What I learned from 9 months of doing the Wim Hof Breathing Method

What I learned from 9 months of doing the Wim Hof Breathing Method

More than a year ago, I decided to give the Wim Hof Method a try. I’d read a bit about his method in a magazine and I was instantly intrigued. Also known as the Ice Man for his almost super human feats in freezing conditions, he made some amazing claims about the health benefits that resulted from his methodology, from boosting immunity to relieving anxiety to curing disease.

I had a few health issues I was working to overcome, and this seemed like a straight forward process to potentially relieve them. But besides all that, I liked the guy. In the articles I’d read he was down to earth, funny and honest. With so many charlatans in the world claiming to have the fool proof plan to peace, happiness, good health, or a firm butt, it was refreshing to relate to someone who was truly genuine. He’d been through extremely challenging times in his life and, now in 60s, had plenty of wisdom to share. 

Best of all, it was free. All I needed was my breath and cold water. I watched a youtube video of him explaining his breath process in September 2019 and was shortly thereafter practicing his unique breath work three times per day (you can see him in action here). As a yoga practitioner and instructor, I was familiar with various forms of yogic breathing, and I’d also just finished reading the spectacular book on breath aptly called Breath by James Nestor. So, I needed no convincing on its power to transform the mind and the body. I was eager to dive even deeper to the potential benefits with the intense method led by Wim Hof. 

Wim Hof Breathing Method

Wim Hof advises you to lie down or sit with your back erect for the entire breathing practice. I tended to breathe in a seated position, although I did find lying on my back was slightly more effective. He also encourages you to do your first breathwork (or only one) of the day before eating or drinking. So, I made Wim Hof part of my morning routine. I would wake up, brush my teeth, put on a pot of coffee, then move to my couch to perform the WHM while my coffee brewed. I actually grew to really enjoy this regular routine, which is probably why I kept up the routine for about nine months, missing only rarely. 

The breathing, itself, can be intense at first. But once you get the rhythm of it, it feels very natural. The practice includes between 20 and 40 deep inhales. After each deep inhale through the nose or mouth (Wim Hof prefers mouth), you release the air in a quick but relaxed manner. No forcing, just releasing. It somewhat feels like hyperventilating, especially when you’re still getting used to it. But over time, the breathing feels more natural - relaxed but still with concerted effort. Once you reach your final inhale (I typically do between 30 and 40), it’s time to hold the breath. Hold it for as long as you can. I would always perform the entire practice  with my eyes closed and sink into the feeling inside my body. It’s a great opportunity to become aware of your heartbeat, your thoughts, and your overall physical experience. In fact, if you like meditating, this is sort of like an intense meditation experience. 

When you can’t hold your breath any longer (preferably before you think you’re going to faint), release the breath. Then hold for 10 seconds. You’ve just finished round one. The ideal practice includes three rounds, and more if you feel so inclined. I typically completed three rounds and occasionally did more if I found myself especially anxious or stressed about something in my life. The breathing definitely relaxed my mind. I would feel a sort of floating sensation once the three rounds were complete and was always in the ideal state for an extended meditation period, which I regularly did. It was a beautiful way to start my day. 

I should add that I also relied on the WHM app. At the time when I started, the app was free - the pandemic was raging and the world felt especially stressful. So, the Wim Hof team (which is made up of his kids) offered much of the app’s features for free. I loved the app and I highly recommend it for anyone just starting the WHM. 

The app includes a fun interactive breathing feature that has Wim Hof count your breaths in and out up to 40. I loved to hear his relaxed, deep Nordic voice that offered bits of advice and motivation: “Make it circular.” Upon the final breath, the timer starts so you can keep track of how long you’re able to hold your breath, which is fun to compare over time. At the time when I was using it, the app encouraged users to earn badges for reaching certain milestones. These badges kept me at it in the first month when it felt like effort. Eventually, I stopped using the app because I no longer needed it, and I’d earned all the badges!

If you’re already familiar with the Wim Hof Method, you may be wondering about the cold water component. Did I not submerge myself in ice cold water, as well? I’ll get to that shortly. I did not do the cold showers initially. I absolutely hate the cold, so I never thought I’d try his cold water method. But eventually I did. And, I certainly recommend others give it a try too.

How I experienced the benefits of the Wim Hof Breathing Method

First, let me explain why I was inclined to practice this method in the first place. As mentioned earlier, I had some health issues and I was curious as to whether WHM would improve any of them. My most prevalent issue was general anxiety. I’ve suffered stomach aches my entire life. Not a big deal! Most of us get stressed out regularly. But, gosh, I was frustrated to still be dealing with this in my late 40s. Shouldn’t I have outgrown stomach aches by now? The days of getting yelled at by my parents were long gone. While my regular yoga, meditation and running helped, I still experienced stomach aches almost daily. I was open to giving Wim Hof a shot, too. He also promised his method could build immunity (hello COVID days) and increase white blood cell count. I had chronic low white blood cells which had all my doctors continually concerned about my health. Could his method change this? I was eager to find out. 

