to encourage a reconnection with nature, she said. Studies from as early as the 1990s on the benefits of forest bathing — reduced stress hormone production and increased creativity — confirm what most of us already know: Nature is good for you.
We stood in a circle at a clearing in the forest to begin what Hancock called “pleasures of presence.” Trees swayed side to side and a burst of red leaves contrasted with limbs stripped bare by winter’s approach. With our eyes closed, we listened as birds called and cars swooshed on the road nearby. We inhaled and tasted the air’s crispness. We turned our bodies until we found what felt like the most comfortable direction. Then as we opened our eyes, one group member picked up a leaf to begin sharing an observation before passing it to the right for the next person to speak.
Credit: Nedra Rhone
Credit: Nedra Rhone
When we had each had our say (It’s voluntary. No pressure!) the leaf was returned to the earth, and we continued with a 10-minute group walk, observing and touching plants and trees before gathering again to share. For our final exercise, we found a comfortable place to sit for 20 minutes. I ended up cross-legged on a bench with the sun warming my face.
We gathered one last time, on benches carved from tree trunks, as Hancock poured tea from a purple thermos into small black teacups. Conversation was easy, even with strangers, and I was certain that time spent in nature was part of the reason for the good vibes. Having a guide made it easier to stay present and absorb all the forest had to offer.
“When we are on a walk, it puts people in a liminal space, a bubble, like nothing else exists,” said Hancock, who advised forest bathing once a season or whenever life feels too busy. People have all sorts of revelations while forest bathing, she said, because it allows them to be present in their bodies and not think about anything else.
I had expected to benefit from nature immersion, but I wasn’t so sure about sound immersion. Rebecca Turk, founder of SNDBath, is a certified sound healer who conducts sound bath sessions at various locations around the city including the Georgia Aquarium and The Chapel on Sycamore.
For a session at Evolation Yoga, we relaxed on our yoga mats in Savasana (corpse pose) in a dimly lit room. My knees rested on a bolster and a satin eye mask kept my eyes from fluttering open. The scent of essential oils wafted in the air as Turk opened the session with chimes before striking quartz crystal singing bowls tuned to the seven-point chakra system with a mallet and enveloped the room with tones and vibrations. She ended with sounds of the womb before urging us back to reality with the chimes.
Credit: Rebecca Turk
Credit: Rebecca Turk
Turk had explained that during the experience, we may see colors or have physical and emotional sensations. I felt distinct shades of blue cross my closed eyes. At the end of the session, body relaxed and mind calm, I felt as if I had taken a long nap.
Later, when we talked by phone, Turk said the color blue indicates the throat chakra and could reflect my job as a reporter or the need to find my voice. Days earlier, I had returned from a seminar designed to help writers find their voices.
There were so many other wellness services and treatments that I didn’t have the chance to try such as IV infusion therapy that injects vitamins directly into your veins or sensory deprivation in which you float on your back in a tank filled with water and Epsom salt.
The last few years have taught us that prioritizing wellness is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity, but I learned during my trial of wellness treatments and services that everything isn’t for everybody, and the best path to wellness is the one that works for you.
Restore Hyper Wellness. Cryotherapy, red light therapy, compression, infrared sauna. 2250 Marietta Blvd. NW, Suite 208, Atlanta, and other locations. 678-973-0388. Restore.com.
Renewal By Nature. Forest bathing with Robin Hancock. 678-491-0200. Renewal-by-nature.com
SNDBath. Sound bath with Rebecca Turk. Multiple locations. 310-663-0595. Sndbath.com.