Breathe Like The Iceman: How To Use The Wim Hof Method
“I had a stroll like this in the park with somebody and I saw the ice and I thought, what would happen if I go in there. I was really attracted to it. I went in, got rid of my clothes. Thirty seconds I was in,” Hof said. “Tremendous good feeling when I came out and since then, I repeated it every day.”
It was a Sunday morning, on a solitary walk through the park, when Wim Hof, aged 17, decided to immerse himself into the cold water. He was in the water for no longer than one minute, but the burst of excitement that channelled through his body as the water reached his torso was enough for him to introduce the practice into his daily routine.
Hof was sensitive to the impact the cold water had on his mind. He had been wedged inside his head for far too long, the rattle of his thoughts would never seem to cease and the depression that followed was draining.
However, submerged in the water and trembling with cold as he gasped for breath, he noticed that his mind had stopped.
All the incessant talk, the clatter and commotion had ended. Instead, the cold realigned the focus away from the mind and into his body, awakening a deeper power within himself.
The books and the gurus, places he had previously sought solutions, lost all significance as he realised that the information of others is lifeless. The cold had forced Hof to understand that his body is alive and even back then he intuitively knew that all the answers for his suffering hide deep within.
Hof repeated this ritual for the next twenty-five years without telling anybody. Every day he would visit the same park in Amsterdam, with the same pool of water hidden behind a couple of trees, perfectly positioned so that no one ever saw him dive into the water. It was his own little place of meditation and healing.
His body gradually adjusted to the cold and overtime he was able to stay in the water for much longer than he could when he first went in. He recalls how he would submerge himself under the water and curl up into the foetus position, his body still and silent as he listened to the ambient vibrations of the water.
Wim Hof’s first wife, the mother of four children, committed suicide in 1995. Hof had to balance the emotional strain of deep sadness and grief alongside the responsibility of bringing up his children by himself.
The pain and heartache caused Hof to face the emptiness within himself and search for a deeper meaning to his life. He began a mission to silence his grief. His search started with the cold water.
Years of exposing himself to cold temperatures had taught him that there is something rather special about the act of breathing. He had noticed that after some time of practicing with cold temperatures, his breathing had strengthened and had become much deeper. He had developed a greater command of his breath as he was experienced in resisting the shock of cold. The cold, Hof learnt, forces the body to breathe heavily so that more energy draws within. The feelings of power and exhilaration he experienced when submerged in cold water is a result of adrenaline surging around the body. Hof noticed that adrenaline follows a heavy change of breath and used this logic to develop a breathing technique that imitated the response of the body whilst submerged in cold.
The first phase of the technique involves thirty cycles of breathing. Take a powerful breath in, fully filling the lungs. Breathe out by passively releasing the breath, but not actively exhaling. Repeat this cycle at a steady fast pace thirty times.
The body may experience normal tickling vibrations, or light-headedness. You may feel a rush of adrenaline. This is good. After completion of all the cycles of controlled hyperventilation, take another deep breath in, and let it out completely. Then, hold the breath for as long as possible. When you feel that you have to breathe, take a full deep breath in. Hold the breath for around 15–20 seconds then let it go.
The body may experience a normal head-rush sensation. This process is repeated three times. Take it lightly at first and make sure to watch a few of Wim Hof’s educational videos before you attempt to try this.
Another inspiration for this breathing technique, other than the cold, came from Tummo meditation. One of the uses of the meditation is to generate inner heat and unlock what is described as coiled energy at the base of the spine. The meditation seeks to activate the energy in the chakras across the body then use this energy for a specific purpose.
Breath retention and deep breathing are key components of the practice as it allows the energy to accumulate with each repetition, generating internal heat. This is why Tummo means the fierce goddess of heat and passion in Tibetan Buddhist tradition
Many of us are unconscious that we only take in small sips of air that stick just below the throat and we thus receive the same energy equal to that which we bring in. Hof understood that the more oxygen we can gather and hold in our bodies, the more powerful the body becomes.
