For anyone remotely interested in self development work you’d be hard pushed to not have come across The Ice Man, also known as Wim Hof. There are now thousands of podcasts and documentaries capturing his groundbreaking work in expanding the human potential via this triptych approach of breath-work, cold exposure and will power. As a charismatic, humble and somewhat eccentric Dutchman, his enthusiasm for helping others feel ‘happy, strong and healthy’ is nothing short of compelling. So much so that I found myself booking up for one of his summer expeditions last winter, whilst only mid way through listening to one such podcast. As someone who promotes irrational action, Wim would have been proud as I casually let my gut lead the way and, with no hesitation, committed to my biggest single expenditure of the year, with every cell in my body lighting up on pressing ‘confirm booking’.
Two seasons on, and it’s now two weeks since I’ve been back from a week with Wim and 100 other like-minded seekers. An experience that’s still integrating into my system, and for now I can best distill as a heart-expanding adventure that I will look back on and cherish for years to come. Given Wim’s universal appeal, he attracted people from across the globe (Australia, Russia, Brazil, India and beyond) and from every generation (with a big shout out to the daughter, mother and grandmother trio from America who attended en famille, how cool). It was a rare opportunity to be able to form a temporary community with such a diverse range of cultures, whilst at the same time all being united in a shared desire to expand out of our comfort zones, resulting in a unique constellation of a tribe that will be hard to beat.
Set in the stunning countryside of the Spanish Pyrenees, with the backdrop of a European heatwave, our days were filled with nature. Group breath sessions on a carpet of grass, ice-baths looking up at tree tops, surrounded by mountains with lake swimming on tap as desired. On the final day we climbed up to a glacier, embracing the cold with a group meditation standing barefoot on the snow for half an hour, swimming in the icy-cold waters of an awe-inspiring waterfall and then facing a ferocious hail storm for our 90 minute descent of the mountain. Nature’s spontaneous outpour proved to be one of the week’s highlights for me; running down the mountain, through paths turned into muddy streams, cold and soaked to the bone, I felt totally vulnerable against the almighty force of mother nature. This sense of being out of depth and out of control left me with a sense of exhilaration and an incredible natural high like no other. Also serving as a good reminder that whilst we can set up situations to purposely push ourselves out of our comfort zone, it often tends to be the random happenings of just living life in which we face the true challenges, and thus experience the greatest rewards.
As a life long worshipper of the sun (I spend my winters in Goa), family and friends find it more than bizarre that I’m now getting my kicks out of ice-baths and off season sea swimming. Whilst the physical benefits of cold therapy are plentiful (from decreasing inflammation to improving circulation), Wim Hof says the biggest benefit is in strengthening the mind and will power. Once the initial shock of sitting in ice is over it’s incredible how easy it can be to sit with the sensation of cold if you know how to still the mind (my preferred route tended to be repetitive chanting, using every exhale to release an extended Om). Post each ice-bath (usually lasting for a full 10minutes) I personally felt totally whacked, but in the best possible way. That sense of feeling deliciously tired in both the body and mind, of being able to just sit and be and do nothing for extended lengths of time, proved to be a welcome experience for a usually high alert Vata type personality like me. Cold therapy is supposed to balance the parasympathetic (rest and restore) and sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous systems, so this clearly served as an indicator that I’m probably spending too much time in my fight or flight mode and it was nice to have the body forced to be still for once. Many of the others felt high and energised and clearly had the opposite medicine.
As a breath-worker with a passion for reading and experiencing everything connected to it, I didn’t experience many new revelations around the science or understanding of the Wim Hof Method (and think the website and resources online do a brilliant job of sharing this for anyone wanting to explore this further). However, starting each day with an hour long 100+ group breath session has to be one of the best ways to start just about any day. Alongside everyone raising their personal energy levels, something incredibly special happens when people breathe in unison. It’s as if an invisible web of life force energy connects us all, lifting us all up to the same united experience of something much greater than our individual selves. This melting into a shared felt sense of oneness had the group fully in their hearts and wanting to do little else than falling into group hugs for long after the session came to a close.
Whilst Wim has a tendency to lean heavily on the science, it was quickly apparent that he also has an incredibly spiritual side. As a talented musician Wim was playing guitar and singing what sounded to be Native American medicine songs throughout most of the workshops and sessions together. Love was a strong feature throughout the week and was clearly Wim’s driving motivation behind all he does. Wim’s own personal journey into spiritual seeking was set off by the suicidal death of his wife, leaving him to single handedly raise their four young children. His current concerns are more focused towards the planet, and how the negative repercussions of our human behaviour are damaging it. As someone who is dedicating his life to bridging the much-needed gap between science and spiritually, Wim’s ability to apply logic to what has traditionally been veiled in mysticism is admirable. It’s also the reason that he has a global appeal like few others out there. As a living example of someone with supernatural powers (that he believes we all have), Wim has set 26 world records (from running a marathon in the desert without water to climbing much of Mount Everest in only shorts). He’s also used this method of breathing to fight off medically-induced E. Coli bacteria, alongside training others to do likewise, making it hard for even the most cynical of critics to not be curious of his work.
Speaking to others that have experienced both the winter expeditions as well as this one, it became clear that the summer option is more on the light and celebratory side of things when compared to the more challenging and introverted experience of Poland in the depths of winter. So as a cold exposure novice it was perfect, and for me it also served as an opportunity to live out an unfulfilled childhood fantasy of Summer Camp (something we Brits just don’t do but always hear about in American movies). Whilst so much of the Wim Hof science is now readily available online the magic only unfolds in actually making the time to experience it (feeling is understanding as Wim preaches). To have had the opportunity to live this one out for a full week has left an indelible impression on me. Its reaffirmed that Wim really is one of the most exciting beings out there right now (for anyone feeling the call I encourage you to sign up and go), and it’s served as yet another reminder that the breath really is our key to self empowerment and transformation.