I look down to see that my toes are a striking shade of vermilion. Upon closer inspection, my feet, legs, and the rest of my body, all the way to my shoulders, match the color of my toes. I’m in nothing but my soaked bathing suit and my woolen hat dancing to an upbeat tune, and after about one minute of a fun-filled, ungraceful jig, I can feel my body getting warmer. The 12 people similarly shaking it on Que Caliente beside me must be heating up again, too — everybody has a huge smile on their face.
I had no idea that spending two minutes immersed in an ice bath could make people so ecstatic. But that’s the Wim Hof Method for you.
Who is Wim Hof, and what is the Wim Hof Method?
The Method, as its name indicates, was created by Wim Hof, a Dutchman well known for breaking all sorts of records related to cold exposure. The most jaw-dropping among them include swimming under ice for 215 feet and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in nothing but shorts. Unsurprisingly, Wim Hof is commonly known as “The Iceman.” And although feats like these might seem plain insane, they are purposeful for Hof. By doing such stunts, he was proving that the method he has developed to endure and enjoy cold temperatures worked.
According to the official Wim Hof Method website, the practice is three simple pillars: breathing, cold exposure, and commitment. Every day “hoffers,” as practitioners of the method are called, have a special breathing session of about 15 minutes and expose themselves to cold water for a couple of minutes. That’s it. The hardest part of the method is to practice it every single day.
Wim Hof breathing consists of three or four rounds of quickly repeated deep and full inhales and unforced exhales, interspersed with breath retentions with your lungs empty, and with your lungs full. It’s not rocket science, but it requires some concentration and a safe place. (Note that you should never practice this intense breathing technique in a body of water; the cold water immersions are a separate aspect of the method. The same goes for driving or anywhere else that could be considered dangerous).
The cold exposure can be implemented in the form of cold showers, dips in cold water, or ice baths. There’s no need to immerse yourself in freezing waters for 15 minutes — two minutes will do the trick.
While the method is simple, the benefits are huge. Science has proven that cold therapy reduces inflammation, enhances energy levels, improves the quality of your sleep, and boosts your immune system, among other advantages. The Wim Hof breathing exercise is known to alleviate stress and improve athletic performance, but it’s also been linked to the reduction of symptoms of several autoimmune diseases, asthma, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.
And all these scientifically proven health benefits, combined with the simplicity of the practice, and the fact that it costs nothing and requires no equipment, have not been lost on those searching for an improved quality of life. There are more people talking about the Wim Hof Method out there than you can shake a stick at. Even Gwyneth Paltrow decided to put aside vagina-scented candles for a minute to devote a full episode of Netflix’s The Goop Lab to the method. And since the episode has aired, interest in Wim Hof and the practice has skyrocketed.
I personally heard about the method from a couple of friends in their 50s who discovered it on YouTube less than a year ago and have been practicing since then. Knowing that I am a swimmer and enjoy relatively cold waters, they attempted to convince me to give it a try. But there was no way I was going to voluntarily hyperventilate on my own at home, cued in by some random YouTube video. Instead, I signed up for a Wim Hof Fundamentals Workshop. With a trained instructor by my side, I was ready to give it a shot.
What to expect at a Wim Hof workshop
Partaking in a Wim Hof Fundamentals Workshop costs a minimum of 90 USD (price varies) for four to five hours of instructions, which include a detailed history lesson of how the method came to be, a thorough scientific explanation of the method’s benefits, a breathing session, and an ice bath. Workshops are led by knowledgeable certified Wim Hof Method (WHM) instructors. There are workshops throughout the world, from South Africa to Singapore.
The workshop I signed up for took place on a Sunday afternoon in mid-January in the small town of Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. When I arrived that day, there were three people shoveling snow into two steel bathtubs located outside the CrossFit gym where the event was to take place. A daunting indication of what was to come.
Workshops tend to be on the small side so that each participant gets the attention they need. That Sunday, there was a diverse group of 12 of us sitting on yoga mats listening attentively to our instructor, Jeffrey Sorensen.
