Turns Out, Wim “The Ice Man” Hof Might Be Crazy, But You Might Be Too; How Breathwork and Cold Therapy Changed My Mind About the Power of Mental Training.
Robert Van der Heyden was running a CrossFit gym, coaching for 14 hours a day, and raising a family with small children. He was tired, frustrated, stressed, and taking handfuls of supplements just to sleep each night, often unsuccessfully.
Something had to change. He tried yoga and meditation. No dice. Desperate for a change, he thought he’d try something drastic: the Wim Hof Method.
What the Heck is the Wim Hof Method?
Wim Hof, known as The Iceman, has been making a name for himself in the extreme health realm since 1995. Wim Hof holds the world record for longest time submerged in ice without his body temp changing, making it almost two hours.
He’s climbed Mt. Everest in a pair of shorts, ran a marathon in the desert without drinking any water, and in 2011 was intentionally injected with a bacterial endotoxin to prove that he could use his specialized techniques to control his immune system.
Despite naysayers, his work has continuously been backed by science like the "Brain Over Body" study, a collegiate peer-reviewed study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure.
The Wim Hof Method changed Robert Van der Heyden’s life.
I first met Robert when I interviewed him for a podcast. Van der Heyden is the only certified Wim Hof Instructor in Orange County, CA. He also runs the OC Ice Club in Costa Mesa, CA. I made no attempt to hide my suspicion that breathing techniques were a little “woo woo” for me. But everything that Robert had to say about breathwork and cold therapy resonated with me.
“At the pinnacle of gym ownership, I was at peak level of stress…when I was researching stress management,” Van der Heyden told me on that episode of Fresh Cup of Fitness.“I thought meditation doesn’t work for me, but I still realized I needed a stress relief tool or this ship is going to sink fast...so that’s when I came across Wim Hofonline again…It was the first time I actually fell asleep without supplements. Just like how I found CrossFit, I realized if this helps me it might help lots of other people too.”
I had a revelatory moment. Robert said, “I was treating my family like a sales transaction. I was still coaching them. And so, one of the pivotal moments of me changing the way my life was going, was I finally found that I was more present. I wasn’t thinking about five steps ahead, I wasn’t thinking about business for the coming day, no longer was everything a checklist. I actually could enjoy this moment, versus okay you’ve got twenty minutes of my time and then I need to put you to bed.”
I was shook, as the young ones say.
“I want all of our listeners to know that I am currently avoiding eye contact with Robert because he is speaking to my soul right now,” I said.
So, at the end of the interview, Robert offered an open invitation to join him in a private session on breathwork, mindset, and cold therapy. And then he held up until I relented.
Still, I walked into Left Coast CrossFit in Laguna Niguel that cold, rainy, February morning a very leery participant.
The Cold Is Merciless, But Righteous as Well.
Much like Robert’s path to breathwork, Wim Hof found his calling through necessity. Before becoming known as The Ice Man, Wim Hof was a father that needed help too. “I was a father of four kids and bringing them up alone, because my wife accidented in 95…sadness is a deep trigger. Where I got peace was in these breathing exercises. Swimming outside in the cold. The cold is merciless, but righteous as well,” Hof recalls.
I reached out to two of my bravest friends, competitive CrossFit athlete Amanda Hardeman and fellow coach Amanda Ferguson-George. Robert texted us that morning to eat something, bring a towel, and wear something warm over our swimsuit.
Hilarious texts in our group chat ensued. Many GIFs were exchanged. None can be repeated, but being good sports, we all showed up.
First, we did a performance test for CO2 tolerance. Surprisingly, I won. I was quite pleased, until Robert told us to never view breathwork as a competition.
Next, Robert coached us through the main components of controlled breathwork, having us all lay down on a yoga mat, with an abmat as a pillow and a foam roller under our knees. My shoulders and ribs, almost instantly, began cramping like crazy. “It’s because you slouch too much, “ Robert shot back without hesitation. (Mom, if you are reading this, here is your lifelong validation.)
