Extreme athlete Wim Hof has set records for immersion in icy water, and he recommends it for physical and mental health. Find out why his wife’s suicide drove Hof to master controlled hyperventilation — in breathtaking cold — to become happy, strong, and healthy. (Everything else, he’ll tell you, is BS.) Surprisingly, heart and brain science just may support the Wim Hof Method. Plus… contrasting Ice with Fire. Plus…contrasting Ice and Fire with a firewalking story courtesy of Jim Metzner of “Pulse of the Planet”
Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome to Wim Hof, or better known as The Iceman. Clearly an iconoclast, he began his mission at age 17, swimming in ice water in Amsterdam. He has developed the three pillar Wim Hof method, focusing on controlled hyperventilation, cold immersion, and a focused mind to lead a happier, healthier, more energetic life. His claims are controversial, but more recent scientific data has been supportive. These techniques are not without risk. Let’s learn from the master about the benefits of the Wim Hof method. Wim, thank you for being here with me today.
Wim Hof: Thank you, Philip, for having me.
Phil Stieg: It’s a pleasure. How did you get the nickname The Iceman?
Wim Hof: Yes, suddenly it was there. It’s because of internet and things I do is going into extremes of the cold in wintertime. They’re like swimming, running barefoot through the snow and sitting in direct contact with ice and things like that made this nickname emerge and then I took it.
Phil Stieg: In reading through your book, the Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human potential, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It seems like part of this was accidental. The circumstances in your life led you to have to live this way, but then as a result of living that way, you had this stroke of genius.
Wim Hof: I’ve always had been a searcher of the soul, of the unknown in this world. We are not here just to live and survive. We are here with a destiny, with a mission. Every person actually has a mission to fulfill who he is and what he is, the soul. And so I began my journey. And then I found cold water.
The cold water really is merciless, but righteous. It brings you into a deeper awareness of your physiology. And there you learn to control pain – you learn to control those stress s mechanisms inside the body. And with that you get a lot of answers. We in our modern days do not have and that I began to cultivate and began to do it by myself you begin to think about it, you contemplate about it and you never become sick no more you always feel strong, a lot of energy and you keep on going I attracted the interest of journalists – television people came and they began to challenge me “can you do this”? Can you go swim 50 meters under the ice? Can you climb mountains barefoot in the snow and cold temperatures in your shorts? Can you do it in the desert without drinking? And all those records I did astounded a lot of documentary makers like Discovery Channel, National Geographic, et cetera, which was then seen by doctors who sit at home looking at television and they began to ask themselves what this man is doing it’s not possible that this man is doing it so let’s try to connect with him and do experiments and ask if he is willing to be subjected to it. And I was. And then they found out that I was able to control mechanisms inside the body normally is taught is impossible.
Phil Stieg: I think that it’s interesting. In your book, you kind of reveal a very, what I would think, difficult situation in terms of the death of your wife and how you translated that into who you are. Can you go into the details a little bit? If you’re comfortable with it?
Wim Hof: Of course. Society doesn’t prepare you for the worst in your life. We don’t get into school how to deal with the emotions, how to deal with loss, how to deal with when our career suddenly boom, is gone or when we get an accident. How to deal with that? We don’t do that. And neither did I when I lost my wife because she was schizophrenic and she kissed her kids goodbye just before jumping down from eight stories. That is the terror in this beautiful person, beautiful woman. And then still doing that. Who does that? That is something we are not prepared for yet. It is part of life. Because it is part of life. I had to find ways to deal with the loss of the love of my life, and be the father. Without money to support my kids, I had nothing. So then I began to go into the icy water which made that mental agony, that emotional agony, go away. Because when you go into the cold, you cannot think. You got to survive. But that opened up a door of taking away that mental agony. And so my healing was able to start. And I always say, my children make me survive, but the cold really healed me.
