| Jun 13, 2023

The Man, the Myth, and the Method: Wim Hof Is Changing the World!

The Iceman has become more cultural icon than wellness brand for his hugely popular combination of breathwork and cold exposure.

It might have been the first time Wim Hof ever wore anything resembling an insulated wetsuit. The Dutchman famous for swimming underneath ice for over 200 feet wearing only shorts was being loaded into a functional MRI machine outfitted in a special suit shot through with cold and hot water in five-minute intervals. The scientists from Michigan’s Wayne State University were scanning his brain for the effects of Hof’s trademark breathing technique on priming the body for cold exposure — certainly a new spin on proof of concept.

The results showed how Hof can hack his physiology to feel ecstatic when his body should have been feeling the shock of mild hypothermia. Hof called it mind over gray matter, though the researchers were more precise, finding it had to do with inhibiting brain signals and releasing the body’s natural painkillers: Brain over body

For the worldwide practitioners of the Wim Hof Method, however, the science of using short bursts of hormetic stress to induce an immune response only backs up what they have already experienced. Business leaders have hailed the combination of controlled hyperventilation, cold exposure, and willpower as helpful in avoiding burnout and improving cognitive function. In short: Greater stress resistance and a sharper mind.

The explosion in breathwork apps and influencers are testament to Hof’s decades-long dedication to taking human potential to the next level. Cold-plunge pools are in serious demand as people have become more receptive to Hof’s irrepressible messaging. “Every person will be happy, strong, and healthy!” Hof insists. “We’re awakening people! Then peace will come on this Earth!” The 64-year-old has never been a man for half measures.

The Man

Long before leading shirtless groups up Kilimanjaro, Hof would position himself between two willow trees at the local public park in Amsterdam to gaze at the water in reverie before plunging into the icy canal. It’s a routine he began when he was 17 without anything to guide him apart from the siren call of the cold water itself (“I felt this attraction.”) Standing half-submerged, he would begin a breathing practice that allowed him to go fully under for four minutes. Before even breaking the surface, Hof felt like he had been reborn.

The practice became a ritual for ridding his mind of “gibberish.” After his wife committed suicide, it became therapy. Hof credits cold water for helping him overcome his grief and quell the fear that had paralyzed him

Hof may have remained a local oddity until a TV news show sent a crew to record him jumping into holes cut into a frozen lake. As fate had it, a man accidentally fell into the water during filming, and Hof came to the rescue. The Dutch media hailed him as “The Iceman.” After setting 21 world records for various feats of endurance like running a half-marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, the name stuck. 


The Science

The Wayne State University study found that Hof feels no pain when suddenly exposed to cold because of the release of opioids and cannabinoids. Called stress-induced analgesia, this response can only last a few minutes and accounts for why his sense of euphoria is typically short-lived.  

How then can Hof and his adherents sustain themselves when exposed to frigid temperatures? The answer lies in the fact that Hof could only achieve these results after he had already charged his body with his breathing technique. This is where neuroscience meets the new age. 

“The placebo effect is real,” says one of the study’s co-authors,  Otto Musik. He believes that if Hof’s body has been conditioned to anticipate the ongoing effect, it releases more pain-relieving opioids and the mood-regulating neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine to maintain that state. Put another way, the longer people practice Hof’s method, the longer they can endure the cold and the better they get at experiencing its benefits.

The Method

Wim Hof’s language is full of superlatives and emphatics — and his words feel less like instructions than commands. “Your body is supremely present!” he half yells at one new student. “We are going past the lymphatic nodes! Adrenaline is shooting out of your body! Resetting your body!” 

The Dutchman’s broad media exposure has helped build a loyal and passionate following. The Wim Hof Method offers video courses, a mobile app, workshops, instructor courses, and free introductory breathwork sessions narrated by Hof. But it’s his boundless enthusiasm that sets Hof apart from myriad other breathwork techniques in this contested space. “Lie down, sit down, relax!”

The breathwork pillar of the Method involves rounds of 30 or 40 deep breaths without pause, followed by holding the breath for up to two minutes. The holds grow in duration as the student advances. His method induces a low blood-oxygen state called hypoxia before flooding the body with “fresh” oxygen that suppresses inflammation and increases adrenaline, which allows the body to withstand extreme temperatures.

The second pillar, cold therapy, speeds up the metabolism, reduces inflammation, and some practitioners report relief from the symptoms caused by autoimmune diseases. However, two separate studies found that when the two pillars are combined, the cascade of benefits from lower stress and anti-inflammation are most pronounced. 

The third component of the method is commitment. Willpower is necessary to continue to face the cold temperatures day after day, but the method itself is said to fortify discipline in a virtuous cycle. 

The Mission

Musik’s study showed that Hof activated parts of the midbrain responsible for mood regulation that had been thought to be inaccessible to investigation — giving hope that new pathways for the drug-free treatment of psychosis, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder can yet be unveiled. Hof’s claims for changing the world may not be so far-fetched. 

Often photographed while meditating shirtless on a snow-laden mountainside, Hof has come to represent a return to nature — not just as an antidote to modern alienation but as a symbol of the uncharted potentials of the human body. “We are schooled to fit into a society, to have a job, a career, and to go into the stress and go for the deadlines,” Hof says, “and I got a lifeline, and I’m passing it on through you right now… It’s my mission to bring this to the world.”

Justin Ballis
Justin Ballis

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Justin has 20 years' experience working in the Australian media as a production editor, and is currently interested in the intersection of mental health, psychology, and the future of work. view profile


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