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The One Minute, Icy Cold Path of Awakening

An Interview With Wim Hof

If you stay warm and dry it will take 10 minutes.

Wim Hof is known for swimming long distances under ice, bathing for hours in ice, running marathons barefoot on ice, and getting scientists and doctors to wake up to the most remarkable fact of all: Wim Hof is no different from you and me. You, too, could do these things. Stranger still, you might want to. And his simple 10-minute breathing exercise may be the most powerful health practice ever.

Your now-famous breathing practice has a long history, going back to your
teens.

Yes. By the time I was 17, I was a vegetarian and had read a lot of esoteric books and tried a lot of disciplines like karate and kung fu and yoga—all kinds of things—but none that let me into the depth of what I wanted to experience. So, in due time, I became a seeker, a seeker of something—I did not know what. But when you find it through your gut, you click on.

What was your awakening like?

Like a blessing, a confirmation—like when the blacksmith makes two things come together in the heat of the moment. And that, for me, was going into the cold water. It’s merciless. But righteous. It brings you into a direct experience beyond any words, connected to a deeper physiology that’s not mandated or controlled by thinking. And it is not learned or acquired by thinking. It is acquired by doing. When you go into the cold water, you don’t think. That is presence. And that presence is what I was looking for. That is passion for life.

You write about being in Beatrixpark in Amsterdam, at a place in the river between two willows. You waded in …

I stayed one minute submerged in the freezing river. I was a seeker. A person who is not seeking falls into freezing water and just gets a shock to the system—especially if they haven’t got the vascular conditioning. But I was ready to meet my opponent—to become one with my adversary. And it felt good. I wanted to stay in the icy water. I wanted to learn how to cope with it, how to control it, how to go longer. I wanted to win over the cold. Use the enemy to become better, not to beat the enemy, but to become better myself.

That’s what I did. I found a way to deepen my control over my deep physiology. I spent 25 years doing my practice on my own. Everybody was calling me crazy because I was going into the cold water and spending long nights naked outside in freezing temperatures. I did a lot more things people said were crazy.

I remember decades ago when Herb Benson, MD, first recorded Tibetan Tummo monks sitting naked in the snow and wrapping themselves with wet sheets and drying them out—using meditation to raise their body temperature. That was impressive, but it never occurred to me to try it. What I love about what you’ve done is you make me want to go into the cold water.

The monks’ practice was so esoteric, so secretive. Maybe it was an intellectual or spiritual inspiration. But it was a benefit to nobody. My method is accessible. It allows people all over the world to tap into their autonomic nervous system, into their immune system, into the endocrine system, into their deep physiology they thought they could not control at all.

Let’s go back to the formulation of your practice. Your wife committed suicide, and so you went off and you put this together. Is that right?

Yes. It took that emotional drive. When you get hurt in life, you are motivated to get out of that hurt. I had four little kids. I had to survive. And I knew how to still my mind by going into the cold water. The cold water shuts down the thinking brain, and it makes the rest of your brain very activated. And that’s exactly what I needed to heal of my emotional trauma.

Afterward, I saw a lot of emotional trauma happening all over world. We can shoot people to the moon, but we cannot find a control over our depression, inflammation, and emotion. I had found a way first to heal myself. Then I found out that it is an absolute benefit for humanity. Yes.

When I’ve tried to swim underwater across the pool, I first hyperventilate. Is your breathing practice basically the practice for preparing to go underwater? Is that how this worked?

No, absolutely not. A television show challenged me to swim a record distance under the ice. I said, “Hey man, I can do that, but I’m not teaching this. That is something for freediving schools.” What I teach is for people to learn to gain much better control over the immune system, how to regulate your mood. It’s not about going under the ice.

What is the connection between your breathing exercises and the cold-water experience?

The first thing you do when you go into freezing water is … [gasps loudly] deep breathing! That’s a reflex. Adrenaline shoots in to oppose the aggressive impact of the cold. My practices are about learning to consciously activate that stress mechanism, which we normally never do. But now you do it. And you learn how to activate it—to consciously interact with your body through your mind. The pathways become stronger and stronger with regular practice. You learn to deal with stress. And that stress could be any type of stress.

That makes so much more sense to me than meditating so you can dry sheets on a mountaintop.

I’ve got a dryer for that.

You developed your breathing practice by immersing yourself in cold water, and then you figured out how to duplicate that experience on dry land. Is that accurate?