Phil Stieg: The thing that strikes me about your method is the simplicity. As you say for the beginner taking a cold shower in the morning is the beginning but then you spend a lot of time talking about appropriate breathing mechanisms that then leads you to a focused mind or as you say, finding your soul tell me a little bit about the breathing mechanisms that you use
Wim Hof: The breathing mechanisms are able through the specific manipulation of the breath of the biochemistry inside alkalizing the blood so much that the breathing trigger is able to be suppressed, say for minutes on time and anybody can do this by which the deeper brain suddenly is activated to shoot out adrenaline. Spiking adrenaline twice as much as a person who is going into its first bungee jump in fear. And that is what this breathing exercise does.
And that in general, we have lost in our society. We have alienated so much from danger that we live in comfort. And by going into the cold, you reinstall this mechanism by which it is able to act in any case of danger. Because you become connected neurologically with the deepest of the brain, the adrenal axis, the hypothalamus period, gray, all these areas, the deep brain, they are able to be accessed by going regularly into the cold. And back then, 46 years ago, I went in for the first time and my gut feeling said this is it. A deep connection to a deeper physiology. That is my soul.
Phil Stieg: That’s what I wanted to get into. You go into it in your book, in terms of primitive person kind was more exposed to the fight or flight activity which involves hyperventilation, which, as you say, drives off the CO2 and makes you more alkaline. But in addition to that, you note that it elevates the oxygen levels in your blood which is then taken to the muscles and makes your muscles more capable of running or fighting. So I get all of those positive things from the breathing exercises and the hyperventilation makes clear sense to me. Explain to me briefly the benefit of being in ice water. Because somebody hears this, they’re going there’s no way I’m jumping in ice water for more than 5 seconds. What’s good about it?
Wim Hof: First of all, we have to acknowledge in our society, the western society killer number one is cardiovascular related diseases and that is the vascular system connected to our heart. The vascular system is like 125,000 km, like 70,000 miles in every person. It contains millions of little muscles. When you go into the cold and finally those millions of little muscles, they contract heavily to protect the whole body temperature.
Phil Stieg: The muscles and the blood vessels. Yes?
Wim Hof: Yes, the endothelium. And thus it is exercise. What we do by dressing up always is actually the muscular tone of the endothelium that is not exercised ever and the muscle that is not trained becomes weaker. And who’s going to pay for it? That is the heart. It begins to beat more per minute and that is a signal of stress because normally only in stress, in danger, the heart rate goes up to make the glucose from the liver and the adrenaline shoot out through the blood circulating system faster. And now we are all the time in stress.
Phil Stieg: The point though we’ve become so much more sedentary and that’s why our blood vessels aren’t contracting. Is this kind of an easy way to get our muscles to activate, ie, Jumping into ice cold or taking a cold shower. I can’t believe that somebody like you doesn’t exercise very regularly as well. So is it a combination of the three-pillar method of Wim HOF but also the other healthy components of life? Regular exercise, good diet, good sleep, et cetera?
Wim Hof: Yeah, all of them contribute of course. By going into the ice you also learn it’s a new dimension for our modern style of life. You see somebody sitting in the ice, you think he is not moving but internally he has to move enormously to withstand the impact of the cold. So the functionality of the system becomes a whole lot better.
I’m training very good sports people and they become a lot better just by sitting in icy water because then the functionality to stay warm exerts a different kind of mechanistic activity inside the body that makes us internally very strong. And it’s only logical.
Phil Stieg: You’ve also done some other extreme things. As I understand. You’ve run across the Sahara Desert with no water. So this is not only about cold in my mind, but it’s also you’ve done it in heat. So it’s about mind control. Correct?
Wim Hof: Oh, it is. And nothing but that.
Phil Stieg: What I’m wondering is how did you run across the Sahara with no water? I mean at some point your muscles are using water. You must have gotten dehydrated. What did you do there? I’m curious.
Wim Hof: Yeah, Once you go into the cold, it adapts. First you get a decrease of temperature all over. But then, the adaptive power of the body suddenly is able to respond. So in that case, it’s the intercostal muscle activity producing more energy. In the desert, it’s the other way around. It’s the cooling system. Cooling the core body temperature – that is the blood temperature of the liver, lungs and the heart. It’s cooling it down. And how does it cool down? We have these coolants in our blood and they are only able to be activated at a time when there is a stressful situation like that going on.
