This maverick yogi is teaching the world to breathe – one ice bath at a time. During what feels like the height of the American popularity of hot yoga, Iceman Wim Hof is an ambassador of the Cold. Before you think this is just the next trend, Wim Hof is a modern master with a compelling story. Wim is a world record holder (26) for cold exposure. In addition, he may just well be the planet’s most famous breathworker. When it comes to his method, Wim Hof is convincing. And he is willing to lead by example.
Some of Wim’s recent notoriety came via a 39-minute VICE documentary (Inside The Super Human World Of The Iceman) that first aired in 2015. It opens with a mind-numbing view of Wim swimming under the ice. Then it goes on to feature a skeptical VICE reporter who travels to Amsterdam to study The Wim Hof Method with the man himself. The three pillars of the training system are breathing, meditation, and cold exposure.
With boundless energy, Wim guides people through a specific breathing technique taught in synergy with the experience of gradual cold exposure via cold showering and eventually ice baths. Spoiler alert: by the end, the reporter is convinced that the method works.
Wim is emphatic that anything he can do (which includes climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and 22,000 feet of Mt Everest in shorts) is also available to anyone and he can teach it. He is more than simply a manifestation of contagious enthusiasm. Wim’s confidence is accompanied by the key distinction of how Wim Hof operates in the world. He insists on scientific monitoring, documentation, reporting, and publication of his methods. These studies report benefits that include reduction of inflammation, improved ability to control the immune system, increased metabolic efficiency, and a number of other indicators of health and well-being.
Iceman Wim Hof in the Media
In addition to that VICE documentary, Wim has appeared on a number of podcasts with devoted listeners: The Joe Rogan Experience, the Tim Ferriss Show, Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness, and Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Radio. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton utilizes and passionately testifies to the efficacy of the method. Wim has taught onstage at Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within live events. When Wim speaks, he is highly self-aware and uses his sharp comedic intellect and Dutch accent to great effect of expression.
After devouring all this media, I felt compelled to meet him. I wanted to look him in the eye and find out if he is the real deal—or if his charisma is just the business of show. A year in the making, I had the opportunity to sit with him on the eve of Memorial Day weekend. After our conversation, he was en route to an undisclosed location in the Hawaiian Islands to train US Navy SEALs. His boundless enthusiasm for the work reveals his joy in being of service.
Meeting Wim Hof
“It shows in measurement equipment that doing these breathing techniques creates gamma, theta, and delta (brain waves/states). This is where we actually should be, instead of in stressful brain waves all the time. Are we creating a healthy economy or healthy people? For the sake of God we need to bring back LOVE.”
Love is a key part of his message, his mission, and his very heartfelt presence. Throughout our conversation, I was aware that I was sitting with a true yogi. In fact, the only time I’ve felt that same level of pure connection from the heart was when I’ve sat with Ram Dass in Maui. I was immediately taken by Wim’s wild character and positive spirit. He offers a solid message of personal empowerment and hope.
His passion can get loud, and he is highly effective in tapping into primal energy. Wim is known to bust out an acoustic guitar and start singing at concert volume during his workshops. There are actually few people I’ve experienced who have more of a love affair with nature than Wim.
His love affair with nature, with the breath, and with ice all came from Wim’s own search for healing. The catalyst for the Wim Hof Method is found in the sudden death of his wife and the mother of four of his children (from suicide in 1995) and Wim’s ensuing healing journey. For so many, that kind of tragedy can take you out of the game. Wim’s response was to dig deep within, seek answers in nature, and then make a relentless commitment to share those answers with the world to help others heal. His family continues to be part of the story, as his adult kids work with him to run the family business around teaching the Wim Hof Method.
Iceman Wim Hof and his Method
So, I wondered, is the Wim Hof Method a real and effective healing modality in handling the challenges and traumas of the modern world? “I’m a simple guy but with a big belief.”
The source of that belief is found in Mother Nature. “The mother’s ability as Mother Nature is to guarantee happiness, strength, and health to her children. That has been gone too long.” Without that connection, people experience, “A lot of confusion, insecurity, no confidence about what they are really able to do.” He is honest about his journey. “This was the way I was in the beginning. There I began my soul search. So, I began diving into esoteric disciplines, philosophies, traditions, languages – yoga, Tibetan meditation practices, kung fu, karate, Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism.” After all of this study, his intuition led him to the cold the way some are led to the heat. “I know languages of yoga, I know esoteric disciplines, but nothing beats THE COLD…The cold is merciless but righteous. It’s your warm friend I call it because it brings back THE HEART.”
“At a certain moment I felt attracted by intuition and instinct to go into cold water. I found it not through books and not through all those practices I did, I found it directly through this cold. It shut my mind up. I made a deeper connection within the self as well as the body. My consciousness became: I am this, I can do this, I feel good, I can stay good.”