Yes, exactly. I learned the breathing to oppose the aggressive impact of the cold water. Afterward, I learned how to take that home. I began experimenting with those breathing patterns. And then I saw all the esoteric … light, chakras, illuminations.

And you worked that out sitting stark-naked overnight in the freezing cold.

Yes. It’s like you see a woman at a certain age, and you are struck by love. I found a spiritual partner in nature. And, since then, I have been loyal to her. I practice always, and I can’t stop practicing. I’m 61 years old and on my birthday I gave myself a present: To go for 61 minutes into ice water in the wine barrel I use as an ice bath.

I’m not an old man. I’m a man in control. I’m the fruit of life. My spirit is elevated through my mind. And the control I learned is through going into the cold. That stress is my beautiful mother nature teaching me, taking care of me, and it makes all the other stresses in life laughable. And it’s great.

When did you begin to understand that by doing your breathing practice, you could control other aspects of your body, like your skin temperature?

It took a couple of months of going into the cold water, which I did every day because every day I wanted to get the same rush again. It was amazing.

I began to become conscious of what to do in the water with my breathing. I found the right formula: Take 25 to 30 breaths to charge up the body with these deep gasps of air coming in. Then exhale so there is no air in the lungs, and stay there in breath-hold for three, four, or five minutes. Then take a full gasp in and hold it, and then you see all those chakras they talk about. All the light. It’s all there, man. It’s all free.

And it heals. What happens after about one and a half minutes without a breath is that the blood oxygen drops dramatically. The normal healthy range on an oxygen meter is 95 to 100, and people with emphysema score 80 to 85. I can drop to 50, to 40, to 30—and 30 is where the meter shuts down because everybody’s dead. I consciously trigger the survival mechanisms and reset the body. Anything that is out of order will be set in order.

What was the moment you decided to become a lab rat for science?

I set a bunch of ice records on television, and then the scientists came to me. At first they thought I was a freak of nature, an anomaly. But I was able to duplicate what I can do with a group of people.

You taught the people in four days?

Yes. I do it now in one day. When your house is on fire, you run fast. You see what I mean?

You write that you almost weren’t born—and that resulted in a missionary fervor. Could you talk about that?

My mother was carrying twins, but the doctors didn’t know. By the time they realized there was another one, it was almost too late. They rushed her off to the operating room. And she brought me to life, almost suffocated, with the words, “Oh God, let this child live. I will make him a missionary.” This is what my mother told me.

And let me tell you how it worked out. Forty-eight years later, I was in an ice bath in front of the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in New York. I set a world record, and it was amazing. Then I was in Times Square, drinking hot chocolate, and I saw myself on the big screen. After that, I got a call from the Feinstein Institutes, where they are trying to find solutions for neurological problems. They wanted to know if I was able to consciously activate my vagus nerve, which most people thought was impossible. Their blood tests proved I could, and that I could bring down inflammation.

They said if I was able to reproduce what I did with other people, this could mean huge consequences for humankind. I said, of course I can do that. I know I can do it because I’ve got a twin brother. My brother is not able to do what I do because he is not trained. I’m not a freak of nature. I am trained.

I know how to reproduce my training and pass it on to others. So, at that moment, the conscious missionary was born. And half an hour later, I got a telephone call that my mother had died. You see how it correlates? That’s my story of my life with my mother and how I became a missionary. I still have my relationship to the vow my mother made. I want to make this world a better place. I want to make people happy, strong, and healthy. That’s why I’m here.

Has there been any downside to this? Has anybody had a heart attack going into cold water or anything like that?

You mentioned hyperventilating before diving. We say, “Don’t do that!” That’s one of our security protocols. Don’t do that! But some people did. And you drown. When you use hyperventilation, you have no control, really. And if you go diving, you can drown because you don’t respond to the breathing trigger.

My breathing exercises have been tested in universities and in medical environments. They work as strong medicine. They are also very good for athletic performance. But you have to learn how to use them. Do them in a safe environment: on the sofa, in bed, or sitting down—because you can lose consciousness. Underlying conditions can be an issue. So don’t use force. Let the breath be your guide. And it will teach you how to go into the depth of your physiology.

The last time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro—in less than 30 hours, wearing shorts—I was accompanied by a person who was 76 years old and suffered from Lyme disease. He did it too. With the right mind, you are capable of so much more than you think. But don’t jump right into the deep end. This is not a competition to see how long you can hold your breath or how much cold you can take.

