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The Power of the Breath: A Look at the Wim Hof Method

Who knew that simply breathing could be so good for you, your mindset and your health. Wim Hof knows all too well, with this Dutchman’s philosophy spreading around the world and inspiring men – and women - everywhere. Helen Hayes takes a look at Wim Hof and what he’s all about.

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ou are stronger than you think you are.” These are the opening words on Wim Hof’s website. A Dutch man who can sit in freezing cold water for far longer than a human should be able to. The list of remarkable achievements is long and hard to believe. But they are true. He did these things. He climbed up to 7,200 metres on Mt Everest in a pair of shorts. He ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking water. He ran a marathon in the Arctic Circle barefoot and in shorts. He holds the record for the longest time immersed in blocks of ice – one hour, 52 minutes and 42 seconds. He climbed Mt Kiliminjaro – yep – you guessed it, in shorts. 

I have done Wim’s breathing, at the behest of my son, Alex, who is a keen advocate for Wim’s techniques. He’d get us all to lie on the lounge room floor and follow along to the Wim Hof Guided Breathing session – (click HERE to try it for yourself). 

Wim’s voice is hypnotic and when he says; “Let your body do what your body is capable of doing,” you believe it. I can quite easily hold my breath in those sessions now. It was a struggle in the beginning and I did cheat a little bit. Sssshh! Don’t tell!

Alex also got into the ice baths, with the breathing helping the brain and body manage the cold. He can sit in an ice bath for up to five minutes now. And he always has cold showers. Something that I was never a fan of. Never. But I now turn the shower to cold when I am ready to get out and stand under it for 30 seconds. It really makes you feel good. Honest.

So who is Wim Hof and what is this method all about? 

Dean Gladstone, Bondi Lifeguard and one of the stars of Bondi Rescue, is a believer, and is actually a qualified Wim Hof Method instructor. 

Dean told Pure Health Hub that Wim is a crazy Dutch man who is famous for breaking 25 or so world records generally relating to his control over the human body in extreme conditions.

“What really put him on the map or backed up his claims was a scientific study that showed him being able to influence his immune system. This was regarded as a first,” Dean said.

Dean Gladstone & Wim Hoff in the snow
Dean Gladstone with Wim Hoff

Dean said that Wim Hof started down the path that would see him become known as ‘The Ice Man’, in the late 90s when his wife committed suicide. “It left him in a deep, dark place, and he found solace in the ice water after deep breathing.”

Dean heard about Wim in 2015. “I hate the cold (well I used too) and in winter I get really poor circulation and cold hands and I found out this was trainable, so I bought his 10-week online course then when he came to Australia went to his sessions.” 

The Wim Hof Method – Breathing, Cold Therapy and Commitment

The Wim Hof Method is a combination of three pillars: breathing, cold therapy and commitment. It is about reconnecting us – to ourselves, to others and to nature. It is about helping people realise their full potential. We all know that breathing is good, and not your garden variety, breathing-in-and-out-stuff. When we do yoga, breathing is a part of that. When we do sport, taking slow, deep breaths is beneficial. Even when we have a massage, we are encouraged to take a few deep breaths to just get in the moment. And then of course there is meditation, which is really all about breathing. 

Wim Hof himself goes further. He says that we are mostly unaware of the tremendous potential of breathing. His website says: “Heightened oxygen levels hold a treasure trove of benefits, and the specialized breathing technique of the Wim Hof Method unearths them all: more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens.”

The second pillar is cold therapy. Proper exposure to cold provides a pathway to multiple health benefits, such as a build-up of brown fats (which break down blood sugar), fat loss, reduction in inflammation and balancing hormone levels. Cold therapy also results in improved sleep quality and an increase in endorphin production to help improve mood. 

As for the third component… well, that’s commitment. Mastering cold exposure and conscious breathing does require dedication and patience.

Cold Water Therapy

Kathryn Birch Cole, a nurse, has done a couple of courses and swears by the benefits of Cold Water Therapy. When asked how it feels when you get into an ice bath, Kathryn said: It’s a shock to the nervous system literally as all the blood is rushing from the extremities to the core. It takes your breath away. After about 30 seconds the body adjusts and you start to numb. This is where the breathing exercises kick in. Your circulation and metabolic activity decreases, and inflammation subsides almost instantly.

