If you don’t know who Wim Hof is, you can easily get a taste of his infectious, fun, and yes, a little bit crazy personality from a variety of appearances with the likes of Joe Rogan, Tony Robbins, and my friend Morgan’s One Mind podcast. Wim is an extraordinarily enthusiastic advocate of personal power. He is a Dutch fellow, often referred to as “the Ice Man,” a name derived from his best-known ability- to withstand a great variety of very cold situations- for which he has broken many world records. He has also put his claims of an ability in humans to boost their own immune systems to the test in clinical trials- primarily with breathing techniques and meditation- with amazing success. So I urge you to take a look at one of his interviews; listen to the man for a little while, despite what may, at first, seem outlandish, and see if you can detect the heart shining through. Clearly, I did detect heart and truth in what Wim Hof is saying. Another thing you will find on the internet is many people filming themselves demonstrating the breathing technique, or cold shower and ice bath strategies, and I think it’s because this is one of those “life hacks” which has immediate effects on mood, and seems to result in other personal, anecdotal evidence that it has an effect on well-being in general. People do seem genuinely inspired by this guy, and for the most part seem earnest in sharing what they’ve found. So this is my contribution, starting with an anecdote of a subtle effect that was completely unforeseen, and has strengthened other aspects of my life.
On New Year’s Eve Day, 2017, I looked around my place and thought: Impossible. There’s no way I’m getting this house in shape to have people over by tonight. While sometimes I will meditate, or go for a run when I’m feeling overwhelmed, traditional meditation didn’t appeal that day, and a run seemed impractical. So I decided to do the Wim Hof Breathing technique (see my description of this technique below, or find Wim Hof describing it on his app. or online). I chose to do it because I knew that it often lifted my mood; the unusual thing was that, while the technique calls for three or four rounds of deep breathing with breath holds in between, this time I did only one, and my whole day changed. I sat in the middle of my living room floor, facing windows with a fish tank between them. I did the technique once, and almost immediately I got the message: move the fish tank to that corner. It was like divine feng shui intervention. I got up and started making preparations for the move, and one thing after another started falling into place. This may not seem significant at first glance, and is not meant to be evidence of divine intervention; it’s simply that something happened in my being at that point which allowed me to see more clearly than before. And sure, if I hadn’t decided to breath at that moment, everything would have been fine; but instead of everything being just fine, everything became quietly inspired- my movement in the simple world of mundane tasks, at that moment at least, took on a level of grace which I wasn’t necessarily looking for.
Now, in addition to using the Wim Hof breathing technique if I’m feeling overwhelmed or at a loss for what to do with myself, I specifically look for inspiration in this technique. Of course, there is a level of unassuming openness required in finding inspiration (which is why it is common to find it in the shower and on the toilet), so I seek it by keeping a big yellow pad of paper by me while doing the breathing technique. This is commonly how I begin my meditation sessions these days. It takes about 20 minutes, and I allow for brief note taking during the intervals. I also let this be a signal for my mind that it has ample opportunity to voice its ideas and concerns prior to my regular meditation time- it has definitely made it easier for me to quiet my discursive thinking during meditation. The ideas that come up are often mundane, like a store or to-do list, an idea for an article (like today), a prompt to move a fish tank, and sometimes I get some ideas for songs, poetry, guided meditations, other creative ideas, etc. While I like the ideas and inspiration which result from this technique, probably my favorite days are when I don’t write anything at all. Sometimes I’ll draw a Zen circle on the page at the beginning of the session, and I love looking at that empty circle at the end and quietly transitioning into meditation. To me it signifies, not that I don’t have anything to do, but that a temporary balance has emerged, and compulsion has taken a break.
The Wim Hof Breathing Technique As I See It
I decided to describe the technique in my own words as an exploration for myself, and with the hope that my little angle on it may be helpful to at least one person. Begin in a meditative posture, sitting or lying down, completely at ease. Let the mind be as quiet as possible, generally focusing more on the body. Begin diaphragmatic breathing; sometimes people will put their hands on the belly and feel it expand- I like to imagine my whole pelvis is filling, and then part by part the body fills right up to the throat and mouth. As soon as the deep inhalation is complete, release the air by just relaxing. Sometimes it will release with intensity, but the force should all come from the natural release of the diaphragm. Do not force any air out at the end of the exhalation. Wim Hof specifies that it is a complete in-breath, but there is some air left in the lungs when the next inhalation begins, because no air is forced out. The breathing should get into a rhythm and be continuous and connected, merging each inhalation with each exhalation. Wim Hof says that it does not matter whether the mouth is open or closed for this technique. You seem to get longer breath holds breathing in through the mouth, but lately, I’ve been experimenting with inhalation through the nose and exhalation through the mouth. To inhale through the nose, I need to do something like Ujjayi breathing to get enough air for an effective breath hold. It will be different for different people, of course. 30-40 breaths is the recommended amount; more specifically, WH says that when you feel a “charge”- warmth, tingling, something around 20 breaths which feels significant- you do 10 more breaths and then on the final exhalation you stop and hold. Again, don’t force the air out; there should be some air left in your lungs, but they should not be full. I use WH’s app. to time my holds, but any stopwatch or second hand will do. Ultimately, I don’t think that timing the hold is the most important thing, but I find it can be informative. During the hold, you should be as relaxed as possible. I try to really let my attention be on the body as a whole, and notice energetic movement (again, warmth, tingling etc.). The first impulse to inhale will come near the beginning, and you just need to get through this one, as it’s the habit, not the need for oxygen, which is leading the impulse. You should find that you are able to relax quite comfortably without breathing for some time, after which, when you feel the strong impulse to breath again, you should heed it. Take a nice deep breath and hold that for 10-15 seconds then relax and breath normally. This whole process is done 3-4 times. Without forcing it, WH suggests you are shooting for 90 seconds minimum for the breath holds. I sometimes do less than that, but even on the roughest days, I usually get at least one of my holds over 90. People begin to get very good at holding their breath doing this, but that is not the point. I’m going to leave the technique description there- I suggest getting the application or finding WH explaining the technique online, and if this is a helpful supplement, very good.
A Note On Straining
Another area of awareness in which this technique has informed me has been the difference between intensity and strain. WH emphasizes ease all the time. “No forcing.” For a long time, especially after I started doing the inhalation through the nose, I would make a specific face for the inhalation, which I accepted, until I decided to start experimenting with even more ease in the body, despite the intensity of the breath. I try to keep my face completely impassive, feeling the urge to let the mouth move into a smirk of effort as I fill my lungs to capacity. At the end, I do open my mouth a little to top off the air, and almost simultaneously, allow the air to pour forth, releasing and readying for the next breath. I’ve discovered that taking smooth, powerful breaths with a relaxed face is a practice in itself.
What About the Cold?
Yes, when most people think of Wim Hof, they think about his uncanny ability to withstand the cold. And yes, I subscribe to cold exposure as well. I haven’t started taking regular ice baths, but I do take cold showers at least half of the time, and I experiment with letting myself be in the cold and be comfortable. I won’t get into the claims and cold thermogenesis, etc., right now, but like the breathing, something about the cold made sense to me, and my teenage son has taken it up as well- more so than I have, in fact. He rocks a “The Cold is My Warm Friend” t-shirt that I got him for Christmas, seldom wears coats in the brisk New England winter, and only takes one warm shower per week- for a deeper clean.
That’s about it, for now. While meditation has been my main focus on this site, I thought it was important to show how my practice branches into other categories, and I wanted to give an official shout out to this interesting, big-hearted Dutchman, and his mission to make everybody make themselves as strong and happy as they can be.