June 17, 2024


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We tried a wellness treatment with cryotherapy and breathwork


It’s an unusual treatment (Picture: Unsplash / Getty)

Cryotherapy, breathwork, vagus nerve stimulation, eye exercises, massage, a scalp scrub, and abdomen rubs.

It’s a lot to pack into one hour, but this is one of the treatments available at Birch Community’s Wellness Space, just north of London in leafy Hertfordshire.

The Tides, a spa-like company from The Netherlands, has recently partnered with Birch, providing a menu of wellness treatments – some more traditional than others.

One of the options is designed for ‘destressing your headspace’, called the Brain Body Hacker. In other words, it’s the epitome of what ‘wellness’ means in the travel and beauty industries today – indulgent and experimental.

The new wellness buzz words – like cryotherapy – are becoming increasingly popular – and their prominent place on this cocktail of treatments is enough to show ‘wellness’ has moved on from the days of baths and candles.

However, as the treatment was explained to me, I wondered: is this going to be any more relaxing than a standard back massage? Are all these complicated new treatments actually worth the effort?

Destress using the vagus nerve

‘We’re both relaxing and stimulating the brain,’ my masseur said, through touch and sensorial manipulation.

After an explanation of the treatment and the opportunity to amend any aspects that didn’t suit me (I asked for a brief back massage to be incorporated at some stage), it began, with gentle music playing.

First a scrub was rubbed into my scalp – something I was told many people don’t like, due to it ruining freshly blow dried hair. The Tides offer a shorter and cheaper version without this part, but I’m glad I opted in.

It was relaxing and helped relieve a tension headache I had brewing, and the scrub wasn’t at all scratchy – so gentle was it in fact, that I wouldn’t have guessed a scrub was being used had I not been told.

head massage

The vagus nerve can be stimulated at different points (Picture: Getty)

After this was washed out, my vagus nerve was stimulated.

You might have heard about this nerve, as it’s currently a ‘trendy’ place to target in wellness spaces, running from the head to the abs. There are a few different pressure points along the body to target it.

My masseur went for the points around the temples, behind the ears, and neck.

The pressure applied here was soothing, helping unlock my jaw and release any tension held in my neck and face.

Get centred through breath and eye work

Then it got a little strange – my eyes had been closed up until this point, and I was asked to open them, then follow my masseur’s finger as it moved up, down and around in the air over my head.

He did explain what the purpose of this was – stimulating something in my brain, using a long technical word I had never heard of and can’t remember – but it was as though I was in an optician’s appointment and suddenly I felt strangely self-conscious.

This part didn’t last long – my eyes willingly closed as we moved onto the next part.

Breathwork then came into the mix, as I was guided to breathe in certain patterns in and out of my nose and mouth while calming essential oils were placed nearby to inhale.

The sensory overload was calming and I loved the eucalyptus I was smelling, but to get the most out of breathwork, I feel you would need to give it much more time (having done hour-long workshops dedicated to this in the past). I’m not sure I got much from that brief go at it.

Still, the sentiment was there, and I realised this was the most active spa experience I’d had – all these components relied on participation, rather than passivity as often happens on massage tables. It makes a nice change.

Awaken with cryotherapy

Now, here’s the part many won’t like: cryotherapy, which means to make the body cold.

There’s plenty of discourse around the benefits of this for the body, and it’s not a new concept – ice pools have been famous features of spas for years.

However, the interest in these benefits is on the rise. Think about the uptick in cold water swimming.

Luckily, no cold water is used here. Instead, ice shaped like a smooth globe is rolled around the body.

Starting in the palms, it was moved up to my wrists, arms, neck, and then later on in the treatment, up and down my back.

sphere of ice

Imagine this rolling down your back (Picture: Getty)

I enjoyed it while at the hands and neck, but on the back it sent a literal shiver down my spine.

When asked why this is part of the treatment, my masseur said massages typically make the skin flushed because of the warmth and physical manipulation. The cold counterbalances this, reducing inflammation.

It also contributes to the overall goal of positively stimulating the brain.

Then he worked on my abdomen, adding pressure while asking me to breathe heavily. Lastly, I got the back and shoulder rub I’d asked for at the start.


After the treatment, I tried a couple of the ‘cultural’ classes at Birch – pottery and soda bread baking – and these two did enhance that destressed feeling I left the spa with, getting me out of my head and into the present moment.

The Body Brain Hacker is an unusual treatment that will appeal to those into exploring wellness techniques, making it suitable for most Birch guests, given it seems to attract a slightly-cool and trendy (largely female) clientele.

Stay zen with one of the many workshops, such as baking (Picture: Birch)

It won’t appeal to everyone – especially those who want to unwind and no more. Although, it’s not pretending to be a suits-all treatment, so you’d be mistaken booking it with that hope.

I left calm, yet alert (mission accomplished)… with dripping wet hair. Thankfully, my room with a hairdryer was just a five minute walk away, and dinner reservation a good couple of hours ahead. You’ll want to book the timing of this strategically.

Finally, a treatment that doesn’t let me drift off, then give a rude awakening at the stroke of an hour.

Book the Brain Body Hacker for £85, and other treatments, at Birch here. Book ahead of your stay to avoid disappointment.

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