When I feel I can do something, when an idea comes to me, then I expose my body. Later on, like in two months or something, because I first got an idea. I see, I can make that happen. Then I take two months to have the body adapt to the final goal, which is in the end, reflection, a mirror of my mental intention, and then see that it is happening.
And this is what I did every time, with every challenge. I felt, hey, I can do this. Then my mind is set. I let my mind rule over my body to do what is necessary, because the mind knows better what to do with the upcoming situation. It knows more.
Phil Stieg: It’s probably important to emphasize also that you’re not advocating this for everybody, that some person with terrible heart disease or lung disease shouldn’t start jumping into ice water without the guidance of a physician. In that regard, even you have had some close calls.
Wim Hof: Yeah, I almost died once. A couple of times, actually. But a person who is looking toward what is life and death all about? How far can I go? It’s mostly those are people who know their limits, who know how far they can go. Still, unexpectedly, if I find myself under a meter of ice in my shorts, in icy water somewhere, lost my vision because the cornea froze and I can’t find the hole, that’s a close call. That’s a real close call where I cannot find the hole. I’m only breath hold and I don’t see. In that moment, for example, I was really without the agony of trauma. I was not in too stressed. I was in control. And that was amazing. You cannot find in books. You can only find that when you try to find how far can I go, what challenge do I take? People take challenges all the time in life is full of challenges, and I take them deliberately and then getting into those situations. When finally I got back beyond the water, I knew at that instant moment I had conquered the fear of death.
(Interstitial Theme Music)
Narrator: While some may immerse themselves in the cold in search of spiritual transformation, for others there’s a much “warmer” route to finding their souls – by literally warming their soles. It’s the ancient tradition of “firewalking”.
The origins of firewalking date back millennia, and can be found in ancient traditions of China, South Asia, Eastern Europe and across the Pacific islands. It is rooted in the belief of mind over matter – that through intense preparation and mental focus — your mind can protect you from being burned as you walk across a bed of hot coals.
In Ancient Rome, firewalkers were revered. Pliny the Elder tells us that at the yearly sacrifice to Apollo, “anyone who could walk over a charred pile of logs without being scorched would enjoy an exemption from military service and all other burdens.”
In the 1970’s a modern version of firewalking became popular in (where else?) California. Firewalking was touted as a transformative exercise for everyone from new age seekers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery to high-end corporate employees on team-building weekend retreats.
Loring Danforth at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine explains that firewalking has nothing to do with mind over matter – It’s a matter of density.
Loring Danforth: The best example to illustrate why people can walk on fire and not get burned is to think about a stove at 500 degrees. And, if I open the stove and reach in with my hand and touch the air inside the stove, I don’t get burned because my hand is dense and heavy compared to the air, and so the air doesn’t heat up my hand. I don’t get burned.
If however, I were to touch the metal in the stove I’d get burned right away because the metal conducts heat better than air does and so heats up my finger better than air does and burns it.”
Narrator: One key to firewalking is the kind wood you use to make the charcoal – the kind that doesn’t burn all that hot and that cools off relatively quickly. Also, if you do it right, your feet aren’t in contact with the coals for long. Do it wrong, or use the wrong fuel, and you’ll earn yourself a trip to the nearest emergency room. Please don’t try this at home…
Nevertheless, Danforth, says that scientific explanations do not debunk or diminish or invalidate the value of the ritual. He posits that the act of facing your fears by walking barefoot over hot coals can have the power to affirm your life.
So remember – Hot or cold, it’s always a good idea to put your best foot forward…
Phil Stieg: The clinical situations where you state that your method is beneficial arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease all are involved with the body’s immune system. So let’s take an example. Let’s use an example of arthritis. What have you done with them and then what have they reported to you in terms of benefit?
Wim Hof: Arthritis – instead of not going into the cold, they go into the cold. They change that concept and that the cold is bad for people with arthritis. There was this guy who was being recommended by somebody to go to my weekend retreat. And he was very doubtful about it all. Severe arthritis. Knuckles really like this, who didn’t do his work anymore, couldn’t make love and all those things. I mean, he was a motorcyclist. He couldn’t drive the motorcycle no more. I said, Hey, Hank, (that was the guy’s name), how many pushups they do? And he said, Really? Maybe one, maybe two. That’s all because it’s too painful for my joints to do that.
