Breathe. Just breathe. No stress. No forcing. Let it go.”
Wim Hof’s voice is like pancake syrup pouring through you. There are 300 bodies sprawled out on the floor of the English suite at the Oval cricket ground. They have come from all over the world to listen to this modern-day Dutch master, with crinkled face and unkempt, hippy look, talk us through his therapeutic hyperventilation therapy.
“Breathe in and out, in and out,” is repeated melodically, and then, “stop!”
And everyone stops. Time starts to tick. I don’t know how long, but my body feels peaceful and I don’t really struggle until my lungs automatically suck in the air and there’s a rush of euphoria to the head and tingling energy everywhere. For a moment it feels like I’m floating – my senses on standby.
You may not have heard of it yet, but the Wim Hof Method is gathering momentum. Hof is a 59-year old Dutchman whose previous claims to fame are the seemingly impossible endurance feats captured in 27 world records – these include reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in two days wearing just shorts; running a full marathon above the Arctic Circle in bare feet; standing fully immersed in ice for nearly two hours; running a marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking any water; or a famous summit attempt of Mount Everest wearing only shorts. But that’s only half the story. He says everyone can do it.
“Everyone in the world thinks I’m doing incredible stuff – Everest; hanging by one finger; the heat – but it’s all possible. We just have a weak connection with our own physiology. By being in ‘comfort zone’ behaviour we have weakened our system so the garbage is not being disposed as it should. At a certain moment it comes back and deregulates the system – it’s called autoimmune disease.”
I was looking for something deeper. I couldn’t find it in books or other disciplines but the cold did it
One of nine children and one half of a twin, he was always interested in alternative methods. As a young man, he scoured eastern tracts – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and Zen Buddhism – and at the same time started undertaking some crazy daredevil stunts. His affair with the cold began when, as a 20-year old, he decided to jump in an ice-covered canal. He didn’t die – in fact, he managed to drag out a guy who’d fallen into the water. It lit the spark. But the desire to go deeper was fuelled by a tragedy. In 1995, his wife – a schizophrenic – committed suicide.
He was heartbroken and looked for help –which he found in nature.
“I was looking for something deeper. I couldn’t find it in books or other disciplines – yoga, kung fu, karate – but the cold did it. It triggered a deeper connection. From there I started to breathe deeper and more profoundly so that I could sit all night long in cold temperatures. Through this, I absolutely found a greater control.”
Cold, he says, is the truest thing there is – one’s mind is unlikely to wander when you’re submerged in ice. And there’s science behind it.
Cold exposure taps into the periaqueductal gray, located between the brain and the lower brainstem, which has a role in behavioural responses to stressors like pain or the fight or flight threat. Stimulation of the periaqueductal gray releases opioids and cannabinoids in the brain to reduce pain and can help control mental disorders and depression. And you don’t need drugs or machines to do it.
“You can do it just by your belief, your thoughts, your intent,” says Hof. “You go consciously into the cold, not into the heat because that’s passive. When I go into the cold I decide that in my brain. So it goes into survival mode. It allows you to test out the neurological pathways to be able to tap into the deepest part of the brain which we never test out. At a certain moment you don’t need the cold anymore. You like it.”
There is the truth and that’s the truth – there is no shortcut for that
Getting to the deepest level of control is where breathing comes in. Breathing for health is not new. Yogis will know all about ‘prana’ breathing techniques and the Chinese have qigong for chi. Hof says his own method simplifies these methods into a shorter route.
“We can train people to activate the autonomous system deeply. It’s tapping into deeper areas of brainstem – rather than doing it through mindfulness. Of course there is no short cut. There is the truth and that’s the truth – there is no shortcut for that.”
But the thing with Hof – beyond the fancy science and terminology – is that he has the power of persuasion. And charm. The crystalline blue eyes are dancing and the audience lapping up his jokes as he recounts past experiences (including having his retinas freeze during one underwater swim). He speaks eight languages. He converses on Ayruvedic subjects which he covers in perfect details. He only eats once a day but the breathing gives him “all the energy in the world.” He is a talent. For sure, the dishevelled exterior hides many wonders.
And perhaps that’s why we all accept the final test. Three hundred people around me are stripping down to swimming costumes and we are following the Wim Hof volunteers outside. There, on the tarmac are three large inflatable baths filled with ice. It feels a bit like a shooting gallery. The shivers start even before entering. Then in groups of ten we all take a plunge – two minutes in the ice cold. Hands on thighs. Use your breath. Don’t struggle. Just breathe. Can we do it?
Weirdly enough, the truth works.
For more, see wimhofmethod.com