Wim Hof, more famously known as the “Ice Man”, is the inventor and teacher of the self-named Wim Hof Method. It is a combination of breathwork, cold therapy, and meditation for the purpose of regulating one’s autonomic nervous system and reducing inflammation, which has been proven to produce a host of health benefits.
It is difficult to say what is more interesting, the man or his method, but you can’t talk about one without discussing the other. To understand his method, and how it can improve your life, you must first understand the man who created it.
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Wim Hof was born on April 20, 1959, in the Netherlands. Working-class parents raised this little Dutch boy and, by all accounts, was a normal child experiencing a normal childhood in Amsterdam. He was naturally interested in yoga, karate, and Hinduism, which would prove significant much later. But things would not take a strange and incredible turn, however, until he was 17 years old.
While walking near a half-frozen Beatrix park canal, Wim Hof was struck unexpectedly with an irresistible pull toward the chilly water. Following this impulse, he stripped down and waded in. According to the man himself, it was a near-religious experience. “It gave me a rush. My mind was free of Gibberish,” he told Rolling Stone writer Erik Hedegaard.
He returned the next day, and the next, and the next for the remainder of the winter. It was the beginning of a life-long ritual of cold submersion, the seed of what would come to be known as the Wim Hof Method. Over the years, he augmented the basic cold exposure with breathing practices he’d learned through yoga and Tibetan Tummo meditation. Slowly, as time passed, his unique method took shape.
The method was initially a personal endeavor. He kept it to himself, practicing and perfecting its tenets with no apparent desire to share his insights. It remained this way until another unexpected event, this time a life tragedy, set Wim Hof on his altruistic path.
Wim Hof married Marivelle-Maria, whom he called “Olaya”, and together they had four children. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage, similar to many in the Netherlands, but just as with his childhood, this normalcy was merely a prelude to more extraordinary events.
Trouble struck first in the form of mental disorder. Olaya developed symptoms of schizophrenia, which caused a strain on father and children alike. Then, in 1995, after saying a fond farewell to her four children, she leaped off the roof of their apartment building. It was another shock to Wim Hof’s emotional system, and as with the first, it altered the way he lived his life.
He realized then the capabilities of his method to calm a turbulent mind, and with his late wife in his memory, he set off to help those in need. This was the start of his life’s mission. The birth of the Wim Hof Method as it would come to be known by so many around the world. But first, Wim Hof would need to find a way to communicate this message.
Initially, Wim Hof struggled to get his method out there. Though he’d spent over a decade refining his technique, recording with diligence the effects he was experiencing, he found it difficult to break through the cult of modern medicine.
“The whole medical industry wants us sick,” he stated to that same Rolling Stone journalist.
Things didn’t catch on until a TV crew came to film Wim Hof jumping into a frozen lake, a stunt he hoped would catch people’s attention, proving the potential of what he’d been speaking on. While the stunt itself was no doubt impressive and may have intrigued some skeptics, something else happened that day that really put Wim Hof on the map.
While filming on the lake, a man fell into the frigid waters and was in severe danger of drowning. Wim Hof, without a second thought, leaped into the lake and saved the man’s life. This incredible act, caught on camera by the crew of filmmakers, was subsequently shared with the world. It was this act that earned Wim Hof the nickname “Ice Man” and from then on his name would only grow in popularity, taking his method along with it.
After the Ice Man broke through societal apathy and became a household name, at least in the Netherlands, he followed up this burst of attention with a series of remarkable stunts. The list is hard to believe but stands as a testament to what can be achieved through the Ice Man’s unique combination of cold therapy, breathing techniques, and meditation.
- Not only did he run the world’s fastest half-marathon near the Arctic Circle, but he ran it barefoot over frigid ice and snow. His final, astonishing time was 2 hours, 16 minutes, and 34 seconds.
- He attempted to climb Mount Everest in nothing but shorts and shoes. It wasn’t the cold that thwarted him, though, but an unexpected foot injury.
- He successfully summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain above sea level. It stands at a formidable 4,900 meters (over 16,000 feet or 3 miles) above its plateau level. The Ice Man summited this beast in nothing but a shirt and shoes within two days, an unheard-of record.
