This article was written by Matt from Food Confusion
Breathing… we’ve all been doing it since birth but are we doing it right and could we improve our technique to benefit our overall health and wellbeing? According to Wim Hof, the answer is yes and it could unlock a whole lot more.
Wim Hof is a Dutchman approaching sixty years of age and holds a number of world records and accolades relating to his ability to withstand extreme temperatures, including the longest ice endurance record at 1 hour and 52 minutes, climbing Kilimanjaro in his shorts in two days and also completing a marathon in the Namib Desert without water. However, even more, fascinating than this is his ability to control his immune system and autonomous nervous system through a combination of breathing exercises and meditation/visualization, a feat previously thought to be impossible by humans.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM):
In essence, the WHM is a 10-week online video course that comprises cold exposure, breathing exercises and commitment. The website (available here) sets out the theory and background in more detail and provides further links to the studies that are referred to but a brief summary is set out below.
- Cold Exposure
There is already a wealth of information out there which looks at the pros and cons of cold showers and whether there is any scientific proof of its ability to either aid recovery, improve mood or enhance sleep. Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s site (available here) dives into the detail into some of the important effects that cold exposure can have on the body and brain.
However, this doesn’t appear to be the main reason for the inclusion within WHM. The cold exposure serves as a stress trigger to prime your body to deal with future stress. Used in the right way, cold shock can kick start the body and the adaptive processes and response mechanism that are hardwired into our genes.
- Breathing exercises
Wim Hof doesn’t claim to have ‘invented’ his method of breathing and openly admits that it is borrowed from his previous experience of traditional meditation (Tummo, also known as ‘inner fire’) and has made it more user-friendly to the west.
The breathing technique involves 30-40 powerful breaths whereby you inhale fully and exhale through the mouth in short but powerful bursts, like blowing up a balloon. The idea is not to fully exhale everything in your lungs, but to ‘let go’ of the air and not force everything out. At the end of the breath cycles, you take one final deep breath to fill the lungs to capacity then let the air out and hold your breath without using any force. When you start to feel the need to inhale, take a deep breath and hold for 10-15 seconds. This is one complete cycle.
Depending on how far through the course you are depending on how many cycles you are advised to carry out. I’ve recently started week 4 and am currently doing 3 rounds of breathing with the 4th round comprising press ups.
Whilst sounding seemingly obvious, this is probably the most important of the three pillars and one that I have had to remind myself of on numerous occasions. The application of the first two pillars requires patience and dedication in order to fully receive the benefits and master your own body and mind.
I’ve set out below some of my personal experiences on the course so far.
Why did I choose WHM:
There’s no denying that I’m a skeptic by nature and so before I purchased the online course, I carried out a lot of research and listened to as many podcasts as I could that Wim had made an appearance. On that note, I would definitely recommend the episodes on the Tim Ferriss Show and The Joe Rogan Experience. As a result of researching Wim and listening to a number of hours of hearing him talk, he was a very likable guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously and seemed very ‘normal’ despite having some very special abilities.
Wim’s message is all about getting in touch with your own physical nature and understanding and embracing the innate knowledge and wisdom of the body. This was a little bit of a red flag to me as I really struggle with some of the spiritual aspects of meditation/yoga/mindfulness, something that I find Ben Greenfield accurately refers to as ‘woo woo’. It’s not that I haven’t tried to embrace it in the past, I’ve tried yoga on numerous occasions and downloaded apps to help with mindfulness but there is always something that stops me fully committing to the process.
One of the most important aspects that drew me towards Wim was his attitude towards science and his determination to be studied to back up his claims. In 2012 he took part in experiments at the Radbound University Medical Centre which included, amongst other tests, being injected with a component of E.coli to simulate a systemic infection. The breathing technique employed by Wim was able to increase his epinephrine levels (adrenaline) and norepinephrine and lower his cortisol levels. The resultant adrenaline rush released inhibitory cytokines that would calm the immune system. This control of the autonomous nervous system, specifically the sympathetic system, was previously thought not be subject to influence by our conscious thoughts as it controls many core functions of our body.
I’ve always felt like a don’t breathe as well as I could/should. For example, I would sometimes get out of breath when walking up stairs or doing small things, despite my fitness being generally pretty high. I’m a keen cyclist and train up to six times a week and so my aerobic capacity is something that I’m always looking to improve. The more air I can intake the longer I can stay in aerobic activity zone without building up too much lactic acid.