Jeffrey introduced himself as a paramedic, a yoga and breathwork instructor, a survivor of several near-fatal accidents and drug addiction, and, of course, a Wim Hof convert. His story of addiction and recovery through yoga was impressive, but what struck a chord with all of us was his passion and utter conviction in the method.
“I’ve been practicing the Wim Hof Method for two-three years, and every day since I started, I wake up feeling amazing,” he said from his mat, with a beaming smile and twinkling eyes that should definitely be plastered on every Wim Hof poster out there.
If someone with such a difficult past could feel amazing every single day thanks to 15 minutes of breathing and two minutes of cold-water exposure, I wanted to be in on it. I wanted to feel amazing too.
After Jeffrey led us into a short yoga sequence and explained to us the basics of the breathing technique, we were all set to try it out. But before we got started, I raised my hand and shared my anxiety with him and the group. Having experienced several severe panic attacks in my life, I had apprehensions regarding the sensations that the WHM breathing could bring forward. One video online of the popular Yes Theory Youtubers practicing the breathing technique shows one of them convulsing — an experience he later said he did not remember having.
“You can stop or slow down at any time because you’re totally in control, “Jeffery reassured me. “But know that you can be brave today — you’re in very safe hands.”
That’s all I needed to hear.
I did not know you could get high on breathing, but it turns out that you very much can. The feelings I experienced are akin to having a couple of glasses of wine on an empty stomach. I felt light-headed, giddy, and entirely relaxed.
The workshop ended with the much-anticipated cold bath. Jeffrey opened the large garage door to the outside where the tubs were waiting for us, and we were told to take off our shoes, get into our bathing suits, and organize ourselves in a circle. It was 14 degrees Fahrenheit that day. With traditional First Nations music playing loudly, we performed the “horse stance” — standing with our legs apart and knees bent as if we were riding a horse, we pushed our arms out towards their opposite sides, one after the other, in rhythm with our breath. Initially a martial art posture, the horse stance is a form of movement meditation that brings mental focus and warmth to the body.
For some, going in the tub of slush was very hard. For others, it seemed easy. When my turn came, I was so focused on the task that there was no place for any thoughts other than “I’m going in now.” Jeffrey instructed me to step in and stand in the tub, then lower myself in the water. I did as told while locking eyes with him the whole time and breathing calmly, but rhythmically. I personally felt nothing unpleasant: no cold and no pain. I did find myself smiling after several seconds of immersion, as if someone had hit the pleasure switch inside my head. I stayed two minutes in the tub before Jeffrey helped me out. I wrapped a towel around myself and joined the circle again, where the rest of the group was still moving intentionally.
The group setting made the affair all the more powerful. While the workshop is a personal experience, the other participants provide support and motivation. There’s no embarrassment, pressure, or shame — just a great deal of encouragement, joy, and fun. “It’s good to practice as a group,” Jeffrey said when I met him a couple of weeks after the workshop. “The group dynamic helps you commit, and commitment is the most difficult pillar of the WHM.”
The method is so simple, accessible, and empowering that you can participate in one workshop and practice to reap the benefits for the rest of your life without spending another penny on it or learn anything more about the WHM. But, the workshop is undoubtedly a one-day “peak experience” that can be tricky for some to replicate at home alone. For those who need more support, there are other ways to get your practice going strong: a full, week-long retreat to remote, frozen Poland, with Wim Hof himself.
What to expect at a Wim Hof expedition
If you can manage the steep price tags, you can dive deep into this practice by going on a trip led by Wim Hof. While they are not as intimate as the workshops (they gather about 100 participants), they last five days and are organized so that there are two expert instructors per 25 people.
The winter trips take place in Poland, on the border of the Czech Republic, near Wim’s personal house. Participants not only learn and practice the breathing technique and cold immersions but also climb the summit of Mount Śnieżka or another nearby peak in nothing but their bathing suit as another form of cold therapy. The summer trips take place in the Spanish Pyrenees and include activities such as hiking, canyoning, and white-water rafting. If you’re super keen, there’s also an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania that will cost you a pretty penny, but that will allow you to combine wellness and once-in-a-lifetime outdoor adventure in one trip.