- On four separate occasions, the Ice Man broke his own records for the longest time submerged, up to his chin, in ice cubes. His current record stands unbeaten at 112 minutes.
After such superhuman feats, the Ice Man had caught the attention of civilians, scientists, and media giants the world over. There were questions as to how the method worked, what the underlying science might be, and just how far the benefits extended. Understandably, there were some skeptics, but taking a closer look at the method and its science only solidified Wim Hof’s claims as well as his burgeoning following.
The Wim Hof method has a three-pillar structure that is designed for application anywhere and by anyone. Its three pillars are breath work, cold exposure, and meditation.
A closer look at the three pillars will unearth just how each element, and the method as a whole, lead to such benefits as reduced inflammation(the cause of many physical ailments), improved immune response, and mental tranquility, just to name a few.
The breathing technique, while simple, can be intense and Wim Hof advises it be done in a safe environment. It is a modified and controlled version of hyperventilation. A practitioner forcefully sucks in an immense amount of air before releasing it as a normal breath. This is done 40 times.
After the controlled hyperventilation, the practitioner does not breathe. They are to hold their breath until straining, and then for a little longer. According to the Ice Man, this period of not breathing is when vital changes are happening in the body. Blood oxygen levels are lowered, stress-hormone levels increase, and inflammation is suppressed. It is this process, he claims, that leads to a host of health benefits.
After the period of not breathing, the practitioner sucks in another breath and holds it, or, “squeezes” it, as the Ice Man explains. The goal is to “squeeze” the breath into the brain. Afterwards, one returns to their normal breathing pattern, albeit with a now highly-oxygenated body and mind.
Breathwork is one of the fastest growing health and fitness trends. There are multiple breathing techniques and instructors around the world. You can find the best teachers in the global breathworkers directory.
The original pillar of the method and source of its inspiration, cold exposure in connection with the breathing method compounds the benefits of both. As explained on the Ice Man’s website, this pillar can be easily done in the comfort of one’s own home through cold showers and ice baths.
A popular practice for decades, cold therapy has been steadily growing as a form of self-improvement and physical recovery. Especially popular among athletes, cold exposure has been found to speed up one’s metabolism, reduce inflammation, improve circulation, sharpen focus, and even improve sleep and immune response.
For the Ice Man, however, there is another aspect. It is a connection to the harsh landscapes that shaped so much of how our minds and bodies work. “We have become alienated from nature,” he says, “But the cold is capable of bringing us back to what we once had lost.”
The final pillar in the Wim Hof Method, concentrated meditation is used during conscious breathing and cold exposure to increase one’s willpower. The intensity and duration of the first two pillars make meditation vital to effective practice, as patience, endurance, and consistency are all necessary for attaining the benefits of the Wim Hof Method over time.
In this way, the Wim Hof Method is a cyclical practice that builds on itself, growing in its effects that in turn improve your ability to fulfill the practices that then lead to further benefits. It is a positive cycle that ultimately leads to improved health benefits for the body and mind.
At first glance, the claims made by Wim Hof about the benefits of his method might seem extraordinary, perhaps unbelievable. So too thought several scientists the world over, until two key experiments revealed that there is more to the Ice Man than grand poetic statements and epic athletic feats.
The first official experiment was conducted by a small team in the Netherlands led by Dr. Peter Pickkars. The approach was relatively simple.
As Dr. Pickkars explains, “We administer endotoxin, a dead cell-wall component of bacteria, to healthy volunteers. The immune system reacts as if real live bacteria have entered the body and mounts an immune response characterized by the production of inflammatory mediators and flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, and headache.”
While this endotoxin was working through his body, and the bodies of a control group of healthy volunteers, the scientists measured various responses including brain activity, autonomic nervous system reaction, and immune response. When they checked the results, they noticed something interesting.
“Hof’s immune response was decreased by 50 percent compared to other healthy volunteers,” explained Dr. Pickkars. The doctor goes on to state that Wim Hof experienced hardly any flu symptoms, in sharp contrast to the other healthy volunteers who experienced fever, chills, headaches, and other staples of a virus.
