On March 19 I attended the Wim Hof Method (WHM) Experience/ Seminar at the Gold Coast with 490 other interested folks. The day started with everyone seated on the floor on towels or yoga mats. An interesting crowd gathered consisting of a few mature hippies, plenty of hipsters, a sprinkling of athletic 20 somethings and a few of everyone else, 90% men. I think a strong male contingent was primarily due to Wim’s appearances on a few popular male centric podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience, Tim Ferriss Podcast and a VICE documentary.
The afternoon started with an intro with Wim playing a guitar and singing a weird little song “Crazy Like a Monkey” and everybody joining in. Wim held the stage with the story of his journey through life, the suicide of his wife and mother to his children due to depression, his experiences in climbing to Mt Everest basecamp and Mt Kilimanjaro in shorts and sandals , and training people up to 76 years of age to do the same thing. He discussed his search for meaning of life and studies with Buddhist monks, yogis, athletes and tribal elders. His driving force is to enable people to develop skills and techniques to help control and heal their minds and bodies.
A medical doctor who is also a WHM trainer (who’s name I forget sorry!) explained the physiology and science behind the WHM. I had heard most of this before but his explanation was very good. For the scientist playing at home the pioneering 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America titled “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans“ had remarkable findings. Wim trained 9 people without previous WHM exposure for 4 days. They and 9 additional people with no training were injected with bacterial toxins and their bodies responses measured.
The conclusion of the subsequent medical testing and finding of the paper was “the present proof-of-principle study demonstrates that the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can be voluntarily influenced through practicing techniques that are relatively easy to learn within a short time frame. It therefore could have important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially auto-immune diseases”. This means you can actively train your immune system to respond to stresses differently. A previous study on Wim had found he can purposefully increase his metabolic rate 35% above his resting rate through concentration while sitting in an ice bath, without shivering or actively using muscle to increase heat production.
There is ongoing scientific studies yet to be published on the effect of WHM breathing cycles on body ph and immune function, as well as metabolic training and increasing density of mitochondria (the energy production apparatus within our cells). Bottom line is, research continues on the science behind it and they are trying to prove the WHM has positive effects rather than just many people's anecdotal claims of physical and psychological benefits.
Back to Wim. He provided context of his journey to develop his method, and then gave a brief description of how to do the basics of WHM. He lead us all through several rounds of breathing exercises followed by breath retention after exhalation while sitting or lying on the floor (see warning at the bottom of article). This took about 20 minutes. Breathe in, controlled by forcibly inhaling to near maximum volume, then just breath out - “belly, chest, head, let it out”. We did this 40 times then forcibly exhaled and didn’t breathe back in, until you really needed to. Then we took one deep breath and held it as long as we could. Then repeated it again starting at the 40 cycles. While doing the breathing in and out we were guided to concentrate on “scanning” your body, checking in with different body parts and on the exhalation and hold. I felt a powerful feeling of clarity and deep introspect. This corresponds with the feeling of deep mindfulness that people experienced in meditation describe. The WHM claims to help you activate this through the breathing and I definitely felt “things” I hadn’t felt before. I have tried meditation before reasonably unsuccessfully, possibly due to my lack of dedication to the task but this clarity and feeling was definitely more powerful that anything I had previously experienced.
Scientifically there is evidence that the tissues become relatively alkalised during these retention exercises because all the CO2 is flushed out in the breath and blood goes from supersaturated with oxygen during retention cycling and deeply into oxygen deficit during the breath holding. This induces a spike in noradrenaline (measurably much higher than the levels found when a first timer bungy jumps). This in turn spikes cortisol briefly inducing a potent anti-inflammatory effect. Interesting stuff.
Following the breathing rounds we had a light lunch and I talked to a few people about their experiences. A couple of people had been practicing WHM for a while and said they had positive effects. There were newbies like me who had dabbled but hadn’t really “got” it until today.
Following lunch Wim talks about cold water exposure and its effect on the immune system and about the benefits of brown fat in the body and how children naturally have much higher levels than adults. Cold exposure could help build brown fat reserves and help it to become more thermogenic (able to make heat if needed). Cold exposure also down regulated inflammatory response but also activated white blood cells (stimulates the immune system) for an extended period after the exposure ends (measurable after 7 days in blood tests). This means that the immune system through breath and cold exposure can be upregulated or suppressed depending on the need through conscious control. A novel plan indeed.
Another break and then we were told to nude up for the ice baths. (Not really… just change into swimmers, togs or whatever you were going to get wet in).
Wim spoke about a variation of his breathing technique in order to specifically induce “brown fat activation” in preparation for the ice baths which awaited us down stairs.
We stood and followed along with the movement and breathing technique/ chanting ( bit of ooh-ahh-ooh-ahh) for about 15 minutes and then peeled off in groups to the baths. There were 5 inflatable swimming pools filled to the brim with ice and water about 50 cm deep. We stood around the pool. Wim said to all “you can do this” and we stepped in and sat down, up to your neck if you could. There was more ice than water. Just breath slow and deep. The reflex is to not breathe/ shallow breath. We were encouraged to just “breathe motherf__ker” and relax your muscles. After about 45 seconds it felt like about 1000 blunt needles were driven into my ankles and wrists but that subsided and i just felt actually warm inside and not very cold. About 3 minutes passed as Wim sang and strummed “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and it was time to get out. Some people didn’t look like they were having much fun and shivered a lot right through but most were controlled and relaxed.
It was definitely a different experience. I have started the 10 week online course on the website wimhofmethod.com and hopefully can report back in a few months on my experience.
WARNING. The breath retention exercises are not to be performed in water or standing. Do only when sitting or lying down somewhere safe and comfortable. The idea is NOT to hyperventilate and pass out. It is to remain in control. Shallow water blackouts happen and people drown. That's not cool.