By Amit Harlev
Deep below an ice deck, in near -30°C water, the world suddenly blurred around Wim Hof. He had been swimming between two perforations in the ice above him, when his cornea froze—leaving him blind with only his stroke count to bring him back to the world above. Fifty strokes in, he felt the ice above him in an attempt to locate the hole without any success. Just as he started losing consciousness, a hand wrapped around his ankle. It was one of the safety divers ready to help if anything went awry. This was one of many feats accomplished by Wim Hof, a Dutch daredevil commonly known as “The Iceman” for his ability to withstand extreme cold.
How does he do this? Through reading Hof’s unpublished book, The Wim Hof Method, and interviews with him it’s clear that the three main components of Hof’s method are breathing, “cold therapy”, and focus. He practices cycles of a specific kind of deep breathing, which leaves residual amounts of unused oxygen in your lungs and boosts oxygen in the blood. Hof claims that this breathing method allows you to influence various physiological processes throughout the body – it is similar to Tibetan Tummo meditative breathing.
The second aspect of the method is “cold therapy”. Through gradual exposure to cold over the period of many years, Hof has developed a strong immunity to cold. Some techniques he uses for cold exposure, are cold showers, ice baths, and meditating while sitting in the snow. Practicing cold exposure has been shown to dramatically decrease infectious protein in the bloodstream, increase metabolic rate and white blood cells in the body, and allow you to retain brown fat as you age.
The last aspect of the method is focus, although you don’t train for it independently. Hof emphasizes the importance of concentration while doing the breathing exercises and subjecting yourself to cold. He has said that it is what allows you to control your autonomic nervous system and use the techniques in extreme situations. A combination of all three aspects is needed to attain full results.
Hof started developing this method as a young adult. As a child he had always been interested in the connection between body and mind, looking toward Eastern teachings such as Zen Buddhism, the Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga sutras—even though his family learned Catholic liturgy. However, he didn’t find what he was looking for in any of these. His first experience with freezing water, which later led to the development of the Wim Hof Method, was in the winter of 1979, when he jumped into a freezing canal in Amsterdam, curious about what it would feel like. He later recounted that there was an immediate shock, but that there wasn’t a feeling of cold; instead, he felt a wash of endorphins and a tremendous feeling of good. He knew he had finally found what he was looking for, and went on to continue the practice every day since.
Hof continued training by himself for 15 years; however, his wife began to show signs of a serious mental disorder, becoming depressed and hearing voices. In 1995, she committed suicide by jumping off of the eighth floor of her parent’s apartment building. The grief caused by this loss is what drove Hof to make it his mission to teach others his method, making sure that they stayed happy and healthy. He believes that the energy and alleged hormonal balancing effects of his method will give back some control to people with mental disorders.
Since then, he has been training others and accomplishing amazing feats with his method. He held the full-body-contact ice endurance Guinness World Record (which involves submerging a person in a crushed ice up to the neck) with a time of 1 hour, 52 minutes, and 42 seconds until 2014, when Songhao Jin surpassed him with a time of 1 hour, 53 minutes, and 10 seconds. Some of his other feats include: running a half marathon barefoot above the arctic circle wearing only shorts, hanging by one finger between two hot air balloons at an altitude of approximately 2000 meters for 25 seconds, and running an entire marathon in the Namib desert without water. He has also climbed 24,000 feet of Mt. Everest with only shorts and shoes, having to turn back 5,000 feet short of the summit due to a foot injury.
Hof has also participated in studies testing the reproducibility of the results from the method. A study tested his ability to control his autonomic nervous and immune system by injecting an endotoxin into his body. Through the use of his breathing technique and concentration, he greatly reduced the symptoms from the endotoxin. They continued the study by having him train participants with his method for ten days and then administering them with the same endotoxin. They also had a control group that was not trained. The trained group exhibited a similar reaction to Hof, while the control group exhibited the expected reaction. Here is the study for those interested in looking at specifics.
Even after the study was done, there are still some skeptics of the Wim Hof Method. Some of them simply think that he is overly optimistic about the curative effects of the method, while others cite this study, which shows that there was no significant difference in brown fat levels between Hof and his identical twin.
If you would like to try out his method for yourself here are some videos with Hof explaining the exercises: