If you’re Wim Hof, you have a high tolerance for cold.
The Iceman who hails from Sittard, Netherlands, holds 21 records for ice endurance, heat tests, and other grueling, body-punishing feats of endurance in the Guinness Book of World Records. He’s run barefoot marathons and gone shirtless in the wintery wasteland of the Arctic circle, dived under ice at the North Pole, and climbed most of Mt. Everest shoeless, shirtless, and without oxygen.
How does this superhuman manage to push his body beyond the brink without suffering long-term negative consequences?
Through practice and conditioning, Hof has taught himself to control his body’s heart rate, breathing, and circulation by training his brain’s frontal cortex to override the hypothalamus (your body’s thermostat) and maintain a core temperature of 37C/98.6F.
The hyperventilation and controlled breath-holding maximizes the positive effects of the body’s innate stress response while suppressing stress’s negative long-term effects.
His technique is now known as Wim Hof breathing.
For the less daring individual wondering why we’re chatting about a madman who climbed Everest barefoot, here’s the best part: it can help deal with stress too.
How Wim Hof Breathing Works
Hof uses a deep-breathing technique similar to the breathing used in Tummo (inner heat) Meditation and Pranayama (yogic breathing). The deep breathing creates a hypometabolic state that does the following:
- Slows the body’s systems down and acts as a counter-anxiety/counter-stress response to halt the negative effects of prolonged stress.
- Facilitates our ability to influence deeper processes within our bodies.
- Increases our body’s endurance and even strength.
According to Hof, controlled hyperventilation followed by cold exposure increases your blood’s alkalinity and, theoretically, enables us to train our cells to optimize their effectiveness. Immersion in ice cold water (or cold temperatures) increases cortisol levels and decreases testosterone to create thermogenesis. Thermogenesis, which occurs in all warm-blooded animals, is method by which bodies produce heat – through shivering (which exposure to cold produces) or non-shivering (which occurs in the body’s brown adipose tissue, or brown fat). Hof’s method uses shivering thermogenesis to control the body’s inner temperature.
How? Neurotransmitters in the blood vessels communicate with the brain and blood cells to regulate blood pH levels. But when we control our breath and subject our bodies to cold temperatures we’re able to force open the doorway and “reprogram” the blood cells to optimize our body’s performance.
Similarities between Wim Hof Breathing and Tummo Meditation Breathing
- Tummo practitioners can increase their body temperatures by using breathing techniques; however, the effects last only about an hour.
- Tummo breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for increasing epinephrine – just like the Wim Hof method.
- A study of the neurocognitive and somatic components of temperature increases during Tummo meditation concluded that the breathing techniques help non-meditators learn to regulate their body temperatures to improve health and regulate cognitive performance.
What are the benefits?
Most people don’t plan to climb earth’s highest mountains wearing only shorts or compete in a full marathon through the Namib Desert without drinking water, but that doesn’t mean Hof’s technique isn’t without its benefits. Wim Hof breathing can:
- Boost energy levels
- Lower stress levels instantly – and over time
- Strengthen the immune system
- Facilitate a better and quicker recovery after workouts
- Improve focus and concentration
- Improve sleep quality
- Boost your mood by releasing endorphins
- Improve and increase blood circulation
The National Academy for Sciences conducted a study on the voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system which determined that this breathing technique could help people who suffer from autoimmune disorders and other conditions including:
- Acne vulgaris
- Celiac disease
- Chronic prostatitis
- Inflammatory bowel diseases
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Reperfusion injury
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Transplant rejection
- Interstitial Cystitis
A 2015 proof-of-principle study on the role of outcome expectancies for a training program consisting of meditation, breathing exercises, and cold exposure on the response to endotoxin administration also supports the assertion that using techniques like those in Wim Hof’s program can positively affect the outcome of long-term therapies used to treat immune system conditions.
Mind over body: Scientific proof
Since publicizing his technique, Hof’s methods have been tested multiple times and scientists are continuing to evaluate the method to determine its efficacy for helping those who suffer from various autoimmune and other disorders.
A 2014 study, “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans” tested the immune systems of a group of volunteers who followed Hof’s training regimen for 10 days. Researchers injected the subjects with an inflammatory agent while they performed the techniques. The group:
- Experienced lower levels of inflammation and were less affected by the fever and nausea that accompanies an injection.
- Experienced spikes in adrenaline, which was linked to increased levels of anti-inflammatory proteins and decreased levels of cytokines that signal the immune system.
While it wasn’t clear whether the hyperventilation, breath holding, and cold exposure individually or in combination created the positive effects, this study did prove that people can successfully apply the training to successfully alter their physiological state and affect their autonomic nervous system.
The study demonstrated that by practicing Hof’s method – a combination of meditation, cyclic hyperventilation, breath retention, and cold exposure – people can voluntarily influence and strengthen their sympathetic nervous and immune systems.
