Essential learnings from Wim Hof

Essential learnings from Wim Hof
2 May 2016 Sung van der Peet

Somewhere in April 2015 I meet Wim Hof. His ‘method’ attracts media attention after research shows that the breathing technique he teaches and cold immersion, can influence the autonomic nervous system. Trained students were able to fight off dead bacteria that would normally make you ill. The research concluded that mainly the breathing technique had an immediate effect on the immune system and its inflammatory response. By that time, health benefits of cold showers were being researched too. Signs were looking good. Clearly there was something going on worth investigating more. The best way is through experience, so I decided to attend a basic training weekend ‘Wim Hof Method’.

Too much talking doesn’t make any sense

Have you ever found yourself completely drifting off when someone talks to you? This was the case with Wim just a few hours in. Luckily one of our fellow students stayed clear headed and asked if we could skip to a more active part of the training. If he had not done that we’d probably still be sitting there wondering what Wim’s insanely long speech was all about.

Now when it comes to action, Wim is in his element. His enthusiasm gets everyone up and going, trying all sorts of difficult yoga poses to raise the energy level. Works great. It’s funny to see everyone trying, it also raises questions about his teaching style and technique. There is none, it’s all about ‘just doing’. People tried jumping into headstand without any proper guidance. We were all over the place. Like a kindergarten class at playtime. But, we were also fearless. What Hof lacks in didactical skills is quickly forgotten once in active-mode. Physical action trumps overthinking. This is a very powerful take-away from Hof’s method.

Breathing technique

Then it’s time to learn Wim’s breathing technique. We all lay flat on the floor. With hands on the belly you strongly breathe in and easily out, repeated around 30 times. After the last breath going out, with still some residual air in the longs, you hold until the point you feel the need to breathe. One deep breath in, hold for 15 seconds and breathe out. That’s one cycle. Normally you’d do 3 to 4 of those. We do a series to get it imprinted in our heads.

Bodily response is immediate that’s what makes it a strong exercise. There’s a noticeable physiological effect. A slight lightness in the head, tingeling around the lips, feeling of numbness around the arms, all possible sensations during first practice. As I learn later, hyperventilating actually does that. There’s nothing special about it, but at that moment it feels sort of magical. Feelings are enhanced by Wim playing various instruments, singing and yelling along. “Breathe motherfuckers” is one of his most popular yells. We laugh, we cry, all sorts of emotions arise and are let go. It feels good.

Science

Research has shown lots of positive things are happening during the breathing exercise. The controlled breathing (comparable to hyperventilation) let’s you take in more oxygen (O2) and consciously release more carbon dioxide (CO2). PH levels in the blood increase shortly making it more alkaline. Followed by breath retention the pattern is reversed. Levels of CO2 rise in the bloodstream and oxygen saturation drops to about 50-60 percent. So what? Well, more CO2 in the body means your blood will transport oxygen better, arteries widen. Hyperventilating does the opposite, pumping more O2 in the bloodstream while arteries constrict.

You’re training yourself to become more efficient in use of oxygen so that your body functions or even outperforms in very demanding (stressful) situations. Most people do not breathe properly, by focussing solely on breathing, awareness is raised and intercostal muscles (between the ribs) are trained. The breathing technique also triggers a significant increase in epinephrine (adrenaline) which leads to early increase of anti-inflammatory cells. In this study conducted by RUMC trained individuals ‘hacked’ their sympathetic nervous system, with an immediate and profound effect on the immune response.

My first icebath

Outside a happy, bright blue birth pool awaits us. We fill it with 120 kg of ice cubes from the freezer. Suddenly the happy pool looks a lot less appealing. The group huddles around the pool guided by Wim chanting ‘Oeh’, ‘Ah’. After an explanation of physiological response, core temperature and extremities, it’s go time. Clock is set on 3 minutes. We go in by pair. I see different reactions, a few have panicky breathing, but other than that everyone goes in and steps out without any problems.

Then it’s my turn. Freezing cold hits all alarm bells instantly when I lower my body in the iced water. I can hear my mind screaming out ‘This isn’t good, get out!’ I’m trying to lock out everything. By staying calm, regulating your breathing, you find there’s no need to react to the voice in your head. You become the observer of your mind and the bodily senses. After two minutes or so I feel I can sit through the cold and now my body seems to surrender to the situation. When you reach this point, you’ve already reaped the benefits, so you can get out. Once you’re out of the water your body will return to homeostasis. The blood that is pulled away from your extremities during the stressful period under water, now flows quickly back to warm up the entire body. Your body will be all red and tingeling.

Theory behind cold-training

An icebath is a very effective way to trigger your fight or flight mode within your autonomous nervous system. In a safe and controlled environment, adrenaline and endorfines will rush through your body, your cardiovascular system gets a proper workout. Another research published by UMC has shown that people who were exposed to temperatures below 17 degrees Celsius were producing and activating brown fat tissue. Brown fat opposed to the better known ‘bad’ white fat is actually beneficial for human health. Brown fat produces heat during cold exposure. A cold environment also raised the metabolic rate in tested subjects. This resulted in burning more white fat cells. Cold exposure can help people lose and regulate weight. It might be a key factor in fighting obesity.

Even more importantly cold training has a profound effect on your mind body connection. Stepping out of your comfort zone will become easier. Because cold has a deep impact on both physiological and mental response you gain control over natural abilities and powers dormant within every human being. Discomfort is commonly confused with pain. Our brain tries to avoid it, therefore your mind will come up with all sorts of excuses. Refusing to listen to the voice in your head but instead listening to your body can be life changing. You will become more active, feel stronger, more confident and feel less troubled by stressful situations or stressful people around you.

The journey continues

My weekend training with Wim kickstarted my own journey diving deeper in my own physiology. I was curious to find the long term effects on myself. If I could sit in an icebath, and at a certain point even enjoy it, how would I cope hiking up a mountain bare chested in nothing but shorts?

Eight months later I found out. Strong winds of around 120 km/hr had us climbing Mount Snezka in wind chill factor -33 degrees Centigrade (-28 degrees Fahrenheit). 200 Meters from the top I fell flat on my face on icy rocks. I experienced the total disconnect between mind and body, where the body takes over because you cannot think logically. The system is shut down and all you can do is trust your human capacities. I made it to the top. Besides a few stitches I was fine and feeling incredibly strong. Yes, you can do amazing things. In April 2016 I finished my training and became a WHM-instructor.

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