Thoughts so far…
I’m more than intrigued by WHM and I’m only officially on week 4. I decided to repeat weeks 2 and 3 because I was particularly busy at work and felt that I didn’t properly commit to the breathing exercises and tried to squeeze them into my timetable as opposed to embracing the meditation/visualization aspects. It is this third pillar (commitment) that I’m having to remind myself of and trying to remember the purpose behind being involved in the course. I’m not wanting to just tick the box and complete the course so that I can say that I’ve done it. I’m genuinely looking to embrace the more spiritual background that appears to have real scientific outcomes.
I won’t go into too much detail as to what the course entails, but a brief summary of the weeks so far is as follows;
Week 1 starts with an introduction video by Wim discussing the course generally and what it will involve. There is also access to some of the background materials and videos on the man himself. The breathing exercises start off with three rounds with no physical exercises.
Week 2 introduces the more advanced breathing exercise which includes press-ups as part of the final round while holding your breath. What is particularly strange is that you can complete more press-ups without air than with it! Introduction of stretches and plank exercise. Three blocks of 30second showers with warm in between.
Week 3 increases to 4 breathing cycles, and final cycle for press ups. There are no physical exercises or stretches required. Cold showers increase to one minute at the start and finish with warm water allowed in between.
Week 4 drops back down to 3 breathing cycles, and one press up round. The big change here is the increase in stretching exercises and the introduction of more complex yoga moves. Cold showers are the same as Week 3, save that you are required to take one 10 minute shower during the week.
While I haven’t been the most consistent student throughout the course, I have actively made time to complete the requirements as much as possible. The course states that you should try and do each session up to 5 times a week, but there is not a maximum.
One of the biggest benefits I have experienced since starting the course is important of creating some ‘me time’. I work in the London and occasionally have to work long hours which when added to my training time, doesn’t leave much time at home and even less time that is completely relaxed. The additional pressure to create this ‘me time’ certainly helps me relax and my mood is always improved as a result of completing the session.
To maximize my likelihood of completing the daily tasks, I try to carry out the breathing exercises first thing in the morning when I’m the most relaxed and in the most control of my time. Although I mentioned it above, the key to obtaining the real benefits of the breathing exercises is to relax and commit to the method. I (mistakenly) thought it would be good to try and listen to the radio at the same time, but I soon realized that I didn’t feel the same level of relaxed and my breath retention times also reduced as a result. I now do the breathing exercises either in silence or whilst listening to meditation music.
When I first started doing the breathing cycles it was very common to feel a tingling/buzzing sensation in my extremities, most particularly my feet and hands.
With regard to the cold exposure, I have seen a real benefit which was experienced almost instantly. I feel wide awake yet calm and full of energy afterward. That’s not to say I always love the idea of having the cold shower, it certainly takes a bit of getting used to and for some reason I find it harder when the water is on my back than my front. At the start, you can also get the brief feeling of hyperventilation of the initial shock of the cold, but you soon get used to this sensation and it rarely happens now.
Although this is very much an N=1 experiment, I have definitely seen an improvement in my strength and cycling performance since starting the WHM. I can’t say with any certainty whether this is as a direct result of WHM but what I can say definitively is that it has not harmed my progress and improved my general mood and allowed me to relax more often, which can only be a benefit.
My main aim over the coming weeks is to commit further. By this I don’t mean that I will simply carry out the necessary tasks, my real intention is that I embrace the methodology and spiritual side of the WHM and try and put my skepticism to one side.
More specifically on the breathing cycles, I want to try and focus on relaxing at the time I initially feel the urge to take a breath in. I have noticed that when I am fully relaxed, I can suppress this initial urge and continue to hold my breath. To date, the longest retention I have managed has been 3 minutes and 14 seconds.
The more complex yoga exercises introduced this week (week 4) will test my flexibility and balance which I’ve been looking to improve generally. Also, I’m keen to develop the WHM stretching techniques as they are particularly useful for cycling and recovery generally.
All in all, if you are at all interest in any of the above I would strongly recommend that you take a look at the WHM and more specifically check out Wim Hof himself. He’s a very charismatic guy that has a lot to add to the world and is spreading his word in a non-dogmatic or intrusive manner.
I will leave you for now with one of the key catchphrases from Wim Hof, simply put… “Breathe M*therf*cker”.