The Wim Hof Method

Overview

In short, Wim Hof is a crazy bastard with a great message and an inspiring story. From running a marathon in the desert to climbing mountains in just shorts, he’s a living, breathing counter-argument to everything you thought the human body was incapable of enduring.

‘The Wim Hof Method’ provides a look into his personal journey and where it all started. Specifically, the book focuses on Wim’s relationship with the cold (i.e. cold exposure) and how he’s used it as a tool to overcome the challenges in his life as well as gain greater control over his body.

In a moving passage, he talks about his first wife, the bond they shared, and how her eventual suicide led him to become the man he is today. He writes:

“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… 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.”

And that’s exactly what this book is about. Wim believes that we can all benefit from his method, describing it as ‘a practical way to become happier, healthier and stronger’. He lists many potential benefits to consistent practice, such as increased energy levels, improved wellbeing and boosts to the immune system. Overall, it’s a motivating read.

Key Lessons

The Method

The method itself is simple and consists of three pillars: a breathing exercise, followed by meditation and cold exposure.

1. Firstly, the breathing acts as a primer to the cold. In a Wayne State Study, researchers found that this exercise reduced the amount of pain and stress he felt, as well as making him better able to handle the cold by focusing his attention away from anxious thoughts.

Wim Hof walks you through the breathing exercises, the first step in his method.

2. Next is the meditation, which Wim describes as an opportunity to focus on a thought or set an intention; to reflect and notice how your body feels.

3. The last step is to get cold. In Wim’s case, this may mean swimming below ice for over fifty metres, but for most of us, a cold shower (or an ice bath).

Despite its simplicity, Wim argues that the benefits of this practice become more pronounced over time, as we progressively adapt to the cold. For this reason, he suggests slowly ramping up the intensity – for example, by starting with 15 seconds of cold water at the end of your shower and increasing the duration as time goes on. He writes:

“This method is not a pill. You have to have dedication and conviction, to become your own teacher and guide. It makes you meet your fear rather than turn away from it.”

Antifragility

There’s a method to Wim’s madness. As he points out:

“Our comfort-zone behaviourism has made us weak. More than that, it’s made us dependent. We sit in 72-degree rooms and watch television while eating processed “comfort” foods to escape from the self-imposed stresses of our daily lives… Our immune systems have become compromised, leading to disease and disorder… On top of that, much of this illness is psychosomatic. We are worrying ourselves sick.”

The basic idea is this: having things made easier for us often makes us weaker, not stronger.

By controlling for a lot of acute stressors (i.e. limiting our exposure to them or avoiding them entirely), we become more susceptible to chronic stress in the long-run. While acute stress allows us to grow and adapt (i.e. to come back stronger), chronic stress is often fatal.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term ‘antifragile’ to capture the idea of ‘things that gain from disorder’. We typically think of robust as being the opposite of fragile, but Taleb argues that the true opposite is something that actually grows stronger from external pressure – something that’s antifragile.

And this is, to a large degree, what cold exposure is all about – putting yourself through short-term stress (i.e. the breathing exercises and the cold exposure) so that you become stronger and more resilient as a result.

Like in hormesis, by subjecting ourselves to small doses of temporary stress, we adapt to come back stronger. Without it, we become more fragile as we haven’t gone through that same process of adaptation.

This can mean physiological, but also psychological adaptation – learning to manage the mental stress we feel from cold water, and potentially applying those same techniques elsewhere in our lives. In an extreme example, Wim discusses his Everest attempt:

“The cold leads the way toward a spirituality of the mind, a calmness with which you can handle any other stress… That’s what I found on Mount Everest when I was lost in a whiteout in my shorts. There was nobody else around, it was freezing cold, and there was little oxygen… I couldn’t see anything anymore. My left foot was frostbitten. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anxious. I gained control, my mind took control, through the breath.”

(26:37-28:09) Medlife Crisis breaks down the effects of the Wim Hof Method. In this section, he discusses the effects of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress.

Mind Control

The Comfort Zone

There’s more to Wim’s method than adapting to stressors. As he explains in chapter ten:

“I rise in the morning, and I do my breathing. I don’t do it because it’s good for me, which it is, but because it feels good. That’s why I want to do it. And then, shortly after, I take my cold shower, or an ice bath if I can. I love it… I stay in the cold water until I feel a deep sense of peace… This makes me feel alive, with an absolute sense of being present – ‘I am here’. I know all that, so I just do it, and it feels great.”

Cold water immersion is tough – but that’s part of the benefit. By continuously overcoming any kind of challenge in our lives, we become better at doing so.

If we do it enough, we look forward to the challenge; we see it as a precursor to growth and we look forward to the feeling of accomplishment that follows. This can have a knock-on effect, as Wim explains:

“Once you become more comfortable with this new-found authority of yourself, you are able to gain momentum, and suddenly you want to eat better, you want to run a marathon, your dreams are revived.”

The Placebo Effect

“Neurology knows relatively little about the brain, which is only to say that the brain is a lot smarter than neurology.” – Alan Watts

This brings us to the powerful role that belief plays in our lives.

Part of the reason we get better at overcoming similar challenges is because we become more confident in our ability to do so.

For example, in a 2014 study at Radboud University, participants were trained in the Wim Hof Method [WHM] for a week, injected with an endotoxin to test their immune response, and then had their results compared to an untrained control group.

Inflammation and flu-like symptoms were much lower in the experimental group, which the researchers initially pinned on them having practiced the WHM before receiving the injection – essentially, having primed their systems for it.

However, the following year, the same researchers published a follow up paper, providing evidence that optimism also played a large role in the immune response – because the participants believed the WHM would help them combat the endotoxin, it did.

This is the definition of a placebo, and Wim extrapolates these findings to argue that if implanting a belief into the minds of the participants directly affected the experiment outcomes, then what’s stopping them from consciously deciding what to believe in advance.

(19:29-20:01) Wim Hof discusses the placebo effect with Tom Bilyeu on ‘Impact Theory’

Closing Thoughts

Though there’s an increasing body of science supporting The Wim Hof Method, the book serves as an important reminder that, while there are many things we don’t fully understand, we shouldn’t overlook unfamiliar ideas and views.

Rather, Wim advocates being open minded, but committed – putting in your best effort and seeing for yourself what the results are. He says himself that you don’t need to buy his book to follow his method, but reading a few pages will give you all the motivation you need to get started.

Lastly, as readers, we shouldn’t think of the WHM as a rigid structure, but as a useful tool.

Don’t knock it until you try it. ❄️

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