The Yoga of Cold
Wim’s ability to find the way into what he calls the deeper part of the brain is one that he reminds me is well-traversed by the traditional yogis. He cites Patajanali’s Yoga Sutras and the pathways described through the eight limbs that lead the practitioner to samadhi or higher consciousness through austerities. He translates for me the first few of Patanjali’s sutras: “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of our brain. Then the seer appears the way he is, the expression of the soul in consciousness.” Beyond the science, this is what he is aiming to reach. After all, he translates the Sanskrit word asana as the seat of the soul.
Wim describes the cold that he’s drawn to as a tool to help the body train for the skills in enhances adaptation that the yogis themselves where pursuing. The philosophies Wim studied still influence his work today. Throughout his personal journey, Nature was one of Wim’s teachers. A teacher he continues to follow. “Nature can be merciless but righteous,” he says.
I bring to Wim’s attention that this is a heavily repeated quote, and I ask him to elaborate on it. “I call it merciless, but it’s only merciless to your ego, to whatever you think. It’s sometimes painful to go from your physiology and your conditioning into the deepest part of yourself. That’s because we’ve been alienated from our deeper self, the physiology. The physiology in the brain – as in the body – is connected to all the cells. I found that out when I went into the cold water; because I was a trained body, it was not cold at all.”
Since cold is a centerpiece of his teaching, I asked him: “What is your strategy when you submerge yourself into the cold?”
“At the moment you go in, you have to just be. There are no words in cold water. It’s only sensation and hormonal presence. We have an enormous potential to adapt, but we lost this connection with the deeper parts of the brain (the limbic system), and thus we’ve become conditioned by the neocortex to the modern way of thinking. We make beautiful houses with air conditioning and heating and we go from A to B with cars and all that. The deeper parts of the brain are needed to be stimulated through not being in thoughts but in being. Just feeling good. Feeling great. People take drugs because they don’t know how to access this anymore. What I found now is a way to get into this deeper part of the brain that affects the endocrine system, which is the hormonal system.”
Grief as a Merciless Teacher
With a lump in my throat so that I could barely articulate my words, I asked him about how he healed from the trauma of his wife’s suicide. “Something inexplicable happens when you experience severe trauma through emotional loss. You can be as good as you are but that trauma strikes into your hormonal system and creates an imbalance – you no longer have control. You may be the best in the world in skiing or top in this and that, Ha! Nature is merciless. You have to find connection again, in the depth. And that is what I did. So, from there I began to become aware to really connect because there was no other way to get deeper than the grief was rooted.”
“I’ve learned my power of the mind is going into the depth of the mind not only taking away the grief, but learning about the mind and its power. That’s not done in schools. But it’s there. And it’s able to tackle the problems of life. That’s the school. Life is not always a straight path. Life has its own way of unfolding. It’s not through the school we learn, we learn through life. ”
Wim’s fluid ability to dance between yogic philosophy and esoteric ideas of the spirit with the articulate language of science makes a huge impression on me. He is committed to scientifically proving what he teaches.
“In America, the biggest killer is cardiovascular conditions. Gradual exposure to cold water optimizes the vascular system, over 70,000 miles of vascular channels. The muscular tension of the vessels is optimized through gradual cold exposure. They are optimized within 10 days of gradual cold exposure. I teach people to be able to withstand ice water in an afternoon, regardless of age and regardless of their condition.”
He continues, “We have the natural ability to withstand stress, but we’ve become alienated from the depth of our systems. Thus, we’ve become victims of burn-out, stress, auto-immune diseases, and everything else. Those have derailed us because we were no longer the boss over our own chemistry.”
Wim Hof’s Gift as a Teacher
He emphasizes that he isn’t a superhuman. He can teach anybody to do what he can accomplish. Really, he isn’t so special but his gift is in the ability to teach. I ask him more about developing his skill as an accelerated teacher. Then, I hear a story that I had not previously come across in my research. It was a deeply affective insight into his origin and reveals a sense of his deep-seated purpose that began with a challenging birth. His voice grows more dramatic, nuanced, and emotional.
“I am one of a pair of identical twins. My parents never expected a second child. So, I was still in the womb almost too late. I came out after my mother, who was a very strong woman, prayed for a Cesarean. Just before entering into the operating room, I was born in this cold hall.”
Wim continued the story, “I was born then like it was nothing, but with this psychic imprint. She told me later all about this. I always felt different than my identical twin, and I did all kinds of different things. I feel it’s not about my genetics, it’s about what I did with it. So, now I teach anybody can do it. But it took 45 years of me doing all kinds of crazy stuff, 26 world records and many more challenges going into nature and always like a crazy man and coming together with science.”
The Science of Iceman Wim Hof
In 2007, the first scientific studies of Wim’s ability to be the boss of his own physiology were done at the Feinstein Institute in NYC. Then in 2008, outside the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC as part of the Brainwave Festival, Wim publicly completed a cold exposure world record. He was monitored by Dr Kenneth Kamler, a renowned expert in high-altitude medicine. Wim recalls, “He said ‘If you can reproduce these results, the consequences to humanity and mankind are enormous’. It was right then the mission [of the Wim Hof Method] was born. A half hour later I got the call that my mother had died. She had invoked the mission, and it was like a relief of the soul.”