The key to experiencing the benefits, explains Wim Hof is consistency. The breathing needed to be performed at least once per day, preferably in the morning on an empty stomach. While at first, I was breathing three times per day, that quickly dwindled to once per day over the course of nine months. 

I can’t say I always felt like doing it, but the immediate and longer term effects kept me at it. After completing three rounds, my head felt light and I experienced tremendous clarity. No irritating thoughts rushing in and out that might kill my Zen Wim Hof vibe. The ears were usually ringing, which is normal, and I found that helped to create the meditative state.

The longer term effects were even more amazing. Anxiety? Gone. Within a month, I had no more stomach aches. My life had not miraculously changed in any way. I had the same stresses, so I couldn’t attribute the change to a more relaxing lifestyle. And, it was about midway through the pandemic; if anything the stress level would have been higher. My newfound freedom from anxiety-induced stomach aches was enough motivation to keep going. I also had much better sleeps! I fell asleep quickly and slept soundly every night. Previously, I had regular bouts of insomnia. 

About a month into the breathing, I got curious about the cold showers. I absolutely detest being cold. And, in my opinion, cold water is way worse than cold air. I won’t even jump in a pool if it’s less than 87 degrees F. By now, I’d read a lot more about the Ice Man and his crazy cold water submersions. I became intrigued by this. Not because I wanted to prove how tough I am. Please. I’ve given birth to three sons, raised them through toddlerhood and teenagehood. I’m as tough as I need to be. Why torture myself even more?

It was the health claims. This was my chance to see if I could overcome my chronic low white blood cell count and perhaps even overcome my autoimmune disorder (which thankfully has never presented any major symptoms). Here, the app was great motivation to continue with the cold showers. I wanted to earn as many badges as possible. The app encourages you to start small. Turn the shower water to cold and stand for just 10 seconds the first day, then increase the time at your own pace by adding 10 seconds every day or two, eventually getting up to one minute. The ideal scenario is to stay in the cold shower for at least two minutes. Or better yet, skip the shower and sit in a freezing cold tub of water if you can’t find an icy lake to jump into. No thank you. 

I didn’t have the courage or will power to last much longer than one minute. While my showers always started hot, I would conclude it with a cold spray for about a minute (I probably counted to 60 a little too fast some days). I’m not going to lie. It was painful. I never enjoyed the cold showers, even after doing it for five months almost daily. It did get easier to stand under cold spray for a minute, especially when I remember how I shivered uncontrollably with clenched teeth the first time I completed 10 seconds. So, the body does acclimatize to some degree. I think if I’d continued with the cold showers I would have become increasingly comfortable with the temperature change. 

So what happened? Was I cured? Why did I quit? I continued the cold showers through the freezing Canadian winter to ensure I was accruing whatever benefits I could before my next blood work appointment to measure my white blood cells. Needless to say, all that shivering did not have any influence over my white blood cell count or thyroid hormones. Damn. I was crestfallen and quit the cold method shortly thereafter. 

That being said, I recognize that I may have needed to expose my body to cold water for longer than my measly one minute. And, perhaps if I’d kept it up for an entire year, it would have changed my blood chemistry. I’ll never know. I can’t bear to take up that practice on a daily basis again.

I continue to practice Wim Hof Method when I need it

I also eventually quit practicing the breath work on a daily basis. I figured I could manage on my own after going stomach ache-free for so long. And I did, for awhile. But, sadly, the stomach aches did return. Not knowing what else to do, I returned to Wim Hof breathing and it didn’t take long to alleviate the anxiety yet again.

It’s been almost 2 years since I first experienced the WHM, and I still return to it when I feel anxiety take over my body. I also take cold showers once in a while. Something about those daily cold showers changed me, even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. During the five months of cold showers, my body felt, well, younger. It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s the only way to describe it. I also found the cold shower had a way of forcing me into the present moment like nothing else can.

If I entered the shower feeling hurt or stressed about something in my life, the shock of the cold water would force my mind into the here and now. My mind instantly cleared of any discomfort, I suppose because it was too focused on the discomfort of the body instead. In my opinion, it's much easier and more immediate than meditating if you’re looking for a practice that focuses the mind instantly into the now. Instant stress remover.

What I also love so much about WHM is that it’s damn simple. Today, there are millions of gurus, writers, workshop leaders dispensing advice on how to find peace and happiness. And, that’s all awesome. But, from my experience, the Wim Hof Method offers many of the same benefits of meditation, without the accompanying struggle of sitting in silence for 20 minutes observing (or fighting with) your thoughts.

It’s a physical, even strenuous practice that doesn’t require you to get out of your own head. It happens all on its own. Whether you’re doing the breath work or shivering under cold water, your mind has no space to wonder about whether your coworker is trying to steal your job, or your marriage is on the brink of divorce. It’s a good thing. Because we all need a break from our thoughts. So, my advice? If you want to enter into the zen zone real fast, go freeze your butt off and let your body naturally take over. 

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