Wim Hof discusses philosophy and physiology with Matt Radford via Skype from Amsterdam.
“We should feel great, because life is a miracle. The world is a miracle. We are living in the most beautiful spot in the whole universe. Out there, there’s just cold, lifeless and some rocks going on. Here, on the planet, look around and you see all kinds of wonders all the time.”
So says Wim Hof, the Dutch daredevil better known as ‘the Iceman’. He is discussing philosophy and physiology with me via Skype from Amsterdam. A world renowned natural wonder himself, this rugged and enigmatic 57 year old, in a baggy t shirt and a backwards baseball cap, exudes the boundless energy of a teenager. For over 30 years Hof has been pushing the limits of human endurance, and the boundaries of what is considered scientifically possible.
I’ve been fascinated with the Iceman’s story since watching a BBC documentary ten years ago. The film followed Hof’s attempt to run a half marathon in the Arctic Circle in nothing but a pair of shorts and sandals. Experts in arctic survival stated that exposure to these subzero temperatures (measured at 35°C) would normally result in death by hypothermia in less than 30 minutes. However Hof managed to run the 21 kilometres through the snowy terrain in just over five hours. I remember being chilled just watching footage of a record breaking 50 metre underwater swim between two holes cut though the ice of a frozen over lake. In one of his attempts Hof reports that his retinas froze! He was forced to navigate blind beneath the ice before being guided out by a safety diver.
In the years since, Hof has repeatedly broken his own record for the length of time submerged in a full body ice bath, which now stands at 1 hour and 52 minutes. One such attempt in Germany resulted in his having to be hacked free from the frozen mass with axes. His many feats of endurance are not limited to withstanding extremes of cold. He has also run a marathon through the Namibian desert without drinking any water, and hung by one finger from a hot air balloon at an altitude of 1500 metres. Altogether he now holds 26 Guinness World Records.
When I question him about plans for future extreme stunts, Wim replies, “Yeah. I still am very able to do that, but it’s not of interest to me now. The interest for me is to tackle fear, trauma, depression and disease”. Wim always believed he had discovered what he refers to as a ‘short cut’ into the deep physiology of the human body – that he has conscious control over his own immune, vascular and endocrine systems. As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I find this truly exciting. This concept of mind-body integration is completely congruent with our holistic approach to health. However, for many years Hof’s claims were dismissed by the scientific establishment.
The breakthrough came with a series of experiments that started in 2007 with leading scientific researchers in the Netherlands. Hof explains: “They tested me in the university within a case study experiment. They then found out by taking blood that I’m able to suppress inflammatory markers which normally cause a lot of autoimmune diseases”. In summary, these experiments, which included prolonged immersion in an ice bath and being injected with a bacterial endo-toxin, showed that Hof was able to voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system . This was previously considered impossible by the scientific community.
As a single case study is not considered conclusive evidence, the study was repeated with 12 volunteers who had been trained intensively by Hof for four days, compared with an untrained control group. The results were impressive. Using Hof’s techniques, the trained group, unlike the control group, was able to replicate the previous results. Hof has been involved in numerous studies since then. He leads doctors and scientists around the world to acknowledge the enormous potential for prevention and treatment of disease with these methods.
It is the push for further research that is Wim’s driving focus now. Wim is the first to admit that there have been countless people before him that have been able, through dedicated yogic practice, to achieve this level of control over their bodies. However, he believes that the difference is that we are now able to prove these abilities with scientific evidence.
“We are into this study now about mitochondrial oxygen tension. It appears that [using breathing techniques] we are able to increase the oxygen levels within the mitochondria themselves”. Mitochondria are known as the ‘powerhouses’ of the cell. They behave like a digestive system – taking in nutrients and breaking them down, using oxygen to create energy rich molecules essential for life.
“We’ve got research related to inflammation, to pain, anaesthesia and very soon we are going to compose a new study with Stanford University in San Francisco. That study is on inflammation in the brain, the wrong chemistry, relating to PTSD, depression, fear, trauma, anything we cannot handle. I’m very sure we are able to create new neurological pathways in the brain, making us able to control our brain a whole lot better than we currently know how to.”
Hof’s desire to achieve this has led him to develop the Wim Hof Method (WHM). [There is a free introduction, including beginning exercises, at www.wimhofmethod.com] These techniques are derived from his experiences in what he terms ‘the hard nature’. The training has three components: breathing exercises, graduated cold exposure, and training the mindset.
Breathing techniques are fundamental to many health practices. WHM breathing could be considered a controlled form of hyperventilation. For this reason Wim cautions against practising it while driving or in other potentially dangerous situations. Using this method of breathing, oxygen levels increase, and carbon dioxide levels decrease with a corresponding rise in pH levels – the body becomes instantly more alkaline. Building up the body’s resistance to cold, initially by alternating hot and cold showers, trains the vascular system while simultaneously preparing the mind to cope with physical stress. This is progressed until ultimately you are able to challenge yourself with ice baths or running in the snow. Commitment to the program automatically strengthens your mental focus and determination.
Wim explains “If these techniques are done well, we are able to tap into the depths of our physiology. It takes some practice, but you can feel the benefits very fast”. At this point I’m nodding vigorously in agreement. After four weeks of following the online WHM training, I was able to increase my breath holding time up from 55 seconds to over three minutes. I can even jump happily into an ice cold Melbourne winter shower!
The techniques are deceptively simple. When once asked whether the breath is through the nose or through the mouth, Hof replied, “Any hole will do!” It is this combination of humour, confidence, and determination to break down the mystique that has surrounded traditional esoteric practices, that makes the Iceman so appealing.
One of my patients has dubbed him ‘a guru for the modern age’. When I put that to Wim, he just laughs. “The word guru means one who brings light. (Wim is self-taught in more than ten languages including Sanskrit.) He explains that the way to bring this light is by scientific investigation. “So you can take away the confusion and speculation. Then it becomes a non-dogmatic choice.”
Hof’s achievements are astonishing, but for me, it is his obvious passion to help others that resonates most powerfully.
He has a saying, “Ego. No. We go.”
Wim explains: “We are a tribe. We have to help each other. Caring and sharing is a tribe thing… This society has become too materialistic, too much competition going on.”
Again he brings it back to physiology: “So the distance between people is creating an absence of oxytocin, and that brings about a lot of ailments.” [Oxytocin is often called the ‘love hormone’, as it is released during sex, childbirth and lactation.]
When I mention to Wim that my next patient due is 35 weeks pregnant, he launches into a discussion on breathing in labour and the research into pain management. As we talk further, I realise the implications for health and healing are nothing short of mind blowing.
There is also a true sense of a deeper spiritual aspect to this work. In Wim’s words: “Life is beautiful. It’s about the love – the love for life and the love for each other. It’s magic what is happening, but we just forgot how to live it fully. By breathing, you take it in and fill up all your physiology and thus you become aware of the beauty of it all – feeling great that is.” Kox, M., Stoffels, M., Smeekens, S. P., Alfen, N, van., Gomes, M.,Eijsvogels, T. M. H., Hopman, M. T. E, Hoeven, J. G, van der., Netea, M. G.,& Pickkers, P.(2012). The influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response a case study.Psychosomatic Medicine, 74, 489-449.
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