Updated: Oct 20, 2020
On August 3rd, myself and a few 5EW coaches drove down to Aireys' Inlet to participate in something unique, a method of life enhancement developed by a peculiar Dutchman named Wim Hof.
Wim, 57, has claimed 26 world records in unrelated feats of human performance. His resume is impressive: climbing 7,500m up Everest in shorts, running a marathon in the Namibia desert without water, and hanging between two hot air balloons, 500 metres in the air, from one finger.
We—Dave, Joel, Mark and myself—all had different reasons for attending the retreat. I’ve been fascinated with various forms of yoga and meditation for years. Dave’s quite the sceptic, but when I mentioned some prior research on Wim and his ability to prevent endotoxemia from injection of E. Coli toxin, he was ready. Since contracting hypothermia at age thirteen, Joel has been deathly afraid of cold water, so he was there to overcome his fears. And Mark is always up for a challenge.
We woke the first morning alongside 60 strangers. It was proclaimed the hot water tap would be labelled “wimp”, and we enjoyed our first taste, a 5-degree shower. Without much organisation, we wandered over to the yoga hall to begin our first session. Wim was sitting on the ground playing his guitar, alternating between Tibetan throat singing and ad-libbing about an unknown crazy monkey and changing the world—a truly unique character.
At an early age, Wim was engrossed in Philosophy & Mysticism, as well as the cold, and had begun to fuse a connection. Many years later, it was his wife’s suicide that sent him further on this quest, birthing his mantra: strength, health, and happiness.
Soon we were lying down, our only instruction: tune into the breath. Wim’s voice was gaining momentum, “Fully in! Let go!”, which encouraged us to breathe harder and deeper. In his own way, he was telling us to rise to the moment and commit.
Within a short while, my hands were tingling, my head was light, and my lungs were parting. We completed three rounds of the hyperventilation technique, 0.8 degreethe final round concluding with as many pushups as possible while holding our breath out.
Wim’s voice was gaining momentum, “Fully in! Let go!”
Some research has shown considerable physiological effects of this breathing method. There’s a robust increase of the excitatory neurotransmitter, epinephrine, as well as an increase in oxygen saturation of the tissues from 16% to 22%. By decreasing carbon dioxide levels, we also raise the blood pH from 7.4 to approximately 7.8. This state of voluntary sympathetic nervous system activation, blood alkalinity and oxygen saturation, has profound effects:
Increased pain and cold tolerance
Improved cardiovascular conditioning
Increased white blood cell count
Suppression of inflammatory cytokines
Feelings of love, connection and happiness
After just one breath session, there was definitely a greater connection between the group. As each day passed, that feeling of discomfort so common among strangers had morphed into love and compassion. We knew we’d be tested at some point, either by the approaching ice bath or the transformative breath work, and this looming challenge forged us together.
The afternoon came and brought two cars and 1,000 kilos of ice over the hill. The group started to unload the bags into the inflatable pool. Wim was singing and playing his guitar, me accompanying with my didgeridoo, the energy palpable as the twelve-person pool began to fill: 3/4 ice, 1/4 water.
“Fully in! Let go!” rang through our heads, though in a second I was stripped of this confidence as my body submerged and the ice pierced my skin. Mark and Joel were to my right, Joel shivering in fear and Mark croaking “Somewhere over the Rainbow”.
The next morning we went deeper into our breath work, learning a new technique to activate something called brown fat. The method, which is used to warm the body, involves retaining a breath and squeezing the chest and back—areas that contain the highest amounts of brown fat. We put this method to the test later that afternoon.
After more breath work, we were instructed to place our hands in the water for two minutes. The water temperature had dropped to 0.5 degrees overnight and barely any ice had melted. Our hands, which were once used as important sensors for our environment, have become stale and weak from typing on smartphones and resting in warm pockets. Whim wanted us to see what we could do with them.
Before our evening ice bath in 0.8-degree water, we completed another four rounds of The Wim Hof Method. As this was our second session of the day, I was feeling incredible. My face and hands were full of electricity, and I had enough energy to run through a brick wall.
All of us who’d done the breathing beforehand found it profoundly easier than the day prior, despite it being more than 2 degrees colder. This is because our pain receptors, particularly related to temperature were “acid-activated”. When we raise our blood pH through hyperventilating (called respiratory alkalosis), our pain receptors don’t signal as usual. It was evident that The Wim Hof Method, at the very least, allows us to take control over our physiology in the realms of cold exposure.
After a cold shower and morning walk, we collected in the yoga hall for our third morning of breathing. The group was made up of a diverse array of people. Some were suffering chronic diseases such as cancer or autoimmune issues, others were seeking spiritual growth, and some were looking for that extra edge in physical or mental performance. There were doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, bankers, nurses, builders, teachers, and coaches of all sorts.
Wim lead a mind-blowing session, teaching us new techniques specific to enhancing spiritual growth and obtaining altered states of consciousness. He’s working with Dr. Rick Strassman of the Cottonwood Research Foundation to understand the science behind mystical and spiritual experiences. Dr. Strassman is famous for his research in the early 90s on the molecule Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, also known as The Spirit Molecule.
The energy around that evening’s ice bath was much more relaxed. Despite all the ice melting, the temperature was still only 4 degrees. We practiced the brown fat activation technique, squeezing our abdomen, chest and back with seven breaths between retention. Mark did not fail to bring the intensity. Drawing on his amateur AFL career, he’d look you in the eye and yell “Don’t you (expletive) shiver, Son!”.
The breath work had become the most challenging part of the retreat. With any spiritual endeavor there can be emotional releases, and depending on the individual, these are either subtle or overt. Whatever the reaction, we knew we were surrounded by a group of people who supported us. This wasn’t just a retreat, it was an exploration of consciousness.
On the final day, the 60 of us walked through the forest and green pastures to swim in the Painkalac Dam, some 4km away. It was very fresh, but even still, most of us took the opportunity to condition the vascular system and have a pre-ice bath warm up. Something had changed.
Research now shows that cold showers can help treat depression. When we consciously stress our body, it adapts. When we lift weights, we get stronger. If we live in cotton-wool all the time, we become weak, depressed and fearful of the world.
That evening Wim called everybody into the hall for an unplanned breathing session. He suggested we go slow. “Fully in! Let go!” The lights went out. “Fully in! Let go!” Rise to the moment, commit with everything you’ve got.
Over the next 90 minutes, we breathed deeper, fuller, and longer than we’d done in our entire lives. My hands and face contorted with the unusual gaseous exchange & pH occurring in my body. Childhood memories danced into my mind as I was transported to and from the room. I felt an incredible sense of gratitude for the Crazy Dutchman at the front singing and playing his guitar. We were all converts.
Wim’s currently doing research with multiple universities, including Hanover and Stanford. Not because he wants to see if there’s proof (he already knows), but to prove to the current scientific community that there’s much to our physiology we’re not accessing. His method will change that.
Many insights had become apparent to me over the four days. Here are a few:
Too often we allow fear to govern our decisions. A hug becomes a handshake, a handshake becomes a nod. Fear prevents us from connecting with others.
We stop ourselves from being who we really are because of others’ judgments. Fully embrace yourself and those around you.
Learn new skills, test yourself in challenging situations and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. By exposing yourself to stressful situations (like an ice bath), you’re making your physiology stronger.
With all this in mind, the final ten-minute ice bath was more like a celebration of how far we’d come.
If you want to learn more about the mental and physical health benefits related to open water swimming and cold exposure, feel free to join our ICEWIM Facebook group.
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This article was first published by https://www.5ew.com.au/blog/4-days-ice-man-wim-hof/