Deep Breathing and Cold Showers: The Wim Hof Method (Week 1)
This year, I’ve had a hard time following through on my monthly challenges and my once great habits are now not so stellar. In desperate need of a reboot, I went and bought a 10 week “mindfulness” program, and I just completed week one.
The program is called the Wim Hof method and it incorporates deep breathing, stretching, meditation, and gradual exposure to the cold (via cold showers and eventually, ice baths – yikes) to enhance over all health, energy and well being.
- better energy and mood
- improved sleep
- fat loss
- reduced stress and inflammation
- enhanced athletic performance
If it sounds a little out there, it is.
But I want to get back into a solid routine. I need something regimented, but realistic. Challenging, but not taxing. This program fits the bill. There’s no equipment, no need to go anywhere, and no need to change out of my pajamas. All I have to do is get up, press play, and follow along. Every day, for 10 weeks.
And write about it, of course.
The Wim Hof Method explained
Wim Hof is a dutch adventurer who holds the world record for the longest ice bath (1 hour 53 minutes), who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in nothing but a pair of shorts, and who ran a full marathon in the arctic circle, also dressed in shorts.
He’s eccentric, but he insists that he’s neither crazy nor an attention seeker; he simply wants to show people just how much power we have over our bodies. He says that we all possess the ability to manipulate our physiology in ways that allow us to adapt to and cope with stressful environments and situations. Through deep breathing in combination with cold exposure, we can strengthen our bodies’ reactions to stress triggers and be healthier, stronger and more resilient as a result.
The Wim Hof method has four main pillars:
1. Deep breathing
In this program, we inhale powerfully and exhale 30 times in a row. Then, we exhale, hold our breath for as long as we can, and inhale for one last deep breath. We repeat the process 3-4 more times.
I’ll be honest, I don’t fully understand the science behind deep breathing followed by breath holding. I know that the way that we breathe impacts our physiology. We breathe rapidly when we’re stressed out. Slow, deep breathing calms us down. I also understand that deep breathing increases the flow of oxygen throughout the body, which improves blood flow, cardiovascular strength, and overall energy.
But despite my efforts, I haven’t found an explanation that I understand well enough to describe in simple terms of how oxygen and CO2 levels increase and decrease through breathing and breath holds. All I know is that it leaves a very unique and powerful sensation.
Meditation helps bring awareness to the body (and draws attention away from stress/outside environment). It clears the mind and trains us to focus. And as we all know, willpower, focus and mental endurance are required tools for achievement, so it only makes sense that we commit fully to a consistent practice.
3. Cold exposure
We’ve been healing with cold for centuries. We reach for the ice pack when we get a bruise or sprain to reduce pain and minimize swelling. Athletes take ice baths after workouts to speed up the recovery process. A cold dunk in the shower feels invigorating.
Cold on the skin not only increases our tolerance for stress, it also aids the immune system, cardiovascular health, hair, skin, joints, muscles and even mood and energy.
When we are exposed to cold, the body goes into defense mode. It shivers, our heart rate increases, the muscles contract and expand causing the skin to break out into goosebumps, and we gasp for air. In doing so:
- the body produces more white blood cells that activate and strengthen immune system (i.e. fewer colds and flus) and reduce inflammation and swelling
- blood flows to the organs to keep them warm, which improves overall circulation and oxygen flow
- skin and scalp pores close which keeps the skin and hair looking smooth and healthy
- brown fat in the body (the kind that’s responsible for raising the body’s temperature) is activated during cold exposure which generates heat, raises your metabolism and burns off the fat
From pushups and planks to leg lifts and back bends, the exercises are simple, low impact and designed to promote flexibility, strength, balance and posture.
My goal is to get into the habit of practicing first thing in the morning before everyone wakes up.
- Breath hold: 36 seconds
- Pushups: 17
- 3 rounds deep breathing
- Forward bend, back bend, spinal twist and scissor kicks
- Warm shower (as long as I want) followed by 30 seconds of cold
One day in and I can’t believe that I can hold my breath for more than 90 seconds. I’m amazed at how good it feels to breathe deeply. I am tingly and lightheaded. I can meditate afterwards and it’s not such a fight. I stretch and breathe into the spot where the muscle feels tight, and it feels nice. The cold shower isn’t so pleasant, but the 30 seconds go by quickly, and I feel refreshed afterwards.
Every morning I practice and every day I finish with a sense of calm and satisfaction, even if the cold showers aren’t getting easier. On day 7, I hold my breath for over two minutes – twice.
I feel great and yet, I dread the practice. I get out of bed with a reluctant sigh. I struggle through those first few breaths and I contemplate quitting. This worries me because the program only gets harder.
For now, however, I can pat myself on the back knowing that this week, I didn’t break the chain. All I have to do is keep getting up, keep pressing play, and keep turning that shower handle colder, colder…. and colder.