Remember that any new exercise or breathing technique can be dangerous. Use discretion and consult a doctor.

When I was in high school, a hypnotist came to the school, and, during the show, he convinced a slender girl to be as stiff as a board. Then a friend and I picked her up and placed her across two stools like a bridge, and the hypnotist stood on her stomach. She didn’t bend. So I tried to do what the girl did, and I couldn’t. I tried again a few years later when I made the Olympic team for rowing, and still I couldn’t do it. This girl was not trained, and she got hypnotized into being stronger than an Olympic athlete. I still marvel at that.

I have hypnotists come to me, and they are astounded because I am able to touch consciously what they are able to touch with their hypnosis. I give people tools to become the master over their own mind because, for God’s sake, it is their own mind. With very simple tools, you are able to open up to the deeper powers of your own mind. It is natural to become in control of your happiness, your strength, and your health. This is what I’ve been saying for years, and now it’s scientifically based.

I live beside a river that’s regulated to stay cold for the health of the salmon. I mostly don’t go into the water because it’s too cold. But I want to try your practice. What’s the best way to approach my cold river?

Begin by going into the cold river just up to your neck for 30 seconds. Follow your breath as you go in. Stay in long, exaggerated breathing. And you will feel the body doing what the body is capable of. Do this for 30 seconds—no longer—for one week. Then, if you feel you can stay longer, follow your feelings. When you can do a couple of minutes in the cold river, you are done. A couple of minutes, man, and your vascular system is in the right condition. Also do the breathing exercise in the morning. It’s a great help. Follow your feelings. Relax. No force. The older you become, the more power comes from your mind. It’s called top-down regulation, and it gets better with age.

A lot of people go into saunas before they jump into cold water. Do you do that?

No. When you go into the sauna, you passively store up heat. And then when you go into the cold, you shake it off again. It’s still good for you. But the mind is not being exercised. What I do with these exercises is training the mind. Before you go into cold, you learn to set your body almost literally on fire. You learn to push your own button and how to handle stress: emotional, mental, bacterial, viral. It’s all stress, and you learn how to handle the button. I was never schooled in how the mind really works. I was a dropout, but the professors who have studied my technique tell me it will change mental healthcare.

I’ve got my wine barrel here. Whenever something comes up and I want to meet myself physically, I add water and ice, and I sit in it. I did it two days ago, and it’s great. It doesn’t cost anything or make money for any industry. It’s all free. And I’m very able to do a world record tomorrow because my mind is ready. I could run another marathon barefoot beyond the polar circle or in the desert, or I could climb Mount Everest or Kilimanjaro. I’m ready. The cold is merciless, but righteous. It brings you into the depth of yourself. The way nature meant it to be. And that is to be alive.

The Wim Hof Method Final Cvr Copy

THE LOSS THAT CREATED THE METHOD

Further and further down Olaya spiraled. Pills and injections, therapy, none of them could stem her descent into darkness. I tried my best to be there for her because she was the mother of my children, the love of my life. I still loved her madly, but there was little I could do. She was terrorized by her own mind. I needed to be strong for our children, to maintain as stable an environment for them as I could. And I did. We had actually a good time. We had our little nest, and we filled it with love, but the Olaya I knew was gone. …

That summer I was leading trips into the canyons, and it made sense to have the children nearby, where they could be looked after by Olaya’s family. I was on the job one day when I got a telephone call from Olaya’s brother telling me that she had jumped from the eighth story, having kissed our children goodbye moments before. …

Do you know what healed me? The cold water. It brought me back into reality. Instead of being guided by my broken emotions toward stress and sorrow, the cold water led me to stillness. Stillness of the mind. That gave my broken heart a chance to rest, restore, rehabilitate. And that’s the way it went. The children made me survive, and the cold water healed me. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the cold water made me survive, and my children gave me the strength to heal myself. They gave me a purpose to live and to be present for them 100 percent. When you go into the cold water, you’re no longer thinking about your mortgage, your next meal, your emotional baggage. You’re not caught up in your thoughts. It’s freezing, and you’re just surviving. That brought me to a place where I could heal. I loved my children deeply, and they were my salvation.

It was then that I first understood the true benefits of the cold water, breathing techniques, and positive mindset I was employing. So I made a method out of them, in the hope that others could benefit from them as I had. That was 25 years ago, and the method has evolved a lot since then, but its original spark is still with me. Like the memory of my dear, sweet love, Olaya, I carry it with me wherever I go. —WIM HOF