The studies continue since Wim has no hesitation in volunteering his body and his breath for science. In February 2017, Wim collaborated with researchers Dr Otto Muzik and Dr Vaibhav Diwadkar at Michigan’s Wayne State University. While wearing a cold water perfusion suit, he underwent scans of both brain and body using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography.
Wim loves to use the term “non-speculatively,” and I understand the joy he experiences with each scientific collaboration. His inspiration increases with the accumulation of compelling results and their implications. Since his techniques have demonstrated an ability for people to control systems in the body once thought to be outside of conscious control—including the autonomic nervous system, he says, “We are able to tackle problems with regard to inflammation, which is the cause of many diseases and plays also a role in chronic pain and depression – all those things have led up to what I’m able to do now from science.”
In 2014, a study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that corroborated both Wim’s ability to consciously regulate his immune system response as well as his ability to successfully teach the method to others so that they also demonstrate this ability. One of the authors of the study, Matthijs Kox, is a researcher at Radbound University Medical Center in the Netherlands, where this work was done. He investigates immune system responses and how the nervous system affects the immune system.
One of the ways that they test immune system response is through exposure to a bacterial toxin, produced by Escherichia coli (commonly known as E coli). When Wim was exposed to the bacterial toxins, he experienced fewer symptoms of the inflammatory immune system response. Then 24 volunteers entered the study: 12 in the control group and 12 recruits trained by Wim Hof in his method.
Upon exposure to the bacterial toxin, the Method-trained volunteers demonstrated measurably lower markers of inflammation (and even increased levels of the inflammation-lowering protein interleukin-10). The researchers noted higher levels of adrenalin in volunteers after utilizing the breathing techniques. While these are still preliminary results, they affirm what Wim insists. His methods can be taught and they have the ability to modulate our physiology.
Become the Boss of Your Physiology
The implications may be wide-ranging. After all, Wim is acutely aware of the avalanche of depression in the modern world and how much people need real solutions to real problems within the self.
He says, “This is a possible technique for those who suffer from not being able to activate feel-good hormones in the case of trauma, derailed brain activity, or grief. This is a way to bring them back to a sense of control and to feel relief instead of terror. So, the real terrorist that we are tackling is to be out of control in the mind.”
According to Wim, the ultimate aim isn’t the world record, it is the ability to be the conscious boss of our own physiology. His extreme antics and passionate public activities push the boundaries. “The real control is having a mind enabling us to become happy, strong, and healthy! Because we are the boss over our hormonal system. It is the pharmacy and we are the doctor ourselves. Our mind is the doctor. ”
The more time I spend with him, the more that I see Wim is truly living his dharma, his purpose, in spreading the message. “We gotta bring back the belief that we are all equipped with the tools to become happy, strong, and healthy. We are all equipped with the ability the be the master over our mind. It’s just here, just awaken! That is what we do with yoga, which is union and connection. We awaken people to the belief that we are able to tackle depression through addressing inflammation, which is the cause of many diseases.”
I am inspired by his affirmations of self-reliance and self-empowerment. “Non-speculatively, we go for happiness, strength, and health for everybody! It’s not about being Laird Hamilton, me, or anything like the ‘super people.’ It’s love and we share it.”
An Inspirational Message
When I ask Wim to share inspiration for yoga practitioners, he says, “Break the chain that we are not able to believe that happiness, strength, health and love are available to us all. Suda prem – pure love, it is there. We are able to transform our destiny of the soul right here right now. Create a unified field of consciousness and bring it out. Be the radio and bring out good music. For everybody.”
Wim is tireless in his message and his purpose, “I won’t stop until we have a world of happy, strong and healthy people. I will NOT stop!!!!”
After we embrace goodbye, I walk through a park in the hills of Los Angeles where we met. I hear the cheers of a few dozen teacher trainees who have just taken an ice bath. They break out in song to the loud strum of Wim’s acoustic guitar, and the loving cup of my heart runneth over.
Wim’s voice and message linger. “We bring people back to the belief that life has it all. Then, so-called miracles happen! After years of depression, people feel great. Is this a miracle or is this love? I call it Life. Because Life is miraculous! I didn’t invent it, I just follow it.”
More information on the Wim Hof Method
For more information about the Wim Hof Method, watch demonstrations on his website (wimhofmethod.com) and on YouTube (one of my favorites is a 20-minute demonstration Wim does with Lewis Howes). Online courses in the method and an app are available. Wim Hof’s workshop schedule is also found online. wimhofmethod.com
Find certified Wim Hof Method teachers in your area (there are some excellent official teachers/practitioners in Los Angeles) on: wimhofmethod.com/overview-official-wimhofmethod-instructors
Lulu Berton collaborated with Shiva Baum on this story; Lulu is a wellness leader and published author: luluwellness.com
Shiva Baum is a record producer and peak performance coach. With an expertise in sacred mantra chanting, he is the head of music programming for the world renown yoga music festivals Bhakti Fest and Shakti Fest. He lives in Topanga Canyon. Find him on Facebook.