While this proved that Wim Hof’s method does indeed have some support from science, Dr. Pickkars was careful to stress that these results were limited to Wim Hof himself. He stated that this study alone could not “serve as scientific evidence for the hypothesis that the autonomic nervous system and the immune response can be influenced through concentration and meditation techniques.”
Another study would be needed to solidify the intriguing findings, he stated, and in 2014 that’s exactly what Dr. Peter Pickkars carried out.
With strong evidence garnered from the 2011 study of Wim Hof himself, Dr. Peter Pickkars evolved his approach using a group of Wim Hof’s long-time practitioners. The basic form of the study was the same, the administration of endotoxins to a group of Wim Hof followers and to a control group of similar healthy individuals.
The results produced were even more exciting than those from the first study. As Dr. Pickkars explains, “Healthy volunteers practicing the learned techniques exhibited profound increases in the release of epinephrine, which in turn led to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators and subsequent dampening of the proinflammatory cytokine response…”
Put simply, those practicing the Wim Hof exercises had a lowered immune response and were, in effect, able to control their autonomic nervous system. This specific nervous system was previously thought to be out of our control, hence its name “auto” for “automatic.” This was one of the first studies to demonstrate that it could, in fact, be controlled by concentrated exercises and meditation.
Further studies are being conducted and scientists continue to take an interest in the Wim Hof Method, especially as it grows in popularity. Just how far the benefits extend is still uncertain, and many of Wim Hof’s claims have yet to be proven, but the basics are undeniably present.
Through conscious breathing, exposure to frigid temperatures, and a concentrated effort at meditation, one can influence their autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems to reduce inflammation, which is the root cause of a variety of physical and mental ailments.
The Wim Hof Method, just as the man himself claimed, can indeed lead to a happier, healthier life for those who learn and practice it.
While the Ice Man himself still teaches his method, he has also developed an ever-growing group of certified instructors all over the world who introduce new people to the method each and every day.
For those wanting to get involved with the method, there is a range of options for doing so, all conveniently accessed through Wim Hof’s website. Everything from at-home courses to adventurous expeditions across the globe.
The most convenient method of education in the Wim Hof Method is the available video courses. A free mini-course offers a concise introduction for beginners while a traditional video course, fundamentals course, and power of the mind course are available for those wanting to expand their practice and understanding.
For those wanting in-person learning, there are workshops available worldwide, with certified Wim Hof instructors. There are fundamentals and advanced workshops as well as weekend intensives available. Group workshops allow you to learn and practice the method with others, building a sense of community around its personal growth practices which can further solidify the method in your life.
There are also special instructor-led travel workshops, which are the most intense and in-depth instructor-led workshops available. These are ideal for those wanting to escape their daily surroundings to create a more cohesive focus on the method and its benefits.
Don’t worry, Thailand has its very own WHM instructor. Check out the interview with the Thai Ice Woman here.
Contact Breath Inspired to find the latest Wim Hof Method workshops in Koh Phangan schedule.
Billed as the “ultimate Wim Hof experience,” the expeditions are led by a group of expert instructors and the Ice Man himself. There are several different expeditions depending on the time of year you want to participate and where you’d like to travel.
A summer expedition takes you to the Spanish Pyrenees while a winter adventure will have you exploring the wilds of Poland, concluding with a climb of nearby Mount Sniezka. It is the ultimate introduction to the Wim Hof Method in the most extreme locales possible.
What started beside a half-frozen canal in Amsterdam has now spread to the four corners of the globe, influencing people from every background, culture, ethnicity, and belief system. Wim Hof’s initial instinct to dive into the cold water that day has unearthed benefits hitherto unknown to the modern age, and still yet to be fully understood.
He continues to teach and preach his method and its benefits while engaging in record-breaking feats of athletics to explore the potential of his system better. His motivation is the same as the day he lost his first wife. It is about life, connecting to it, and making the most of it for himself and those around him. He once said, “I’m not afraid of death; I’m afraid not to have lived fully.”
Image Creator: Pete Dadds. Copyright: BBC