The Wim Hof Breathing Method

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

N writes: “I recently came across a group of Catholics, who…spoke of Wim Hof and this breathing/meditation technique. I attempted internet searches to explore whether or not this has any spiritual grounding whatsoever, to no avail. (Also, truly, what sources does one trust nowadays?). Can you please provide me with any information?  These techniques set off many alarms within yet without much knowledge I cannot speak on the topic.”

These are good questions to raise, especially today when the New Age has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives. The Wim Hof breathing method is no exception. It is a combination of breathing techniques, yoga, meditation, and exposure to cold.

For those who never heard of it, the Wim Hof method of breathing allegedly helps one to develop command over the body through the use of specific breathing techniques. Once mastered, these techniques allow a person to gain mastery over various systems of the body, such as the nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems.

The method was developed by Wim Hof, 62, aka The Ice Man, a Dutch motivational speaker who was born into a Catholic working-class family in the Dutch city of Sittard in 1959. As researcher Scott Carney, who actually attended one of Hof’s brutal training camps, writes: “While the rest of the Hof family learned Catholic liturgy, Wim became fascinated with Eastern teachings, memorizing parts of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and scouring the Bhagavad Gita and Zen Buddhism for wisdom.”

His wanted to explore the connections between body and mind but wasn’t finding exactly what he was looking for until one day, at the age of 20, while walking alone on a cold winter morning in Amsterdam, he noticed a thin coating of ice on the canal. Wondering what it would be like to jump in, he decided to strip off this clothes and find out for himself.

Ice Man being photographed in tub of ice during  demonstration in Rotterdam.  (Photo by Aad Villerius, Creative Commons license 2.0)



Carney recounts what Hof experienced: “The shock was immediate, he says, but ‘the feeling wasn’t of cold; it was something like tremendous good. I was in the water only a minute, but time just slowed down. It felt like ages.’ A wash of endorphins cruised through his system, and the high lasted through the afternoon. He went on to repeat the exercise every day since. ‘The cold is my teacher,’ he says.”

Eventually, a breathing technique emerged that mimics the rapid breaths people take when diving into icy water which are similar to the breaths women take during childbirth. In both cases the body switches to an instinctual reaction of human resistance to extreme heat and cold which evolved over time.

“While technology has made us more comfortable, the underlying biology is still there, and the key to unlocking our lost potential lies in re-creating the sorts of harsh experiences our ancestors would have faced,” Carney writes, which explains why Hof has used his breathing method to break world records for endurance while hiking through the Arctic tundra in nothing but shorts and hiking boots.

Carney attended one of Hof’s rather brutal training sessions where he described the Ice Man as a difficult figure to dissect. “On one level he speaks in a familiar creole of New Age mumbo jumbo. There’s a spiel about universal compassion and connection to divine energies.” On another level, his training “aims to create a wedge between the body’s internal programming and external pressures in order to force the body to cede control to the conscious mind. He is a hacker, tweaking the body’s programming to expand its capabilities.”

The method Hof teaches sounds simple enough. It begins by assuming a meditation posture such as sitting or lying down or any position that enables the lungs to expand freely.

The next step is to clear the mind by focusing fully on one’s breath while inhaling through the nose or mouth and exhaling forcefully through the mouth. “Fully inhale through the belly, then chest and then let go unforced,” the website explains. “Repeat this 30 to 40 times in short, powerful bursts. You may experience light-headedness, and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet [hyperventilation]. These side effects are completely harmless.” After the last exhalation, the person is instructed to inhale as deeply as possible, then let the air out and stop breathing, holding the breath until one feels the urge to take a breath again.

Hof makes all kinds of claims about the benefits of this breathing method, but what does the science say?

According to Healthline, more research is needed to determine if the effects of the Wim Hof method  are due to breathing exercises, meditation, or cold exposure; however, it does seem to affect brain and metabolic activity, inflammation, and pain.

Participants in a 2014 study performed breathing techniques such as consciously hyperventilating and retaining the breath, meditating, and  immersing themselves in ice cold water. In this study, the participants used the “third eye meditation” technique which utilizes visualizations aimed at relaxation during their training by Hof. Results showed that the sympathetic nervous system and the immune system can be voluntarily influenced.

A more recent study in 2017 found that Hof was able to tolerate extreme cold by creating an artificial stress response in his body. “Scientists believe the brain rather than the body helped Hof to respond to cold exposure. The study suggests that people can learn to control their autonomic nervous system to bring about similar changes,” Healthline reports.

It’s important to note that this method of breathing is not without its risks. People with a history of respiratory problems such as asthma, stroke, high or low blood pressure, or who are on any medications, should speak with their health care provider before beginning this practice.

The hyperventilation frequently experienced during this practice can also pose serious risks to practitioners.

This article appearing in a Dutch newspaper reports four deaths that were allegedly associated with the method which include three men who drowned in a pool and another man who was actively trying to break his own records of breath-holding.

Our recommendation is that one should use discretion when becoming involved with the Wim Hof breathing method due to its association with non-Christian meditation practices and the health risks to certain individuals.

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