I’m not sure how I first got interested in the Wim Hof Method (beyond curiosity about how the more amazing feats of ‘The Iceman’ were accomplished. It was either the desire to take on a breathing practice that would be a meditative ‘downtime’ and increase mindfulness (being in the moment) during the day, or the idea of reducing inflammation in my body through cold exposure. Figuring out which came first is a chicken and egg problem since I partake in it for both benefits, although I can’t say I’ve gone ‘all-in’ on it… I don’t really go all-in on anything as I like to keep my wellness practices diverse and maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.
If you’ve never heard of The Iceman or the Wim Hof Method, let me explain. Wim Hof is a man from the Netherlands who is known for his ability to withstand the cold. He holds the record for the longest swim submerged under ice, has climbed 7200m of Mount Everest in nothing but shorts and shoes as well as climbing Kilimanjaro similarly dressed. He has run the fastest half-marathon barefoot in ice and snow and was a previous record holder of the longest period of bodily contact with solid ice.
After losing his wife to suicide, Wim Hof found that exposure to the cold gave him a relief he was unable to find in any other way. He studied several Eastern meditative and yogic practices until he developed his own method which consists of 3 components: Breathing, Cold Exposure and Commitment/Meditation.
The Wim Hof Method, or WHM for short as I’ll be referring to it going forward, can be accessed in several ways. The main way is through a full-on online video course with supplemental reading materials that costs on the order of $200 (depending on promotions and the exchange rate with the Euro); I haven’t made that commitment, but there have been smaller promotions and versions, and my favourite is an app that has expansion packs for a small fee, available on iTunes and Google Play (search for WHM).
The 3 ‘Pillars’ of the WHM are Breathing, Cold Exposure and Mindset/Commitment.
The basic breathing technique is diaphragmatic breathing with a focus on the inhale. You fill your lungs starting with expanding your belly before your chest, then release the air without using effort to expel it. Wim’s frequent coaching phrase is “Fully in… letting go”. You do this about 30 to 40 times, and on the final exhale, you keep your mouth closed (I sometimes plug my nose to keep from cheating) and try to hold for as long as you can (they recommend at least a minute).
Sounds hard? It is… sometimes I don’t make it for a full minute. Usually, the more I can still my mind, the better I do, but I don’t think I’ve exceeded 2 minutes more than a handful of times and certainly not in the past few months. Obviously, this should only be attempted in a safe space – they specifically warn against doing it while driving or in the shower or otherwise in water. I usually lie on the floor, sometimes in bed or on a couch. I’ve never lost consciousness (you would start breathing immediately if you weren’t consciously trying not to, but why take the rest? I’m most relaxed while I’m lying down anyway. Apparently some tingling sensations can be felt during this stage, but I usually get them at the next step. What I do experience is the need to swallow saliva (which usually signals the beginning of the end of the breath retention phase) and contraction of my diaphragm muscles.
When you can’t hold any longer, you take in a big lungful of air and hold for 15 seconds. During this period I have felt some light euphoria and pleasant tingling in my arms and legs. After those 15 seconds, you’ve completed one round, and you can repeat as needed. 3 rounds in the morning on an empty stomach are recommended. When I’ve done it later in the day, I often don’t last as long in the retention (breath-holding) phase.
A fun thing to try is rather than just holding empty lungs during the retention phase, try to do as many pushups as you can. I find I can usually do 2-4 more pushups after the breathing exercise than I could without.
The path to resisting (or embracing) the cold seems to be to try taking cold showers. You start with hot water and switch to cold, gradually increasing how long you can last. You might start with as little as 5-10 seconds. I can usually do a good minute, though I move around under the showerhead so it’s not just one part of my body getting cold. If you do the diaphragmatic breathing (without holding your breath) a little before going under, you can experience the sensation of your body warming from within and it makes it easier to withstand. Keep in mind, we are warm-blooded creatures and our bodies stay at around 37.5 degrees Celsius regardless of what your skin is feeling.
I played around a little with cold immersion last autumn when our new swimming pool had a broken heater (temperatures in low teens), but only once or twice with an ‘ice bath’. Even then, I only used a single bag of ice in a large soaker tub and stayed in for one minute. The more hardcore adherents put in a lot more ice and verify that the temperature is truly close to freezing.
Overall I do enjoy the sensation I get after the cold shower. My blood is flowing in my muscles almost like the middle of a workout, and there’s a mental clarity that you don’t get with a hot shower, in spite of how many of us use hot showers to ‘wake up’ in the morning.
I confess this is the ‘pillar’ I have spent the least time with. Within the app, the exercises available are Forward Fold, Reverse Balance, Headstand and The Shelf. These are all Yoga poses including 2 inversions and an arm balance. The justification for these seems to be mostly a way to track your overall progress and health. If you have Netflix, you can see an episode of Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab where they explore the method, and the Goop team is seen doing a ‘horse stance’ with some quick punching and breathing to prime themselves for cold exposure including Yoga in the snow and jumping into an icy Lake Tahoe. The show doesn’t delve deep into the science and nor do I – there is plenty of medically dense terminology in the supporting literature you can find, (Wikipedia is almost never a bad place to start), I just didn’t want to get too bogged down in something I mostly dabble in. I will say that I’ve gotten through the cold/flu season (so far) relatively unscathed – some coughing and sneezing that only lasted 3 days.
The WHM is one of the inspirations (and foundations) of Laird Hamilton and Gabby Reece’s XPT, which I hope to explore in a future post.