Sage's Experience with the Wim Hof Method (The Iceman)
Is the Wim Hof Method awesome? Yes!
How much time does it take? 30 minutes/day
How long is the online course? 10 weeks of video guidance, then you can continue as you like
For most of us in the modern world, the cold is something we avoid like the plague. We set the thermostat to 70ºF year round and don’t dare to go outside without plenty of warm clothing on to make sure the ambient temperature is hardly felt. But by staying in this nice cozy comfort zone, are we missing out on one of nature’s most powerful tools for enhancing health and vitality?
For most of my life, the cold was definitely not my friend. I felt most comfortable in either tropical environments or hot Southern California summers and definitely never got excited about going somewhere cold. Though I would surf year round, I would always wear a nice thick wetsuit and would always be the quickest to get cold, walking back to my car with numb hands and feet while everyone else was still in the water.
For years I’ve known about the nervous system benefits of finishing showers with 30 seconds of cold water, but apart from doing it a few times on the hottest days of the summer, it was never something that I was able to stick to and incorporate regularly into my life. I’ve always kept my ears open for ways to improve my adaptability in the cold in order to extend my winter surf sessions, but there were few solutions available. I knew that using infrared saunas would boost my circulation, but the effects always started wearing off by the time I drove 30-45 minutes to the beach and after a couple of hours in the water, I was still frozen. I found some help in hot herbal elixir with major amounts of shilajit and cayenne (yes, so much that I felt the burn twice), but even this only helped moderately.
“The Iceman,” Wim Hof first came into my awareness because the feature that Vice did on him kept popping up in the “recommended” section of YouTube… but I didn’t watch it because even the thumbnail image just looked too cold to possibly make for enjoyable watching! And out of ignorance, I just assumed he was a freak of nature with a special ability completely unique to him alone. My curiosity wasn’t peaked until a while later that I listened to an interview with Tim Ferriss and legendary big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton talking about the “Wim Hof Method.” Having been a passionate surfer most of my life, anytime Laird talks about something that he regularly incorporates into his training, I’m very keen to know more about it.
I started eagerly consuming every bit of information I could find online about Wim Hof and his method. I found that Wim, an incredibly charismatic and inspiring individual, had been developing a practice over the course of several decades to train and strengthen his nervous system. Cold exposure was a central part of the practice and incredible cold endurance seemed to be a consistent result amongst everyone who went through the program. I debated for a week over whether or not I should spend $199 on the 10-week online video training program, but finally I pulled the trigger and went for it. It was mid-October and I knew I’d be going to Alberta, Canada to visit AnnaBlanca’s family in December- being ready to go into the freezing Bow River in Canada was the perfect goal for me to work towards.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) consists of three parts- breathing, physical exercises, and cold training. This isn’t just some airy-fairy program- not only does Wim Hof hold 21 different world records, but the WHM is currently being studied at major universities around the world, including Harvard. In the beginning, the breathing was even more of a shock to my system than the cold. The pranayama-esque breathing practice is designed to significantly increase oxygen levels in the body and minimize CO2. After several minutes of continuous breathing, you exhale and hold for as long as you can without discomfort. To be clear- this is “holding” your breath without any air in your lungs. With air in my lungs, I know I can hold my breath for 1-2 minutes depending on how relaxed I am. So you can imagine how amazed I was when I went for 2 minutes 10 seconds with no air on my first Wim Hof breath hold! Then you repeat this cycle four times.
WARNING: Don’t ever do the breathing practice while in or near water- it is possible to pass out and drown. This would not be good for optimal longevity.
With each cycle, I could feel more and more tingling throughout my body- similar to when your foot “falls asleep,” but this was more of an “electrically alive” feeling. At first it made me nervous, but as I embraced it, it felt incredible! Of course it didn’t hurt that the breathing was flooding my brain with endorphins! After 5-6 weeks, I no longer got such extreme physical sensations, as my body adapted to the heightened oxygen levels. But something equally amazing began at this stage. After the rounds of breathing, Wim leads you through a short meditation session. Not only did I find it surprisingly effortless staying present and focused during the meditation, but I was also experiencing incredible visualisations, like a 3-D fireworks show happening on the back of my eyelids!
Most of the physical exercises in the early stages of the 10 weeks are basic yoga asanas designed to help people feel more at easy in their bodies and more connected to their nervous systems. But after a few weeks, Wim also incorporates some basic strength exercises such as pushups into the program. At first glance, this sounds boring, but when you combine basic strength training with the breathing practice, the results are wild! At the start of the program, I could do 25 push-ups while breathing regularly. By the end of the 10 weeks, I could do 50 push-ups while holding my breath with NO air in my lungs!
The cold-exposure portion of the training starts of quite gently- in the first week, you’re still taking hot showers, but you turn the water to cold for the last 30 seconds. Week by week, you take on progressively more intense cold challenges, working up to 10-minute cold showers (they only have you do this once so you’re not running up your water bill), and eventually to ice baths and whatever wild cold you can find out in nature. Yes, I know this all sounds miserable, but when combined with the rest of the program, it’s really not bad at all! Through the breathing practice, you are actually helping prepare your body to adapt more quickly to the cold and produce more heat internally. Also, by briefly holding your breath (with air in the lungs) at the start of the cold exposure, you essentially short-circuit the normal reaction of panic and gasping for air. Instead, I found I was able to remain totally calm, focused, and present. Over the course of the program, I completely rewired the way I think about the cold to the point where I view it as purely a very concentrated source of energy that makes me feel totally alive.
From the first day, I noticed I had much more energy than usual. Over the course of the training, though I was not doing any regular cardio training, I noticed major improvement in my cardiovascular performance when I would very occasionally run or go on an intense hike. Many others doing the training reported the same thing. (There’s a huge, very supportive community online of thousands of people who are also practicing the WHM.) By week 6, I still wore a wetsuit most of the time I was surfing, but I would take it off (and put on boardshorts) for the last 30 minutes of my session. It felt so great to be surfing in boardshorts and people who saw me surfing like this in the middle of winter were freaking out! Nobody could believe their eyes! In fact, this was the most difficult part of surfing without a wetsuit- everyone wanted to talk to me and find out what on earth I was doing! I found that as long as I stayed very focused, I was able to maintain my warmth, but when I got distracted in conversation, I got cold much more quickly.
By the time we were off to Calgary in December, I felt ready and really excited to challenge myself in “hard nature” as Wim calls it. On the first day there, the air was 9ºF (-13ºC) and the water in the river was exactly 32ºF (0ºC) with huge chunks of ice floating by. As I immersed my core, I fell fully into the moment, focusing entirely on my breath, my body, and the water. Never before have I felt so intensely present! Actually going into the river was totally mellow compared to the intensity of the 1.5 mile uphill run soaking wet (until everything froze about half a mile into it) back to the house and straight into the infrared sauna! I kept going back in again and again over the course of my 2 week stay and it got more and more comfortable each time as I pushed my adaptability to new heights. One time a group of Canadian bystanders asked to take a picture with “the crazy Californian” when I got out of the water and they insisted that I should be given honorary Canadian citizenship for my exploits!
The practice has been so amazing for me and I continue on with the eventual goal of being able to surf through the California winter without needing a wetsuit at all- that would really be a dream come true! I love living in LA, but it’s not quite tropical paradise, so I’ll have to bring the tropics to me from the inside out!