We moved to a much quieter, very tidy, and highly organized space in the gym: the children’s room. I was nervous about this part, probably more than the cold therapy. I am not a “breathing method” type of person. I despise yoga, the thought of it makes me shake and the actual practice of it angers me. I cannot meditate. I fidget. I need to know where the emergency exit is at all times. If your plane is crashing, pray that I am next to you. I can do all three oxygen masks at once.
Speaking of Oxygen...
He put on music and a phone to time our sequences. I was relieved to discover that he was going to guide us through the whole thing. When he said that sometimes emotions come up and people cry, reminding us that we are all friends and this is a safe space, I almost nope’d on out of there.
But once I started following his lead through the exercise, I couldn’t help but feel the effects. I didn’t think I could keep up with his lead, but by the third or fourth round of inhaling, I had synced up with his time. I had forgotten that other people were even in the room.
A few moments in, my shoulders and ribs had stopped cramping, my body was tingling, and my hands and feet were cold. I felt like my whole body was vibrating. Every time he asked us to hold our breath at the end of a cycle, I made it much longer than I anticipated. The urge to gulp air as fast as possible never surfaced. I needed a few moments before standing up, as I was a little light headed and giggly.
But the Cold is Also Patient.
The dreaded ice bath. When it finally came time to get into the ice, I was voluntold to go first. “You guys get to watch her go first, since she's the reason you all are here,” Robert laughed.
Robert explained to us exactly what would happen to our body in the ice. We would have to get in swiftly, no tip-toeing in and letting parts of your body acclimate. Once you are in, get all the way in. For us, sitting in the upright fetal position was suggested, with our fists under our armpits. If this was not sustainable, we could sit with our hands out of the bath.
The whole time, Robert would talk us through the process, reminding us that he is right there next to us, that we are okay. Eventually, once we felt warm or we were smiling, it was time to get out. The desired stimulus had been met. Otherwise, our goal was to get to two minutes.
I scoffed. Two minutes, okay.
I should probably mention a few things here. I take really hot showers. As in, there will be no more hot water for the entire house after I shower hot showers. I sometimes shower at our CrossFit box simply because the showers there get scalding hot. The hot tub at our community pool is just “meh” for me, and the pool is frigid all year long. I wash our dishes with no gloves.
I really like to be warm. So this felt impossible to me.
I was shivering before I even entered. But I did it, I got in and I got all the way in as instructed. My immediate reaction was to get the hell right back out, stat. But I didn’t. I remembered that I literally just learned how to breathe 10 minutes ago and I didn’t think I could do that but I did. And Robert did just what he said he would do, he stayed right there the whole time, talking me through it. Reminding me I was safe, I was in control, that I was okay.
It hurt. It was cold. My head felt like it was in a vice. And then suddenly, I was fine.
I wasn’t cold, not at all. My face relaxed, I wasn’t making weird pain noises, and I actually smiled. He had told us that would happen, the smiling. I doubted him.
Then I heard him say, “Congratulations, Jessica. You made it to two minutes.”
I couldn’t believe it. I made it to two minutes, and I was warm and smiling. I was my own impossibility.
Wim Hof didn’t become the Ice Man because he thought it would be a fun time. Hof became the Ice Man because he needed something to get him through the hardest parts of life.
If you can sit in ice for two minutes, you can adapt to the fact that your wife is gone.
If you can climb Everest in shorts, you can raise four boys alone.
If you can control your immune system, you can be strong and present, mentally and physically, at all times.
And if you can train your body to shut down the reptilian brain, to dampen the flight or fight response, then you can train your body to stop overworking under strain.
You can train your body to perform under controlled trauma: Trauma of competing in your sport, of raising children alone, of getting through a divorce, of running a business, of burying a parent, of battling a disease, of bankruptcy, of disappointment, of living a life that demands you be present.
I take an ice bath every other Sunday now. Because I know I can.
Photography by Timothy Chaplin