For our latest issue, the “Iceman” shares how the secret to many of life’s maladies can be found in a freezing-cold lake.
By Emily Jensen.
It’s not often that Joe Rogan, Gwyneth Paltrow, and researchers from locations including San Francisco and the Netherlands share a common interest. But then that’s the power of Wim Hof, the 62-year-old Dutch extreme athlete, whose ability to withstand freezing temperatures and icy water while wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts has earned him international media attention and scientific scrutiny. But the “Iceman,” as he is also known, is on a mission to show he is nothing special: he believes anyone can do what he can.
His power, as Hof describes it, is not some superhuman strength, but his ability to influence his body through his mind. “You don’t need to do so much. You just need to change the paradigm. And the paradigm is the power of your mind,” he tells Mission over a Zoom call from his home in the Netherlands. “I’m able to show within brain scans how, just by thought, I make my skin temperature not go down while being exposed to stressful, cold water. And that is dealing with physical stress just by the intention of my mind. That is the way people should be schooled.”
His journey, he says, started when he was 12 and began searching for deeper meaning in life through books and philosophy. “When I was 17, I found cold water. And that then quenched directly my deep thirst, which was awakened through all this debate in philosophy and searching. And suddenly I went into the cold and I felt, ‘This is it,’” Hof says.
Since then, he has set world records for his ability to remain submerged in ice water, attempted to climb Mount Everest in a pair of shorts and sandals (frostbite on his foot got the better of him at 7,400 meters), and codified his philosophy into the Wim Hof Method (WHM). Local and international television attention came first, before scientists began asking how this man could withstand such extreme environments. “They thought, what this man is doing is not possible, but he’s a man and he’s doing it,” says Hof.
In 2011, researchers at Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands injected Hof with E coli, and saw that he was able to suppress symptoms that would normally appear after being introduced to such a bacteria. Scientists were skeptical that the findings revealed anything more than Hof was a physical anomaly. Three years later, he taught volunteers to follow his method of breathwork and meditation to influence their immune systems, and scientists found they were also able to suppress symptoms after being introduced to the same endotoxins.
Researchers caution that more data is needed to prove the widespread efficacy of such an approach, and therein lies Hof’s ultimate mission. He is not interested in an adrenaline hit or the alpha-male bravado of rushing into a freezing lake (even though that may well be part of his methodology’s public appeal). He believes his practice of breathwork, exposure to cold water and mindfulness can actually help the body fight off illness and provide mental stability.
“The benefits of a cold shower are enormous,” Hof explains. “As a foundation layer for every day, it makes the heart rate go down 20 to 30 beats a minute. And then the energy will go up because the millions of little primitive muscles in the vascular system are being stimulated. They help the blood flow go through.”
The Radboud study has been followed by experiments carried out with Detroit’s Wayne State University School of Medicine, where in 2018, researchers studied the Iceman’s response to hypothermia-inducing temperatures and found the WHM was potentially able to produce a stress-induced analgesic response to the extreme cold. More recently, he has collaborated with researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, to investigate how to use the WHM to reduce stress, though research is currently on pause due to the pandemic.
Scientists may still require more rigorous proof to support the method, but for its devotees, their own experiences are evidence enough. Former communications director Asher Packman credits the WHM with stabilizing his health after being diagnosed with a rare blood cancer, and is now a certified instructor of the method. After learning Hof’s breathing techniques and jumping into a 44F Lake Tahoe for an episode of Netflix’s The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow, Goop’s executive editor Kate Wolfson called the moment a turning point in her life. Beyond the purported physical health benefits of Hof’s techniques, there seems to be a clear emotional and mental connection for those who believe in the benefits as well. Both Hof and Packman have lost loved ones to suicide, while Wolfson describes herself as being debilitated by anxiety. The exposure to cold water has helped them not only lower their heart rate, but also find new emotional and mental clarity.
“We live in a society where feeling is something a lot of people are deprived of,” Hof says. “Pure feeling, just being, and the sense of survival, the sense of the purpose of life itself. It’s a new paradigm of completely new powers and new perspectives of what humans are able to do at will, within their own body and mind.”
Hof feels certain, however, that scientific research will come to back up what he already knows. “A person who goes regularly into cold water does not become sick. It should have already been investigated or researched a long time ago. But it has not. That’s why I go on and on and on.”
Can a cold shower really do so much? If you’re curious, there’s only one way to find out. “Feeling is understanding,” Hof says. “So in favor of talking about it and reading about it and all those things, put the books aside and practice.”
Image credit: Innerfire BV