Another study indicated that Hof’s method also helps to alleviate symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS), often suffered by mountaineering experts and non-athletes who enjoy hiking. After receiving special training including mindset coaching, cold exposure, and breathing technique practice and applying these trainings during a hike, a group of 26 trekkers, aged 29 – 65, successfully ascended Mt. Kilimanjaro in 48 hours. Contrary to the scientists’ predictions, none of these non-athlete inexperienced hikers suffered from severe AMS.
Finally, a 2012 case study published in Psychosomatic Medicine on the influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response concluded that using ice immersion and meditation activated the sympathetic nervous system and increased concentrations of catecholamines and plasma cortisol to better control stress responses.
How to Do the Wim Hof Breathing Technique
Part One: The Breathing
- First, get into a comfortable meditation posture that allows you to breathe deeply without feeling pressure or constriction.
- The Warm-up: Inhale deeply, drawing in your breath until you feel a bit of pressure on your solar plexus. Hold for a moment and then exhale, pushing out as much air as you can. Hold for 2 – 3 seconds. Repeat this warm-up 15 times.
- The Power Breaths: Pretend that you’re blowing up a balloon. Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth in short, powerful bursts. Keep a steady pace, and use your whole chest and diaphragm area. Take these power breaths about 30 times or until your body feels completely oxygenated. You might feel a bit lightheaded or get tingling sensations – that’s okay.
- Scan Your Body: During your power breaths, close your eyes and focus on each part of your body. If you sense something that doesn’t feel quite right, send energy or warmth to that area, and then release.
- People have reported seeing swirling colors and other visual imagery during this exercise. If you do, too, embrace those images – just go with it! Those images or colors correspond to the tension (or its release).
- The Hold: After you’ve completed your 30 power breaths, inhale deeply and fill your lungs to capacity. Force all the air out. Drop your chin and really relax. Hold until you experience the gasp reflex. Then inhale normally.
- The Recovery Breath: Inhale again deeply. Release any tension in your solar plexus and hold that breath in. Drop your chin to your chest and hold for 15 seconds. Scan your body again for anything that feels “off.” Send energy, and let everything go.
- The Body Scan: Meditate, for five minutes or longer, by relaxing and scanning your body.
- Bonus: Add yoga poses or push-ups while you’re holding your breath and waiting for the gasp reflex.
Start with completing this whole exercise two to three more times. Aim for once a day, preferably on an empty stomach. When you feel more comfortable with holding your breath, increase to 15 minutes or six rounds.
If you feel pain or dizziness, lie on your back, and stop doing the exercises. If you are pregnant or suffer from epilepsy, do not practice this method. If you suffer from cardiovascular issues or other serious medical conditions, consult a medical doctor before trying this activity.
In a nutshell:
- 30 “balloon” power breaths
- Breathe in as much as you can, expanding lungs, chest, diaphragm
- Breathe out completely, drop your chin, relax until you feel the gasp reflex
- Inhale again completely and hold for 10 – 15 seconds
- Repeat the exercise
- Reserve five minutes at the end to meditate, scan your body and find positive energy
Part Two: Cold Shower Therapy and Exercises
Once you’ve completed the breathing exercises, meditated, and scanned your body, you’re ready for the next step.
Cold exposure works a lot like weightlifting. You start slow, with warmer temperatures (like lower weights) and decrease the temperature (like you increase weights) gradually. The muscles that surround your veins contract when they’re exposed to cold. Eventually, with cold therapy, stronger veins require less help from the muscles to move blood through the body.
- If you’re new to cold therapy, start with a cold shower. Begin with the water warm and gradually adjust the temperature cooler. Turn it to cold for 15 – 30 seconds to start. If you experience pain or strong discomfort, stop.
- You can also start with a cold bath and then work up to an ice bath. Begin by submerging your feet and working up your legs, lower torso, and the rest of your body. Shivering – which indicates hypothermia – is normal. Try to stay calm and breathe. Close your eyes and embrace the cold. If it becomes painful, stop and warm up.
- After you’ve acclimatized to cold baths, up the ante and create an ice bath.
- Dump two to three bags of ice in a tub that’s half full of cold water and wait until about ⅔ of the ice has melted or the temperature has dropped to 10/12°C (50/59° F).
- Slowly submerge your body into the water, relaxing as much as you can. Start with 10-minute intervals and gradually increase the amount of time you’re in the water. If you ever experience pain or major discomfort, stop, get out, and warm up.
- You’ll always feel extra cold after an ice bath. Keep the blood flowing by taking a walk once you’ve finished.
Watch Wim Hof demonstrate his method:
How Can Spire Help?
If you’re new to the Wim Hof method and would like to give it a try, use Spire’s breathing tracker to help you keep track of each step in the process. Spire will also collect feedback so you can evaluate your progress and the exercises’ effectiveness.