The Visceral Experience of Wim Hof Breathing

With a simple technique you can change your mindset and achieve extraordinary feats

By Ben Callif

Wim Hof’s breathing technique comes with some unbelievable benefits, like resistance to extreme temperatures and conscious control over the activity of the innate immune system. And he can teach it to anyone through the internet.

The frontiers of conscious experience are a perpetually under-explored territory. A great deal of human progress has been made specifically to isolate ourselves from discomfort and the unknown. We build houses to protect us from the hazards of the elements, we live in cities to isolate us from the dangers of nature, and we wear clothes to insulate us from the pain of the cold. While all these things have the benefit of separating us from the perils of the external world, they also disconnect us from something very important: the limits of our own minds. We are physically capable of extraordinary feats, but our mental boundaries keep our potential suppressed — the over-protectiveness of our world is hampering the very ingenuity and exploration that enabled it. Because of this, we take our relative safety for granted and rarely explore the fringes of our own consciousness.

The imagery of “consciousness expansion” belies the true nature of spiritual betterment. As Alan Watts said: “…Enlightenment is like discovering an immeasurably precious jewel in one’s littlest acts and lowest thoughts. One discovers it where all jewels are first found — in the depths of the earth or lying in the mud.”

The phrase “consciousness expansion” evokes brightly colored imagery that connects the human mind to the outer edges of the universe. But, to me, expanding my consciousness means something very different. When I explore the inner reaches of my self I often look for something very specific and unappealing: a feeling of discomfort. Voluntarily seeking out what makes us uncomfortable is practice for a time when we will have to face discomfort without our consent. Without this preparation, we will be mentally unprepared when the inevitable descends upon us.

For example, my fellow Midwesterners tend to be quite cynical about our winters. And while I’ve always found that cynicism a bit ridiculous (move somewhere else if you hate it that much), I have never felt any love for the cold… That is, until I tried Wim Hof breathing. This technique has completely changed the way I live in Wisconsin. Wim Hof has been dubbed “The Iceman” because he’s pulled some absurd stunts, like running a barefoot half marathon through the snow or climbing Mount Everest in nothing but a pair of shorts. Despite how crazy these feats sound, Wim Hof has pioneered a simple breathing technique that allows anyone to access this practically super-powered level of cold resistance. I had my doubts when I heard about Wim Hof breathing and its fantastical health benefits, but I just had to try it for myself. The visceral experience of this breathing method is like nothing I’ve ever encountered before, and its after-effects are truly incredible. So let me tell you firsthand what it’s like to try his breathing technique.

Wim Hof loves a good swim under the ice. If you try his breathing method, you will too! Image Credit: Flickr

Breathing Like Wim Hof

I find a comfortable seated position and start breathing in and out in a quick and stilted pattern, like an intentional hyperventilation. I take deep breaths in and shallow exhalations out; before all the breath can leave my lungs, I restart the cycle by breathing in as deeply as I can. When I first started doing these exercises, I would count until I hit 40 full cycles of breath. But after a year of practice I simply breathe in rapid succession — inhale deeply, exhale briefly — until my extremities begin to tingle and I feel somewhat lightheaded (don’t try this unless you’re sitting or lying down). I breathe for a few more cycles before I take one long exhale and fully release the air from my lungs. Then, I stop. With empty lungs and a tingling body, I just close my eyes and stop. No inhalation, no movement, no nothing.

Rembrandt’s, “The Philosopher in Mediation”

As I hold my breath and sit with my eyes closed, my mind becomes a void. Through this stillness of thought I realize that my internal dialogue is usually entrained into a time-locked pattern by my regular cycle of breathing. Without the rhythm of my breathing, my mind feels a strange sense of freedom. But then, an overwhelming wave of a different rhythm hits me —suddenly, the beating of my heart becomes very apparent. As my internal awareness slowly acclimates to the all-encompassing pounding of my heart, I start to notice things about my body that I hadn’t before: a tenseness in my shoulder, an unusual feeling behind my eyes, a strong desire to swallow (actually, I always feel a strong need to swallow at this point during the exercise — I find it subsides if I resist it for long enough). I’ve been holding my breath for approximately one minute, and I don’t feel a need to inhale. My mind has relaxed into a breathless peace.

