Can a combo of breathing exercises, cold therapy and
meditation bring on healthy benefits? Liz Connor turns down the heat.
Imagine if the tools you needed to beat stress, sleep better and recover
faster weren’t packaged up in an expensive app or pricey health
supplement, but were already innately available – all you had to do was
learn to unlock the potential of your primitive mind.
According to Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Iceman’,
we all have scope to tap into these natural human ‘superpowers’.
It’s easy to see how Hof got his nickname – he’s famous for daredevil
acts like climbing Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes, running a
half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, and holding the Guinness
World Record for the longest time submerged in an ice bath (one hour, 52
minutes, 42 seconds).
The 61-year-old says he’s able to achieve these extreme feats of
survival by using what he’s termed ‘The Wim Hof Method’
(wimhofmethod.com) – a three-pillar practice that combines meditation,
breathing exercises, and exposure to cold as a means of controlling the
body’s autonomous response systems.
The method recently gained attention after being featured in the Netflix
series In Goop Health, with Gwyneth Paltrow and her team of ‘wellness
gurus’ discussing the technique, which has amassed Hof over a million
followers on Instagram and many more around the world who claim his
philosophy to be life-changing.
So what exactly does Hof’s approach involve? Here’s what you need to
What exactly is the Wim Hof Method?
Hof has been practising his methods for decades, setting his first world
record for the farthest swim under ice in the year 2000. His technique
centres around a trio of basic principles, which Hof believes can help
you voluntarily activate your sympathetic nervous system (this is part
of the autonomic nervous system involved in the body’s ‘flight or
flight’ stress response).
- Cold therapy
One of the perhaps less appealing aspects of the practice involves
exposing yourself to icy cold temperatures. Hof believes this can be
done in a variety of ways, like switching to a cold shower in the
morning, taking regular ice baths, or safely jumping into cold water at
a wild swimming spot, depending on where you live (it’s absolutely vital
this is only attempted after training, with supervision, never alone and
only once you know it’s safe).
The second pillar is breathing techniques, that draw comparisons to
Pranayama (yogic breathing) and Tibetan Tummo ‘heat’ meditation. There
are two stages to the practice: the first involves taking 30-40 rapid
‘power breaths’ where you inhale deeply and exhale quickly (sort of like
you’re mimicking hyperventilating). The second stage involves taking one
deep inhalation, a full exhalation and then holding your breath for
around 10 seconds, while squeezing all of your muscles (again, these
techniques can be quite advanced and it’s best only to attempt after
The final piece to the jigsaw puzzle in the Wim Hof Method is sticking
to to the practices. The Iceman also uses third eye meditation
techniques, where the user visualises a third eye on their forehead, to
clear the mind and create a focused atmosphere.
“Over time, we as humans have developed a different attitude towards
nature and we’ve forgotten about our inner power. This is the ability of
our body to adapt to extreme temperature and survive within our natural
environment,” Hof writes of his philosophy. “Because we wear clothes and
artificially control the temperatures at home and at work, we’ve greatly
reduced the natural stimulation of our bodies, atrophying the age-old
mechanisms related to our survival and basic function.”
What are the supposed benefits?
Hof claims practising his method over a sustained period of time can
lead to health benefits like more energy, less stress and an improved
immune system. He credits taking ice baths and practising his breathing
techniques daily for his success in his many endurance feats, brought
on, he says, by the physiological benefits that the combination of the
People have controversially claimed the the Wim Hof Method can improve
athletic performance, mental health and even mitigate the symptoms of
However, while a growing number of studies show that breathing
techniques can be effective for things like anxiety and insomnia,
there’s conflicting research on whether cold therapy can improve
Many of Hof’s fans report positive effects in their own wellbeing,
although these are largely anecdotal. But a 2014 study found subjects
with flu-like symptoms were able to demonstrate an ability to control
their nervous system’s response when practising the Wim Hof Method,
compared with those that didn’t.
What’s it like to try some Wim Hof at home?
First off, it’s advisable not to attempt the Wim Hof Method without
consulting a doctor, especially if you suffer with respiratory issues or
pre-existing health problems – and it goes without saying that you can’t
just dive straight in to any of the more extreme aspects of these
techniques. But spurred on by Gwyneth Paltrow’s positive review, I’ve
been combining cold showers with breathing exercises every morning for
The breathing techniques might seem complicated or intimidating at
first, but they’re surprisingly easy to do by just following along to a
YouTube video. I took 10 minutes before starting work to sit and
practice every day.
The first time you try the breathing, it’s not unusual to feel a bit
lightheaded or notice some tingling in your body, although if you’re
feeling unwell it’s advisable to stop. I definitely experienced some
dizziness during a few of the sessions, which is why it’s important to
practice breathing in a comfortable and safe seated position.
Although bordering on tortuous at the time, I found the cold showers
were surprisingly a game-changer, and the combination of the two gave me
a gentle and natural endorphin buzz. The biggest positive change I
noticed was having more energy in the morning; my mind was clear and my
usual pre-coffee ‘brain fog’ dissipated, without the need to rely on
caffeine for the same affect.
“It’s a powerful method combining hyperventilation and strong breath
holds alongside cold exposure,” says Stuart Sandeman, founder of
Breathpod (breathpod.me). “The breathing and holding of breath forces
the body into sympathetic response, with a spike of adrenaline.
“The cold exposure has an interesting affect too as it’s a stressful
shock for the body, but by going into the cold with a relaxed mind, you
start to learn to manage your own stress response,” he adds. “You become
better at dealing with stress and can increase your resilience to it.”
Whether it’s just placebo or founded on fact, there are many others like
me who have found some benefits to trying the breathwork and cold
“It was originally a huge challenge for me, as I only consciously
breathe in yoga and I detest the cold with a ferocious passion, but a
combination of breathing, meditation and cold showers changed my life in
less than a week,” says nutritionist Vivienne Talsmat
“It takes regular and deepening practise though. I always say that you
are as healthy as your breath.” Presumably also, your last cold shower.