Grace Reilly, a 22-year-old woman who works as a Corpsman in the US Navy Reserves, went on a Wim Hof-led trip to Poland this past January. She learned about the method a few years back while listening to a podcast and was immediately taken by the accessibility of the method. But what really sold her on it was the fact that it was grounded in science.
While Wim Hof has been the subject of many scientific experiments throughout the years, the best-known and surprising of them is the time he was injected by a team of scientists with an E. coli bacteria that should have triggered stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and a mild fever but had no effect on him. And it’s not just him who resisted the bacteria; a group of people whom Wim Hof trained with his method showed the same astonishing results.
“[After I learned about this experiment], I just became obsessed with Wim and his philosophy on life. He has such an amazing spirit to him,” Grace explains. Although she had never taken a workshop or practiced the method on her own, she was determined to learn and garner its benefits during her trip.
While the price is indisputably high for such a short trip (about 2,500 USD, flights not included), Grace believes it is well worth the money. “This trip has been such a huge dream of mine for years now […] It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so that is how I justified it in my head. I see this trip as an investment into my well-being. I have suffered with anxiety and depression, and one of the biggest things that attracted me about this whole method is what an impact cold water therapy has on your mental health.”
I talked to Grace both before and after her trip, and it’s safe to say that the experience exceeded her expectations.
While she was one out of 110 participants, and one of the youngest among them, Grace explains she had a life-changing experience. It was the first time she traveled solo out of the US and saw the entire trip as a journey of self-discovery.
“There were 110 of us and only 10 women, but while I was nervous at first, everyone was very welcoming, and the whole experience was extremely comfortable,” Grace recalls. I also noticed that there were more men than women in the workshop I attended, which had struck me as unusual. When I mentioned it to Jeffrey, he nodded in agreeance. “The Wim Hof Method is a modality that traditionally has appealed more to men than to women,” he explained. “Although I am hopeful that is changing with more attention in the media from shows like The Goop Lab. This practice can be very beneficial and empowering for women as well.”
During her time in Poland, Grace practiced the Wim Hof breathing and overcame difficulties with extreme noise-related anxieties. Having 100 people breathing deeply around you is loud and distracting, and it was preventing Grace from focusing on the task at hand. But the instructors had her back. “The next day [day two of five], they brought me headphones, so I could block out the noise.” The fact that the instructors were attentive to every participants’ needs increased the feeling of safety for Grace, who was able to relax and fully immerse herself in the method.
The first day of her trip, after practicing the breathing technique a few times in her group of 10-25 people, Grace went into the cold water for one minute. While she felt pain at first, she was able to manage to stay 10 long minutes in the freezing water by the end of her trip.
The second to last day was the highlight of the trip for Grace. All 110 participants, all the instructors, and Wim Hof went on a three-and-a-half-hour hike in the snowy Karkonosze Mountains in their bathing suits. “When we were moving, it was fine, but sometimes we stopped to breathe and the wind was strong; it pierced your skin. It got really cold.” Grace mentioned that the instructors kept repeating “This is about climbing your inner mountain,” and while this might sound a little New Age-y, it resonated with Grace.
“While I was there, I kept thinking about the people in my life that the method could help. But I’m glad I went alone; it felt more meaningful for me to do this on my own.”
Since she came back from her trip, Grace has been practicing breathing daily and recently went for a dip in the ocean on a cold, rainy winter day — public “horse stance” on the beach included. She is even thinking of investing in a chest freezer which she plans to fill with ice and water for her daily cold immersions.
And if that’s not conviction and dedication right there, I don’t know what is.
Personally, a month after taking the Wim Hof Method workshop, I have stuck to the routine of cold exposure by way of daily cold showers. The practice is invigorating and truly becomes pleasurable as days go by. The breathing is the most difficult part of the method for to practice as the sensations it causes make me uneasy. But there is no doubt that the Wim Hof method has had a positive impact — I have noticed a greater clarity of mind, more energy, and less anxiety. And for just less than 20 minutes of daily practice, I’d say it’s very much worth it.
The post What it’s really like to go to on a Wim Hof Method retreat appeared first on Matador Network.