Unless you are willing to experience new things, you’ll never realise your full potential – Wim Hoff
There are many incredible things about Wim Hof, the Dutch extreme athlete who’s set world records running marathons and climbing mountains (Everest and Kili) through the ice and snow – in nothing but his swim shorts.
Not only does Hof have an industrial immune system (as measured by science) alongside a matrix-worthy mindset, but ‘the ice man’ has also managed to teach his techniques to volunteers willing to brave the sleet in just 4 days, proving that it’s not all just because he’s batman’s cousin. Although he did have a spider-bite moment when at just 17, he had the sudden urge to jump into the freezing cold water of the Beatrixpark canal…
Having been recommended the ‘spiritual, scientific and mind-altering’ Russel Brand podcast (episode 70 Heal yourself with the Ice Shaman) I found myself gripped by Hof’s story: the loss of his wife to mental illness, his means of finding reconnection, developing interests in the esoteric, a fascination with the natural world and our place in it, as well as an understanding of the science behind the body’s natural healing mechanisms and the most primal parts of our cognition.
Sharing the podcast around lead me to the London-based Tonny Riddle and Artur Paulins workshop which happened to be taking place that weekend. A 6 hour collaborative workshop, the ‘Move, Breathe, Chill’ session promised to help you live more naturally in an urban environment through movement, breath technique and finally, a Wim Hof ice bath special.
Benefits of the Wim Hof Technique
There are benefits to breath work and then there are benefits to being exposed to the cold. There is also a kind of synergy between the two as correct breath technique can maximise the benefits of cold exposure.
Firstly, in terms of cold exposure the process of shivering converts the chemical energy of brown adipose tissue into heat (BAT is the healthy brown fat, as opposed to the unhealthy white fat associated with obesity). Cold exposure increases brown fat as well as the capacity for non-shivering thermogenesis. There is also some evidence that BAT reduces the risk of diabetes through uptake of glucose and lipids.
A group of scientists in the Netherlands conducted a set of experiments on identical twins, teaching them breath work techniques before cold exposure. The twins demonstrated a 40% increase in metabolic rate, compared to the maximum 30% normally seen in young adults. Their brown fat percentage alone was not enough to account for all the increase and the rest was primarily believed to be due to their vigorous breathing, which could have raised the metabolic rate in their respiratory muscles.
The breath work practice the twins were taught in the study above is known as the ‘g-tummo’ technique, also known as ‘psychic heat’ because it is accompanied by intense sensations of heat in the spine. It involves breath technique, along with a meditation that uses mental images of flames in certain areas of the body.
There are two types of breathing, ‘forceful’ and ‘gentle’ and studies have found that only the forceful type results in an increase in temperature, with meditation being required to sustain this increase. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, ‘Tummo’ is the fierce goddess of heat and passion and the g-tummo technique is usually part of tantric meditation cycles which focus on the chakras. A chakra is a place in the body where there are clusters of arteries, veins and nerves.
There have been some interesting scientific studies on Tibetan monks demonstrating the effect of increased thermal power that is enhanced using meditation and visualisation. In India a 1982 study found that 3 monks demonstrated the capacity to raise the temperature of their fingers and toes using tummo by as much as 8.3 degrees C.
WHM (Wim Hof Method) is like tummo and pranayama (another breath technique) but has its own particular features. It aims to assist you in gaining control over your body and mind, and ultimately immune and nervous systems. According to Wim the method is based on ‘cold hard nature’ and can impact stress, sleep, sports performance, creativity and health.
Why focus on breathing instead of moving?
You may be asking yourself the obvious question – why focus on breathing to raise core body temperature as opposed to dynamic movement like running and physical exercise? The answer partly lies in tradition. Different types of breathing and isometric techniques have been used for thousands of years, not only in Tibetan traditions but also in certain branches of yoga and martial arts. The commonality is that all these practices require a highly focused attention on internal mental states, which is much more difficult during rigorous exercise.
What is the Wim Hof Method (WHM)?
Here is a basic step by step version of the fundamentals of Wim’s breathing technique that you can try out at home as a taster. Always practice in a safe environment, one where it is not dangerous to faint (e.g. NOT in a bath / water). If you have existing health conditions then consult a professional and finish reading about some of the controversies in the next header below.
Step 1: get comfortable
Sit or lie in a posture where you can expand your lungs freely. To get the fullest expansion, an empty stomach is recommended
Step 2: 30 power breaths
Imagine that you are blowing up a balloon. Engaging your diaphragm / midriff, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth using short, powerful bursts (there are plenty of WHM videos on youtube if you doubt you’re doing it correctly).
Close your eyes and repeat 30 times. If you become light headed and experience tingling sensations or shaking, this is normal for some people.
Step 3: Retention after exhalation
After your 30 power breaths, fill your lungs to maximum capacity. Exhale and hold for as long as you can. Hold your breath without forcing it, until you experience the gasp reflex.
Step 4: Recovery breath
Inhale to maximum capacity and feel your chest expanding. When your lungs are full, hold your breath for 10 seconds. Release the breath and begin a new round, repeat 3 to 4 times.
Step 5: Enjoy the feeling
Enjoy the feeling that breath work invokes, it is similar to the effects of meditation and will be more powerful with practice.
If it’s so effective, why isn’t this more mainstream – both sides of the controversies:
Practices like cold bathing have been common since the Roman times, with many benefits being claimed but long-term gains being hard to come by in randomised clinical trials. A common limitation is that sample sizes are often small due to the sacredness of the practice, making advanced practitioners hard to come by.