And I said, Tomorrow you will do 40 pushups. We had a beer together and talked about it. And he said, Oh, yeah, we’re not going to. So, okay, do this breathing. And he began to do the breathing. Pull in, let it go, blowing off the carbon dioxide. And do it 30 times. Now stop. Now you go do push ups. No breathing. He did 40 pushups, no pain. 40 pushups, no pain.
He was so flabbergasted. Later when we did the ice bath, he jumped in like a dolphin. I mean, not having faith in this, being doubtful and all was completely reversed. And now he takes hundreds of people into the ice bath. He organizes every winter big immersions for hundreds of people. He is able to go motorcycling, making the love and doing his job.
Phil Stieg: (laugh) Leading a normal life that he didn’t have before. So I have to ask you a really hard question. When you first started financial times were hard and you were scrapping around trying to make a living and supporting your family. What do you say to that person that’s grunting it out day in and day out? Where do you and how do you make the time to pursue the Wim Hof method?
Wim Hof: It actually takes relatively very little time. And in one day a person can make a much deeper connection within himself to regulate his mood to control the immune system a lot better and his energy levels.
Phil Stieg: Give me an idea then, if somebody does your method, how much time in a day does it take?
Wim Hof: It takes about 20 minutes of breathing, which alkalizes the blood and the PH levels go way up.
Phil Stieg: And then the cold shower in the morning. So fundamentally, if somebody spends 25 minutes in a day, they can derive the benefits of your method.
Wim Hof: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Phil Stieg: Twenty minutes a day and you can change your life – that’s not asking too much of somebody I don’t think…
Wim Hof: It really is so, yeah.
Phil Stieg: Is the goal of your teaching in these courses you set up, is it the ultimate goal of finding your soul?
Wim Hof: That is a beautiful question. It is absolutely finding your soul, your purpose, your destiny. That’s what makes you deeply calm and deeply activated within. That’s what makes you flow every day. Happy, strong and healthy. That is what I want to bring. Nothing abstract – just be happy, strong and healthy. The rest is bullshit. Like you get the tools to tap into your hormonal system, your immune system, your cardiovascular system. And with that you get autonomy. You learn to regulate your mood, you learn to bring down inflammation, to increase energy levels. So there it is. That’s what it is.
Phil Stieg: That’s also the beauty of your psychology is that the society has told us that we need too many things around us. You obviously lead a very simple, straightforward. Obviously, like you said, this is eventually about finding your soul and controlling the way your mind works. Does that process occur during the breathing exercises? Are the breathing exercises a form of meditation and mental work or is the mind control a separate component?
Wim Hof: We are all born with the ability to control our bodies through our mind. Yet we do not exercise it and then we lose it and then we become dependent. But once you become in control of the endocrine system, the hormonal system, and that’s what this method does, your happiness, your endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, cannabinoids, opioids — they get within your control. And so a person who is controlling all that is able to select what he wants during the day.
I’m a happy person. I’m a very alive, spirited person every day. I can choose therefore, simply by my will. And then I say, Philip, this is very important; A happy man doesn’t go to war. A happy man is not into possession. That’s why I’m straightforward, sober living. I just want to be happy, strong and healthy, and I’m in charge of that.
Phil Stieg: I would imagine the most fulfilling component of your life’s work is seeing people apply your method and the transformation that occurs. That’s got to be incredibly positive for you.
Wim Hof: Yes. Once I see people getting so much better out of the darkness because of having lived for, say, years into the darkness called the depression, and they get out of it, and they sent emails about it or spontaneous remissions with all kinds of diseases, then of course, that enlightens my soul, absolutely! Life should be lived not to be penalized by whatever. We are built hardwired to tackle any stressors in our lives, only we have to reconnect with our inner nature.
Phil Stieg: I couldn’t agree more. We just have to get people to accept that responsibility. So, Wim Hof. This has been an incredible hour talking with you about your method. I would urge people to go online and find your methods. I know that the things you. espouse and preach have had positive effects on people. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Wim Hof: Thank you! Thank You Phillip!