Just as season 7 episode 5 of Song of Ice and Fire (i.e. Game of Thrones) was airing on TV sets throughout Australia, some Sydneysiders were taking the “ice” part quite seriously. I was one of them.
The Iceman Wim Hof was in town last night, leading a demonstration and training session in The Wim Hof Method, a system of practice designed to teach people how to withstand cold temperatures by using the breath and by maintaining mental focus.
Hof has steadily been gaining a worldwide following on the back of his many cold weather feats and 26 Guinness World Records, which include climbing to 6.7km altitude at Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, and staying immersed in ice for 1 hour, 13 minutes and 48 seconds.
But how does having the ability to withstand cold temperatures improve one’s life, especially here in Sydney? The way I see it, withstanding cold temperatures is not the ultimate goal of the program. Learning to control your autonomic nervous system is the real goal.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system commonly thought of as involuntary, and includes the “fight or flight” response (or sympathetic nervous system), and the more amicable “rest and digest” responses (parasympathetic nervous system).
Gaining more control over the nervous system helps when dealing with other challenges (besides the cold) like illness, emergency situations and everyday stressors.
Cold is just Hof’s way in.
Registration started at 6:30 pm at Jones Bay Wharf in Pyrmont. So I left my workplace in Surry Hills, caught the light rail to the Star Casino, and made my way down to Jones Bay Wharf.
My welcome email told me “Although we always have a rough outline of the program, we always love to say: ‘there is no program’. Our advise is therefore to have no expectations and just experience.”
Although I didn’t really know what to expect, I did suspect that there would be buckets of ice involved. I guess I would just have to see for myself.
After registering and picking up my welcome pack, I entered a long auditorium with a small, short stage flanked by monitors. I collected my welcome pack and made my way to my spot.
Hof was already there, sitting casually on stage chatting with some people in the front row. A mostly Michael Jackson playlist was on rotation. Whilst more and more people filed in, occasionally Hof would break out in a spontaneous boogie, and once he even did the Michael Jackson yelp into the microphone.
With his shaggy greying hair tied back into a bun, a t-shirt that read “namaste” and his Michael Jackson dance moves, this guy was obviously not your average health guru.
At 7pm, the session started. By this point, there were about 500 people in attendance, each situated on a yoga mat on the floor.
In his thick Dutch accent, Hof spent the first hour explaining his achievements (if his feats weren’t so impressive, it would be borderline bragging), the science behind them, and the importance of gaining control over our autonomic nervous systems.
I was right, his message was less about cold weather, and more about gaining control over ourselves — so that we can change the world and experience what Hof believes to be our true birthrights: happiness, strength and health.
He then explained the method, which involves three pillars: breathing, a focused mindset, and gradual cold exposure. At about 8:15, we began the work ourselves.
We all laid down on our yoga mats, the lights were dimmed, and Pink Floyd was piped through the speakers. Then for about 10 minutes Wim led us through a powerful set of deep breathing exercises, specific to his program.
When I was done breathing, my mind felt clear, and I had more energy than before. Imagine taking a few shots of coffee, but without all the jitteriness. It felt great. According to Hof, the exercises “alkalise” our brains, and allow us to maintain more control over our thoughts and emotions… a skill we would need when it came time for the next step: cold exposure.
After a short break, it was finally ice time, and what a spectacle it was! Two large baby pools filled with ice water sat on the balcony of the venue. And when I say filled, I mean FILLED. I was practically all ice!
Twelve by twelve, we approached the pool, stepped into the water and slowly lowered ourselves to sitting. There were gasps, tears, and sometimes laughter as we made our way into the icy cold depths. To take our minds off the intensity of the experience, Hof and his staff led us thought more breathing exercises interspersed with rounds of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Who Let the Dogs Out.
The first minute felt like a year, but after that I got used to the cold. I even started to enjoy the act of submerging myself lower and lower into the pool.
But then it was over. Our two minutes were up, and it was time for the next group of people. I easily could have lasted another two minutes.
After the ice baths, Hof invited Professor Marc Cohen from RMIT to explain the science behind the technique, but his presentation was cut very short due to time constraints. But I think by then, the attendees were a little too invigourated by the ice baths to care.
Finally we were all invited to an open bar, which I had to decline due to family commitments.
What did I learn?
I had been practicing Hof’s breathing techniques for a couple of weeks before the event, and had even attempted a few cold showers. But I could never last more than a minute under the cold deluge.
At last night’s session, however, I upped my game tremendously. I learned to take deeper breaths, and I learned to maintain my breath even in the face of discomfort. I was able to remain submerged in water that is colder than anything I’ve experienced, and even began to enjoy the challenge of it. In short, I learned to control my reflexive responses to outside stimuli.
At 11 pm I departed the venue, with a nervous system carved from the finest Valyrian Steel. Next stop, Castle Black!