Illustration by Aaron Gelston
Disclaimer: Some of the methods mentioned in this article can be dangerous. Please consult a doctor or conduct further research before attempting them.
Ah, winter in Cleveland. It’s that lovely time of year again when the bitter cold makes you want to lock yourself indoors and chug Christmas Ales by the fire. If you do have to venture outdoors, you might end up bundled up like Ralphie’s brother in A Christmas Story. A reasonable person would do everything possible to not experience the cold this time of year. It would seem irrational to suggest that one should expose themselves to cold, and even more irrational that one could warm themselves using the only the power of their breath and their mind. But embracing winter weather might be a blessing in disguise: an opportunity to become stronger, happier, and a little more human.
Even so, when you hear about a man who climbed three quarters up Mount Everest in his shorts, you don’t believe it at first. Then you do a quick Google search and see what appears to be a man climbing up Mount Everest in his shorts. You find out that this man is named Wim Hof, a Dutch fitness guru and daredevil appropriately nicknamed “The Iceman” for his incredible feats of physical endurance and environmental exposure.
Hof holds the world record for time immersed in ice (1 hour 52 minutes and 42 seconds). He ran a full marathon bare-chested and without shoes in the Arctic Circle with temperatures dipping to around minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands injected Hof with an endotoxin, a dead bacteria that should have induced flu-like symptoms like a fever, chills, and vomiting. Instead, Hof was able to use concentration, meditation, and a special breathing technique to suppress it. In this way, he claims that he is able to consciously control his immune and autonomic nervous system. On his website, he maintains an even bolder claim: “What I am capable of, everybody can learn.”
Whatever you suffer from, whatever you desire out of life, Hof believes his method can help. “To me, God is Cold,” he waxes in the VICE documentary Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman. “I think of the cold as a noble force. It’s just helping me. It’s training me. It’s bringing me back to the inner nature the way it was meant to be. And this way, I do not only endure the cold, I love the cold.” Hof is fearless in the face of death because he seems to know that the human body is much more resilient that we once thought. He has attained celebrity status and many have flocked to his training center in Poland to learn his superhuman ways. If this all sounds a little cultish to you, you’re not the only one.
Investigative journalist, Scott Carney, was skeptical too. He flew to Hof’s camp in Poland in 2012 to debunk Hof’s outlandish and dangerous claims before someone got seriously hurt or killed. Before making any judgments, Carney had to give the Wim Hof method the old college try. It worked. “I climbed up a mountain in Poland in the middle of the winter that stopped the Nazi army,” Carney said when reached over the phone, “and I was boiling hot that whole time.”
In his book, What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength, Carney details his personal journey with the Wim Hof method and explores its underlying physiological mechanisms from an evolutionary perspective. Among the remarkable tales is Carney himself: with six months of training he was able to summit Mount Kilimanjaro with an expedition led by Wim Hof in just 28 hours. That’s a climb that most people complete in five to ten days in order to adjust to the altitude. Oh, and he did much of the climb shirtless—with the temperature dipping to around minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit.
While the acts of extreme cold exposure were impressive, Carney was more interested in people who were using the method to heal themselves. He posits that many modern chronic ailments like autoimmune disorders arise out of an imbalance with a harsher environment from which we evolved. “We don’t trigger our fight-or-flight response on a regular basis,” he said. “We use those biological responses to instead go after more mundane tasks. So, we get that same sort of fight-or-flight feeling when we we’re looking at our 401(k)s.”
The Wim Hof method is comprised of three main elements: cold exposure, meditation, and breathing techniques which enable the practitioner to alter his or her body chemistry. The main breathing technique consists of 30-to-40 deep inhalations in quick succession. On the final breath, you take a deep breath, fully exhale, and hold your breath for as long as you can. When you feel the urge to breathe, inhale deeply and hold for 10-to-15 seconds. Repeat this process two or three times. This type of breathing will blow out carbon dioxide, saturate your body with oxygen, and change your blood Ph levels, making your blood more alkaline and better suited to resist pain and cold.
Biologically, cold showers are incredibly rewarding: norepinephrine and other endorphins flood your body to reduce pain, lower inflammation, and make you feel great. The body’s circulatory system gets a great workout by using vasoconstriction to direct blood away from the extremities to maintain your core temperature. But like the most rewarding things in life, they’re hard to do. So ease into it. Start by taking a warm shower, then turn the knob as cold as it can go. At first you stay in for only a few seconds, but you will gradually build up a tolerance.
Carney also suggests removing a layer of clothing until you feel a slight chill when going outside. “You should actually go out there and embrace the environment a little bit. And what that does is that sensation of being a little chilly is actually a signal to [your] body saying that you’re increasing your metabolism and you’re trying to adapt to the environment. If you don’t feel cold, then you’ll always be miserable in the cold.” We are inextricably part of our environment; it’s something the cold never lets you forget. But if we can start to embrace the natural world like our ancestors did, we might start to feel a little more at home here.