Take A Swim With Wim: Huffing And Hoffing

Take A Swim With Wim: Huffing And Hoffing
Wim Hof is a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete. He first rose to fame with his low temperature challenges: achieving world records for the fastest barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow, and longest swim under ice. Gracing the Cambridge Union with his breath-work methods, he shared more on his journey, biohacking the neuroendocrine system, and life as the King of Ice.


Jogging into Cambridge Union’s debating chamber – beer in one hand, beer belly in the other – Wim Hof doesn’t look like your average athlete, and that’s because there’s nothing stereotypical about this flying Dutchman; But he certainly receives the reception of any gold medal olympian. While his workshops, methods, and courses champion results for the average Joe, not every 17 year old embarks on a lifelong journey to befriend frostbite.

In spite of his achievements, self-confidence, and a cult following that worships his every breath – Hof seems grounded (in his own, authentically unconventional way), with a lack of hubris or pretentiousness. His gift for empathetically relieving victims of fate, is brought centre stage in a surreal moment when, after an overexcited and red-faced member of the audience accidentally lets rip from the wrong end, Hof jumps into action: relaying stories of what it is to be human (or something along those lines), while literally making an ass of himself by bending over – and shaking it all off under the light of the full moon(ie). For the rest of the talk Wim doesn’t break wind, but he frequently breaks into song.

It is precisely this kind of selfless “no ego here we go” buffoonery that has often earned him much criticism. But while breathing is something that’s freely available to everyone, Wim’s motivation is deeply personal. Having lost his first love to suicide, it was time spent under the ice that reshaped his mindset, healed his grief-stricken heart and helped him to regain a sense of purpose in life. On top of raising his four children, the 26 world records he went on to complete have been testament to his strength.

The 3 main tenets to his practice include the mind (an endurance mindset and exposure to the elements), the body (swimming, running, yoga and breath-work), and the existential (his preferred philosophies are Hinduism and Buddhism). But Hof has cheated death since the day he was born – being one of two unexpected twins, his identical brother – Andre, was born first, but no one knew there was a second baby inside his mother. He credits this suffocating experience for the unconscious impulse to dive into icy canals since his teens – introducing him to the idea of ‘getting high on your own supply’. “It was such an amazing sensation, which stayed with me all day long, and that made me decide to go back the next day and try it again.”

It was during a period spent living a hippie lifestyle and residing in an Amsterdam squat, that Hof fell for a beautiful Spanish woman, Olaya. After a year, Olaya moved back to Spain, but when Hof found out she was pregnant, he followed her and they eventually had four children together. However, after succumbing to mental illness, Olaya tried “pills, injections and therapy – but none of them could stem her descent into darkness.”

One day in 1995, Hof received a phone call from Olaya’s brother saying that she had kissed the children goodbye and then taken her own life, by leaping from a balcony. His world shattered. But his habit of icy swimming was his salvation, and “instead of being guided by my broken emotions towards stress and sorrow, the cold water led me to stillness… A stillness of the mind. That gave my broken heart a chance to rest, restore, rehabilitate.”

It was his eldest son, Enahm, who eventually encouraged him to turn his practice into a business, and he agreed, believing that he would be able to share his experiences and to teach his theories and methods. He was soon making headlines with extreme feats – and putting his own life at risk. In 2000, he was in Finland, practising to break the world record for swimming under ice, when his corneas froze. He was temporarily blind and lost, unable to find his way out from under the metre-thick surface. Yet he says he felt “at peace and in control… In the end, a safety diver brought me back by pulling me by the ankles to the exit hole which I’d passed long ago… In that moment, I conquered the fear of death.”

In 2007, Hof attempted to climb Mount Everest, wearing just shorts and open-toed sandals, “because I couldn’t afford clothes”. He got to 7400m before he felt a twinge in his foot. With medical opinion at the time wielding the Grim Reaper’s scythe – Wim claimed to have saved his foot from amputation through the sheer power of concentration, care and “breathing” into it. In spite of this experience, he maintains that “we are estranged from our own deeper physiology because we are no longer in contact with nature.” Perhaps this is limited to our own.