As a result, Hof has often come under fire for ‘overstating’ his claims, especially those related to chronic disease. Hof certainly has an alternative approach to health, lending critics like scientist Wouter Van Marken Lichtenbelt to label his scientific terminology galimatias (scientific gobbledegook). However Wouter went on to say that ‘When practicing WHM with a good dose of common sense (e.g. not hyperventilating before submerging in water – which could cause shallow water blackout) and without excessive expectation, it doesn’t hurt to try’.
My own view on the galimatias is that many alternative practices are labelled ‘pseudoscientific’ but they work for a lot of people who give them a go and remain open minded. There is no one-size fits all approach to health, and perhaps these methods simply do not fit the language or measurable methods of the paradigm we are in.
One of the thought provoking points Wim Hof made in the podcast above, was about the nature of clinical trials and a pharmaceutical-lead healthcare system. There is a lot of money at stake in the production of new pills, and trials are equally expensive to fund. There is little profitable interest in exploring techniques that stimulate the body’s self healing mechanisms or focus on prevention over cure. Topics that I explored further in my posts ‘alternative and mainstream medicine‘ and ‘placebo, ritual and imagination’.
The age-old argument that a healthy workforce is vital to a good economy may also one day wear thin, as jobs are increasingly automated and many people face the possibility of ‘irrelevance’ (explored by Yuval Harari in this podcast and this podcast). But you are always at liberty to take your health into your own hands, to some extent, and who knows what the future really holds…!
Putting it into practice: the Move Breathe Chill Workshop
Trying the technique for oneself via a youtube video at home is a great taster, but there’s certainly something to be said for the structure, safety and synergy of a professional-lead workshop and group work. I was therefore very happy to find myself on the 6 hour Tony Riddle and Artur Paulins Move Breathe Chill Workshop at the Movement Lab in London.
We were told to bring non restrictive exercise clothing, a warm jumper, swimwear, water bottle, towel, yoga mat, notebook and pen.
The first half of the day focused on movement with Tony. Like Wim, Tony is an advocate for the transformation that mother nature seeds and promotes ways of living more naturally in a largely unnatural western world, as well as the process of ‘re-wilding‘ and reconnecting.
The relative divergence of my bodily senses (eyes in the front of the head, ears towards the back etc.) and their curious bifurcation (not one but two eyes, one on each side, and similarly two ears, two nostrils etc) indicates that this body is a form destined to the world; it ensures that my body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth – David Abram
Tony took us through the steps of moving more naturally when it comes to sitting, standing, working out and playing. Memorable tips included Toega (I never knew it was so important to exercise your toes, especially if you enjoy wearing heels or have ballet-bunions), ways of squatting whilst working or watching TV instead of sitting down all day, timing your breathing correctly whilst running as well as the effect of surface impact and different types of foot wear.
We were taken through the fundamentals of mat work stretches, yoga poses and strength building skills like pull ups on a bar. You can watch some videos demonstrating the fluid results of consistent practice using Tony’s techniques here. All of these contributed to enhancing the experience of the Wim Hof Method and connecting the mind and body.
The sky is not the limit. The limit is the mind
I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it
When we interact with nature, miraculous things can happen – Wim Hof
Something many of us adults struggle with is re-learning the art of play. Part of the workshop centred around trust building exercises like falling backwards in the middle of a group, or pairing up and touching heads whilst mirroring each other. Natural movement quickly creates a connection between people who have never met before, it accesses tribal links through a state of play – aka flow state and the state of ‘being’ over ‘doing’. I found myself noticing the initial thoughts of resistance over feeling a bit silly or self-conscious, being weathered by the empathy and concentration involved in pair work.
This connection creates a more comfortable environment for breath work and opens up the space. The second half of the session involving WHM was lead by Artur Paulins and we were guided through the steps involving breath, visualisations of colour and focusing in on the space between the brow. It is normal to experience shaking, tingling and even some emotional release. I’ve always found guided meditations or breath work a lot easier than simply sitting in silence on your own.
Knowing the WHM lays the ground work for the third and final stage – cold immersion. The inflatable ice bucket on the lawn outside was hardly inviting in late March but the prospect of the feel good high after completing a challenge, before getting warm and dry at home beckoned. Nevertheless, as I waited in line I could already hear the automaton of the monkey mind kicking up a royal fuss. Compounded by the fact that fully submerging myself in the water turned out to be more of a shock to the system than I had originally anticipated.
Crouched down by the side of the pool, Artur guided us by reminding us to bring back the focus to the breath and away from the entrapment in thoughts like ‘I’m getting the hell out of here’. I imagined it would be good training for child birth – as I sat in some icy birthing pool, breathing deeply in an attempt to disengage from the discomfort… A ‘re-birthing’ pool, as Tony later referred to it.
You’ll never have such a good night’s sleep as the one you get when your head hits the pillow that night. Post ice birthing experience – maybe you’ll feel good, maybe you’ll feel tired, maybe you’ll feel a bit of a slump, but whatever you feel, there is an increased ability to sit with it. A presence and a weakening of the internal chatter. One that gets stronger with practice and makes the highs, along with its corresponding lows, slightly less of a rollercoaster.
The role of something as simple as connection: to ourselves, to each other and to the natural world in the technological age is a crucial one. When asked what the final stage in his mission is, Wim Hof replied: Go back to the grief, the love – the lost love, I want to bring back love in the world.
You can hear more from Tony Riddle via his interview with the Declassified Podcast online.