While perusing an episode of Gwyneth Paltrow’s documentary series, “The Goop Lab”, on Netflix, I stumbled across a moment where barefoot people in bathing suits were sitting in the snow for an extended period of time and diving into frigid cold water. While the thought of doing that to myself was absolutely revolting, I must admit I was completely mesmerized by the mental toughness it took for them to withstand that kind of discomfort. I could not stop watching. I had to find out more.
The man’s name who was featured is Wim Hof, also known as “The Ice Man”. He is 63 years old, from the Netherlands. Wim Hof began this journey of cold water immersion more than 45 years ago, when he was 17. It wasn’t until the death (suicide) of his beloved wife that Wim Hof began using the cold water immersion to heal his broken heart. As he put it, “When you go into the cold water, you’re no longer thinking about your mortgage, your next meal, your emotional baggage. You’re not caught up in your thoughts. It’s freezing, and you’re just surviving. That brought me to a place where I could heal.”
Hof realized how great he felt after cold bathing and decided to share it with others. He eventually developed a process which included breathing exercises. The breathing allowed him to tolerate the extreme temperatures and eventually he was able to stay in for longer and longer periods of time. It is called the Wim Hof Method. According to Hof, “It is a way to keep (our) body and mind in (their) optimal, natural state.”
From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies adapted to relentless winds, frigid temps and hungry predators. Our minds were alert and clear. Contrast that with life today and we are mostly sedentary, electronically addicted, insulated by our warm homes or cooled off artificially with air conditioning. We are no longer hunters and gatherers but rather live in a state of excess and comfort. As Hof has said, “we are stressed, ill and lack the focus and energy we once had. The Wim Hof method helps us to reconnect with nature and ourselves and to regain some of that alertness and clarity.” It would probably behoove all of us to develop mental toughness. After all, we never know what situation(s) in life we could find ourselves in where that mental toughness could save our lives.
The anecdotal evidence that people have experienced is remarkable. Some of the benefits people say they have received from this practice include:
1. Stress reduction
2. Faster recovery from physical exertion (cardiovascular health)
3. Better sleep
4. Improved sports performance
5. Sped up metabolism
6. More focus and mental clarity
7. Lowered inflammation, facilitating a strong immune system
8. Balanced hormones
9. Production of feel-good hormones, endorphins
Additionally, Wim Hof claims that his method is linked to reducing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, sarcoidosis, vasculitis and several autoimmune diseases.
The website states “With extensive training and exposure to cold (which leads to an artificial stress response created by the body), Wim Hof has developed the ability to control his breathing, heart rate and blood circulation. Results of a scientific study (in 2011), show that, with the techniques of Wim Hof, the nervous system and immune system can be voluntarily influenced. One example of where this is very useful is in the treatment of autoimmune diseases. Because it is the brain that creates the artificial stress response, everybody with a brain should be able to learn how to control their autonomic nervous system. It is just a matter of using the right method and dedicated training!
“Since then, many researchers have taken an interest in the potential benefits of the Wim Hof Method. Today, Wim and his team continue to work with research institutions and various promising studies are currently underway.”
There are three pillars to this method: Breathing, Cold Therapy and Commitment
The willpower and self control gained through the third pillar, commitment, has enabled Wim Hof’s body to withstand unspeakable exposure to extreme temperatures and to break world records. The breathing technique requires deep inhalations with exhalations that are void of force. In essence, it resembles a form of hyperventilation. His website contains videos and instruction on the breathing technique that you can follow along and try. Folks can also download his app which contains various daily challenges as well.
Some of Wim Hof’s incredible achievements include:
1. Running a half-marathon, barefoot, above the arctic circle, while wearing shorts
2. Climbed Mt. Everest in shorts and no shirt
3. Ran a marathon in the desert without drinking water until the end
4. Standing in a container filled with ice for two hours
5. Swam under ice for 66 meters
Caution must be exercised prior to and during the use of the Wim Hof Method
It is best to try the breathing portion on an empty stomach or right upon awakening in the morning. The Wim Hof Method can affect motor control and in rare instances loss of consciousness. People who try this method of breathing are cautioned to check with their doctor first as lightheadedness is a common side effect. In addition, the breathing techniques could trigger those with PTSD, provoke anxiety and trigger a flood of emotions. People are warned not to practice it while operating a vehicle, machinery or while in or near bodies of water.
Breathing is an unconscious process regulated by the autonomic nervous system. According to Hof, “The amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing influences the amount of energy that is released into our body’s cells. On a molecular level, this progresses via various chemical and physiological processes. Breathing is the easiest and most instrumental part of the autonomic nervous system to control and navigate. In fact, the way you breathe, strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities in your body.”
The breathing consists of 3-4 rounds of 30 to 40 breaths each. It is recommended that you sit or lay down in a comfortable position, with your eyes closed and mind cleared. Once the last exhalation in the round is complete, you inhale one more time as deeply as you can. Then let the air out and hold your breath. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again. The exercise on his website has a timer so you can see how long you are holding your breath. With daily practice, the time that passes before a breath is needed should increase. When you feel the need to breathe again, take in one large inhalation and hold for 15 seconds then breathe out. That completes one round. After performing three or four rounds you are in a very relaxed state—a perfect time to meditate!
While I have no desire to break any records or to shock my body with cold water plunges, I was intrigued to see how far I could push myself with regards to cold-bathing. The benefits of lowering inflammation in my body, and therefore some of my aches and pains sounded appealing as well. I decided to try it in the shower where I can gradually drop the temperature. (Wim Hof also suggests beginning in the shower). It is incredibly invigorating, to say the least. A goal in cold bathing is to gradually increase your time of cold exposure. The benefits seen with lowering anxiety when used on a more consistent basis is definitely worth exploring, as well! Regarding the breathing method, I definitely felt relaxed (and a little lightheaded) afterwards. I am excited to try it prior to meditation! The best part is you can do it in the comfort of your own home with very little cost.
https://www.goop.com Wellness: “Wim Hof on Love, Grief, and Cold Water”, written by: The Editor of Goop. Updated October 22, 2020; Reviewed by Wim Hof.
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com “What is Wim Hof Method breathing?”, by Zawn Villines. October 18, 2022. Medically reviewed by Cheryl Crumpler, PhD.
Netflix, Goop Documentary, Wim Hof Method “Frost”, January 29, 2020.
“Breathe”, Wim Hof Documentary on YouTube, by Jacob Sartourius, January 12, 2022.
Guest Contributor: Sue Coates
Sue is currently enrolled in the Integrative Health Coaching program through the Nickerson Institute. She graduated from The Ohio State University in 1987. Sue worked in the healthcare industry for 12 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom for the past 20+ years raising her and her husband’s two boys. A lifelong depression sufferer, Sue used fitness and wellness to help alleviate the effects of depression. She has always loved challenging herself both physically and mentally. Later, Sue was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease and has become an avid learner and proponent of healthy eating, regular exercise and supplementation. She is extremely excited to help others and to share the knowledge she has gained through the IHC program.