“Immediately after you get out you feel a tingling sensation, but within minutes you will likely feel relaxed and muscular pain generally begins to subside. You’ve activated the central nervous system and start producing more norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. Before long your energy levels are soaring and you feel like you could climb the top of Mt Kilimanjaro as you feel so alive and awake.”

Pure Health Hub asked Kathryn how often do you need to do ice baths to get used to it? “I don’t think you ever get used to it, you come to tolerate it as it’s a natural reaction to run from it. The idea is to constantly build on your times, it’s the same for cold showers, start with 15 sec, then 30 sec, 1 minute and so on. You can do it as often as you like (daily in fact), but usually people use them where they are experiencing chronic pain, injury or muscle fatigue from sport. Ice baths also accelerate the healing process and decrease the down time. Equally, an ice bath before a sporting game or marathon significantly enhances performance and energy levels naturally.”

Kathryn says the key benefits for women over 35 doing Cold Water Therapy are that it reduces pain and inflammation. It helps with cramping. Will help you sleep better, give you more energy, and that you will feel more awake and alive! Cold therapy is also the only treatment to promote neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells).”

Women practising cold therapy
Image © Unsplash/Mika

The Science behind Wim Hof

What “The Iceman” Wim Hof is capable of was long viewed as scientifically impossible. But there are many studies that have found otherwise. In 2011, the first study occurred at Radboud University in The Netherlands. According to Wim’s website, it showed that by using his method, Wim. After being injected with Endotoxins, was able to voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system – something which until then was thought impossible. This ground-breaking finding, published in PNAS and Nature, established credibility, quite literally rewrote biology textbooks and piqued scientists’ curiosity.”

A second study at the same university was carried out in 2014, with 12 people Wim Hof trained, and a group of others not trained in the Wim Hof Method. The group, like Wim, were injected with Endotoxins and the trained group were also able to influence their immune systems. 

There was a study done at Wayne University in Michigan in 2018, investigating how Wim Hof can withstand extreme cold exposure. 

A proof of study has found that the Method can bring down inflammation in people suffering from axial spondyloarthritis. Plus there are studies being done on Inflammation and pain, Brain Activity, and on Mental Health and Stress Resilience. 

Melbourne’s RMIT University conducted a survey asking people around the world what impact the Wim Hof Method had had on their lives. More than 3,200 people responded, with some of the key self-reported benefits included; improved energy levels, help with stress, anxiety and depression, improved mood and mental focus and help with insomnia, arthritis and chronic pain.

There is a really good documentary produced by VICE, that shows how people can do things they thought impossible. 

How to start your Wim Hof journey

Dean Gladstone runs three-hour workshops on breathing and cold water therapy catering to different needs of a broad range of people. 

Danielle Smith runs various courses and recommends ‘The Fundamentals’ course as the best place to start. Participants can learn all about the science behind the breathwork and are guided by a professional so they are safe and supported when trialling the method out for the first time. Danielle Smith runs a monthly Fundamentals Course in Currumbin on the Gold Coast – you can find the 2021 dates here Danielle Smith official Wim Hof Method Instructor

If you want to fully immerse yourself in the Wim Hof Therapy (see what I did there), another Wim Hof instructor, Leah Scott, runs three-day courses in the Snowy Mountains. Leah ran the world’s first Wim Hof Method Retreat for women, and has taught around Australia, Europe and North America, and in Thailand, alongside Wim. Having conquered her own battle of anxiety, stress, depression and sleeping problems, her mission is to help people improve their health and wellbeing by reconnecting them to nature. Leah lives what she teaches, regularly practicing breathwork, extreme cold exposure and nature therapy – something she considers critical in her role as an instructor. Her philosophy on cold exposure training is that it is best experienced in nature, where it was developed by Wim. 

For a more detailed explanation about the Wim Hof Method then you can head to Welcome to the Official Wim Hof Method Website.

This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health, seek immediate medical attention.

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