The enhanced awareness of my body quickly turns from sensation to movement. Parts of me begin to twitch uncontrollably, but not uncomfortably. It’s kind of satisfying to feel contractions in small muscles that usually operate at a level outside of my conscious access. This lasts for about 40 seconds before I’m overwhelmed by a new sensation: a strong desire to breathe. It constricts my perception from my whole body to just my lungs. My diaphragm contracts, pulling me inward and downward as it tries to restart a normal cycle of breath. But I fight it. It’s only been one minute and 40 seconds, and I know I can hold my breath for longer. After another 10 seconds or so, other parts of my body start twitching strongly enough that I begin to notice them over the feeling of my lungs. I continue to fight the need for breath. The longest I’ve ever maintained this state was 20 additional seconds, at which point I had been holding my breath for two minutes and 15 seconds.

At the end of the Wim Hof exercise, you exhale and then hold your breath. Over the course of ~six months I’ve increased the average time I can hold my breath from 80 seconds to 115 seconds. I’m certainly not Wim Hof, but with just a bit of practice I’m much better than average.

At two minutes without breath my gasp reflex kicks in, making me instinctively inhale. But, following this deep and satisfying inhalation, I don’t let the rhythm of breathing begin fully. I stop from exhaling as my body absorbs the oxygen from my now full lungs. A curious warmth spreads out in all directions from my sternum, up through my chest into my head, and down through my abdomen into my toes. I feel an extraordinary sharpness of awareness — an external and internal hyper-vigilance of sensation. As the warmth spreads to the edges of my body it recedes from my chest and gets replaced with a sharp coolness, like the feeling of menthol deep within my chest and throat. There’s a clarity in my breath that I didn’t notice prior to the exercise. I’m suddenly awake and focused, like I just had the best shot of espresso ever (or a very small hit of MDMA). I feel excellent as the intensity of the experience fades away, and the effects of Wim Hof breathing don’t end in the minutes or hours following exercise. My favorite benefit of the breathing — a perceptual tolerance to extreme cold — seems to last for several days.

Embrace the Cold Like a Warm Friend

The morning after the breathing exercise I step in the shower and begin my daily routine. As I shower, my internal monologue starts to resist the inevitable — it knows that as soon as I’m clean, I’m going to make the water as cold as it gets.

Hey man, you don’t have to do this.
There’s nothing wrong with a warm shower!
You can do it tomorrow — right now, let’s just enjoy the warmth.
Don’t turn the water cold, it’s gonna suck!
Just wait another couple minutes… please…

Image Credit: Andrew Seaman, Flickr

I ignore my own protestations and quickly turn the shower handle to make the water freezing cold. I always expect this step to be horribly uncomfortable. But, not only am I unfazed by the change in temperature, the freezing cold water actually feels good. Like, really good. So good that I start to turn in place to expose every part of my body to the cold. As the cold water pours over me, there’s an extremely weird tension between my expectation and the sensation — I know from past experiences that freezing cold water is supposed to feel terrible, but in this moment it actually feels awesome.

Image Credit: Imgur

Every time the water hits a new part of my body I can feel a localized contraction of my skin as it rapidly cools and tightens. It’s strange to be able to explore the sensation without the associated shivering or discomfort. I submerge my head and immediately feel my sinuses clear — I didn’t even know that my breath was restricted until it suddenly wasn’t. I give each part of my body one last taste of the cold before I turn the water off. As I step out of the shower I realize that I am extremely warm. Well, not my skin — I can see in the mirror that I’m bright red with goosebumps. But I have no internal evidence that I just took a freezing cold shower. My skin is so cold that my girlfriend shrieks when she touches my back. I tell her that she too can enjoy the cold if she does Wim Hof breathing exercises. She scoffs and says “hell no.”

When I first started taking cold showers I would set a timer to see how long I could handle the cold. It wasn’t more than a month before I could take an entire shower without any warm water at all. Now, I take ice baths, which are significantly more intense than a shower. I get a lot of skeptical looks when I tell people about this. But, it feels like a superpower when everyone around me is complaining about the cold and I don’t even notice it. Plus, the health benefits are amazing and fascinating — I may write an entire article about the biology, the neuroscience, and the physiological effects behind the Wim Hof method. I know that some of you are reading this and thinking to yourself “I don’t care what the benefits are — that’s crazy!” And I totally get it. If you told me a few years ago that I would willingly subject myself to freezing cold water (and actually enjoy it) I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. But there’s nothing quite so effective at dissolving doubts than a direct, deep, and visceral experience.

Chillin in the tub as the last of the ice melts. Image Credit: Taija Brown
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