Breathe properly and oxygen levels in the tissues surge and adrenaline floods the body, granting strength that we did not realise we had. He learned of this logic through his practice of submerging himself in the cold water. Hof’s breathing technique, then, helps pull in more oxygen than is usually needed and stimulate the automatic nervous system.
Adrenaline increases strength, awareness, breathing rate, energy and body temperature. If you can control your adrenaline, as Hof claims, you can control your body.
Here, Wim Hof realised the tremendous potential of heightened oxygen levels. Cold exposure now became a test that would demonstrate this potential to the world. The two elements — the cold and breathing — would come together to form what is now known as the ‘Wim Hof Method.’
Both components are as vital as each other. Hof writes that modern life has become far too comfortable; the body is no longer being stimulated and as a result, the full potential of our breath has been cut short, as we have become disconnected from the forces within.
We protect ourselves from the cold, the rain and have air conditioning for when it is hot. Our nervous systems are weak and, as Hof claims, they are even atrophying, as the body is never tested against anything outside of itself.
This neglect has focused all the energy inside our minds, and our top-heavy perspective of ourselves has come to view the body as a mere vehicle for the brain. The cold, then, is crucial in realigning ourselves with our deepest core, strengthening the forgotten connection between mind and body.
Hof set out to test his method through a series of extreme challenges. In 2007, Wim Hof climbed Mount Everest wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and shoes. He failed to reach the summit, but only because he suffered a foot injury, the same injury that had troubled him in the past. In 2009, he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa (5,895 m), again wearing just a pair of shorts. He has run a marathon in the Artic, broken the record for ice endurance (1 hour, 52 minutes, and 42 seconds) and has run another marathon in the Namib Desert under extreme heat without drinking any water for the entire length of the run. Altogether, Hof holds twenty-six world records.
Cleary, Hof’s breathing method seemed to be working. But the scientific community was sceptical, dismissing Hof as a ‘freak of nature’ that did not deserve the attention of professionals. Hof sought to share what he had learned to the world and one of the first things he needed to do was to seek scientists who were willing to put his method under investigation.
The chance came in 2012 when Hof claimed he could control his immune system with his breathing method. By concentrating the adrenaline and energy into the immune system, Hof says, you can increase the strength of your body’s reaction to foreign bodies. It is the same process as the one he used to generate heat at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Researchers at a Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands injected Hof with a toxin that normally causes an immune system response, including fever and sickness. Hof remained unfazed throughout the entire procedure and the researchers were astounded when the results showed the toxin had been cleaned from his bloodstream. Again, the label ‘a one off’ circulated the scientific community.
Wim Hof, frustrated, then taught twelve other subjects in Poland and had them go through the same procedure in 2014.
The results were the same; each patient was able to combat the toxin far more effectively than the ordinary person who had not learnt the breathing exercise. People finally began to turn their heads.
Scott Carney, an investigative journalist, travelled to Poland in 2011 to meet Wim Hof as an assignment for Playboy. His intentions for meeting Hof were to expose him as a charlatan for his claims appeared too good to have any factual basis behind them.
However, after a short amount of time, Carney learned how to perform similar feats to Hof and was able to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro wearing just a bathing suit. Carney was convinced, so much so that he wrote a book ‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’ detailing his journey with Wim Hof. It is a fascinating book and I would encourage anyone to read it who is interested.
Hof now spends his time teaching his practice to others in the United States and Europe. It is in the early process of development, but Hof hopes that one day it will become part of the scientific discourse. He truly thinks his method can help ease much of the suffering in the world. This includes anxiety and depression, which are symptoms of the widespread disregard for nature and our bodies in the West.
“When we interact with nature, miraculous things can happen. Whenever you go beyond the rigid patterns of thinking, challenging yourself, you can receive the bounty of experience from hard nature.” — Wim Hof
See wimhofmethod.com for more.