Displaying his human fallibility, Wim occasionally falls into the trap of touting the Wim Hof Method (WHM) as a miracle cure for anything. And when he starts talking about a medical establishment that prioritises “drug-pushing” over the strength of placebo and the body’s ability to self-heal, alongside the art of emotional connection and care, he starts to sound conspiratorial. Given the stubbornly longstanding criticisms he has received – even in the face of evidence, as well as the personal nature of many of the attacks, he may be forgiven for developing more than a little resentment.

Wim Hof’s family-run business – the events, keynote speeches, website, training, and merchandise – is itself fabulously lucrative, something that he doesn’t shy away from sharing in his speech; and which is pretty astounding given the availability of free information and YouTube videos on the subject. Money, media and medicine are nothing new, and demand for the booming wellness market suggests that it occasionally steps in to fill the shoes that ‘the establishment’ doesn’t have the time, resources or model to fit. There’s a time and a place for them to co-exist, with identical issues of profit and power systemically present either side of the ‘divide’.

It can be dangerous, and people have died doing the WHM. Although such cases are not limited to the method itself. “One of the most common deaths among experienced swimmers is shallow water blackout: people get over-oxygenated, pass out underwater and drown… What happened in these instances was people practising the Wim Hof Method tried breathing techniques and then went diving, not in cold water, but in lukewarm water, and they passed out.” For example this can happen to individuals practicing at home in the bath, which is not recommended. There are now warnings all over the website and downloads: the breathing can cause lightheadedness, loss of consciousness, and it’s not meant for people who have certain medical conditions.

Scientists have begun to pore over his theories – in one logic-defying experiment, Wim was able to maintain his core body temperature while encased in ice. In another he was injected with an E coli endotoxin that would ordinarily induce sickness, yet he showed no major symptoms. Accusations that he is simply a freak of nature were quashed when he taught a group of volunteers his methods and they too, showed the same remarkable results.

Professor Peter Pickkers, of Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, who conducted the E coli tests explained: “We found that [his method] results in major changes in oxygen and CO2 levels and an increase in adrenaline to really high levels – higher than observed in people who bungee-jump for the first time… Higher adrenaline results in the production of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 and this inhibits the inflammatory response. We were really surprised that we found these results. The fact that you can influence your immune response willingly with these techniques is of interest, especially for patients with autoimmune diseases.”

Perhaps his mind-body methods aren’t for everyone, but there seems to be something to them. Exactly what is “working” remains a mystery, just as in the placebo / nocebo response, or a science of spirit. A 2017 review of past scientific studies, titled “Cold water immersion: kill or cure”, found a bounty of evidence dating back to the 16th century regarding the potential health implications of cold-water immersion. “It may be that cold-water swimming works for people because of the placebo effect. But so what? If it works for them and if it’s not harmful, and if it’s removing their dependency on drugs, then great.”

More to the point – no one’s forcing you to go cold-turkey or to get cold feet. When a member of the audience asks how he can convert the non-believers (he turns out to be a wellness influencer receiving an ungodly amount of hate), Wim replies “it’s not a dogma. It’s a catma”, the doors to Noah’s arc are open and staying on dry land is a lifestyle choice. He undoubtedly does possess some of the eccentric charisma and appeal of a missionary, and this evangelical high-school dropout chimes “universality over university”, with his equivalent of a limitless pill finding form in everlasting love.

Maybe you can’t observe, measure, repeat and bottle the essence of hope, optimism and resilience; and there isn’t yet an injection or procedure to mend a broken world or heart. But Wim wants to win through an authentic desire to help others, by helping people to help themselves – focusing on empowerment over power, a nurturing approach to nature, and leadership through living example.

“I’m going to set you your most difficult challenge to date – keeping answers brief enough for us to get more questions in” – the all but forgotten co-host of the session has managed to slip in a few words towards the end. “This is as brief as it gets” he responds, pointing to his pinstriped briefs. A practitioner of his preaching, ‘freezing the fear’ hasn’t made his subjects superhuman, but it has brought together individuals eager to tap into the shared humanity of his approach; setting the cold alight with the flames of inspiration and imagination, which is an everyday miracle in itself.

As for a natural alternative to the heating crisis this winter? A regime of meditation, conscious breathing and cold baths, that might be more than just hot air.