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A Day with The Ice Man: His Advice-“Breathe, M*therf*cker.”

“He climbed Everest in his shorts. What have you done with your life?” asks the VICE documentary reporter adventurous enough to have opted for entering the world of Wim Hof.

I attended a workshop over the weekend with the man that everyone is talking about right now, Wim Hof, AKA “The Ice Man.” Simply by changing his breath, Wim can delve deep into his autonomic nervous system, change hormonal function and alkalinity of his blood, and protect his body from the threat of most diseases at sheer will. He (and his trainees) have used his method—a combo of breathing exercises, cold immersion, and mental focus—to actually resist the effects of injected bacterial endotoxins, previously thought to be downright impossible. The Wim Hof Method has been proven to influence the nervous system and immune response in several eye opening studies (but notably not in double blind randomized control studies, which would be more legit). Yet from a scientific scientific standpoint, this is still unprecedented.

His t-shirts say “breathe m*therf*cker,” and his perfect trifecta to strive for every day–happiness, strength, and health–is direct, and delivered with tough love. If you find this refreshing, chances are Wim Hof will stir something deep in your soul.

The crowd was epic! 350 inquisitive seekers, biohackers, and self-experimenters in a gym, on yoga mats, cheering and hooting every time Wim exclaimed “Breathe!” There was a self-help Tony Robbins vibe to the whole scene, which isn’t surprising since Tony ice bathes every morning and Wim had had a skype call with him just the day before. Each person’s background quickly became apparent by how they moved during the 4-hour lecture. The yogis were doing pigeon, cobra, and wheel poses; the Ido Portal followers were timing their asses’ grass squats; and the regular meditators were on their backs, hands on heart and stomach, just feeling their breath. There were equinox trainers, POSE running coaches, and movement specialists of all stripes. The male to female ratio: 80:20. It was truly fascinating and inspiring to be surrounded by other people who walk their talk.

“A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away.”

Ever since his wife’s suicide in the 90s, this 56-year-old Dutch trailblazer has devoted his life to transforming illness, fear, and limitation into personal power and agency. At least that’s how he puts it:

“Fuck destiny, fuck fate,” he told VICE. “This time we learn to control our happiness, health, and strength. It’s not philosophical. It’s chemical.”

Hof has been featured on Joe Rogan Podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, and two of my absolute favorites, Rich Roll and School of Greatness. He holds 20 Guinness World Records. They include: withstanding extreme temperatures, sitting in an ice bath for 2 hours with no detectable change in body temperature, and yes, hiking up Mount Everest in shorts.

wim hof

His Mad Method

His technique is all about “controlled hyperventilation”—breathing until you feel lightheaded, holding your breath in for as long as you’re comfortable, breathing out, and then squeezing your breath out for as long as possible without “efforting.”  The practice is supposed to increase adrenaline, the immune-suppressing stress hormone normally produced in “fight or flight” situations, which allows the body to withstand extreme temperatures. According to Hof, it also suppresses inflammatory responses. As he stated at the seminar: “Any disease is inflammation. With disease coming on, inhale, tense up muscles, then exhale. This makes extra energy at the mitochondria by creating more molecules in the cell.” Here’s a breakdown of Hof’s 5 steps.

While I agree that at the end of our fast-paced day we need to breathe, I propose that Wim’s way of guiding his disciples may not be the way.

My Analysis: A Biomechanical Perspective

As we did the breathing exercises, I could hear long inhales followed by short exhales permeating the room. By the end you’re tingling, ultra-lucid, even euphoric. I pained to see the crowd breathing mainly from their chest and neck. In fact, Wim’s very own neck muscles are overly defined and his posture is not one to emulate.

Since I’m an anatomy nerd, I know the diaphragm is asymmetrical and that hyperinflation and the kind of chest breathing Hof encourages can put the body into a stance the Postural Restoration Institute (a technique we practice) would view as reinforcing our right-side dominance. When we get put into a fight or flight situation and hyperventilate, our tendency is to shift weight into the right hip. Our body tries to compensate to move around this jacked up state of being with the flaring of the left rib cage, which makes it harder to look over your right shoulder, externally rotates your left hip, and so on. This further creates a torque through the muscles and fascia from the body moving on an unbalanced foundation, leading to pain and inflammation. Put simply, stress is a killer, and hyperventilation is one major source, especially since we breathe 22,000-25,000 times a day–more frequently than we do any other activity. During the Wim exercises I was trying to lengthen my exhales, but following Wim’s cues–equal part inhale to exhale–I could feel my body falling into that same old right-leaning imbalance.

As stressed out New Yorkers who burn the candle at both ends, we inhale nice and long and exhale short all day long to give our adrenals a punch and put us in overdrive in order to feed our ambitious desires. While Wim’s hyperinflation breath can make you feel high, the last thing we need is another hit of the high, we need a breath that will mellow us out and return the nervous system to a place that feels safe and calm. The breath that gets us to this place is an exhale that is twice as long as the inhale and one that fills the belly, chest, and backs of the ribs circumferentially .

“The man who can conquer the cold is ready for war, because he’s already won the war on the inside.”

A separate note on Wim’s technique, as human beings the spectrum of what we (think we) can endure day-to-day is relatively narrow. Wim’s technique is incredible at pushing personal boundaries, but it’s not an everyday technique for helping your body stay centered, grounded, and injury-free. At Urban Wellness Clinic, we’re always seeking new and innovative techniques to incorporate into our holistic health approach; there is definitely something we can learn from Hof. But our recommendation is if you subscribe to Wim’s breathing, balance it out with some balloon breathing to lengthen that exhale and calm the nervous system.

wim hof

Chronic Stress Cure-All?

Hof is not without his critics. NYC dietician and exercise physiologist Samantha Heller has stated: “going to extreme lengths such as snow-hiking or swimming in frigid waters is not necessary to [manage stress].” Dr. David B. Samadi of Lenox Hill Hospital, though, thinks finessing the method just might do wonders for people dealing with chronic stress, whose immune systems work nonstop fighting imaginary enemies! Not exactly an imaginary problem.

If you’re sold, Hof offers a 10-week online program for $199—including cold-immersion therapy, body-temperature regulation and breathing techniques.

“I want to bring back love. Love is compelled by happiness, strength, and health. If you radiate good energy because you’re happy, healthy, and strong, that’s love. So love is my mission,” say Wim. Can’t argue with that!

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For more information on Urban Wellness Clinic’s approach to staying centered, breathing well, and injury-free, contact us at 212-355-0445 or info@urbanwellnessclinic.com!

Best in health,

Dr. Emily Kiberd