A TopMind™ in the Freezing Cold …

My week with ‘The Iceman’ Wim Hof (January 2015)

‘Personal growth is physical rather than mental.’

I can choose from various types of training in my professional field as a Mind Fitness Trainer. The reason I chose Wim Hof’s is because I admire people who dare to be different in their struggle to realise their goals.

What most motivated me to participate is his approach towards personal change. He has a more physical, i.e. a more physiological one, compared to the ‘usual’ mental ones, which are more about theories, concepts and philosophies. He demystifies and unravels the sometimes highly complicated process of personal growth by exercising direct influence on our physiology. This intrigued me and made me want to discover more about his approach.

Wim Hof is a 55 year old man who started his extravagant ‘cold’ and spiritual journey in his teens. Born into a large family with a humble background, he was educated to be a painter after he finished the lower technical school (LTS), but has always been fascinated by personal growth and spirituality. Between the ages of ten and seventeen he read a lot of esoteric and philosophical books. However he could never find the answers to his existential life questions about health and happiness. At age seventeen, during a period of sombre moods, it was over a walk in the park on a freezing winter’s day in the middle of Amsterdam that he decided to jump in the water. He told me; “the water was so tempting that I just ad to jump in”.

This jump gave him such a profound experience that it influenced his further life’s journey. A journey that initially resulted in 21 world records in the Guinness Book of Records. Most of which relating to feats of endurance and survival in intense cold, like running a marathon on the Arctic and climbing the Mount Everest in his shorts. But although he broke all these records and was therefore able to support his four children, quite sadly and suddenly he had lost his wife, he felt he had far more to give than being a kind of ‘circus artist’ or entertainer. His endeavours came from a deeper, more spiritual source than just the kick of excitement or esteem.

He wanted to let the world know about his experiences, about his belief that regular exposure to cold and correct breathing strengthens the body and makes one stronger, healthier and happier.

‘After academic research with Wim Hof the medical handbooks had to be re-written.’

On his journey Wim had to deal with a lot of cynicism, but eventually the scientific world, quite rightly, showed interest and confirmed some groundbreaking insights. So finally, after more than 30 years, he is receiving acknowledgement for his work.

In 2010 scientists at the Radboud University Nijmegen published an article about improved immunity after a four-day ‘Wim Hof cold training’. It seemed the autonomic nervous system was not as autonomous as had previously been assumed. We have influence on bodily processes, such as hormonal and other physiological processes, that had so far been presumed to be physically autonomic. This particularly fact altered the medical world dramatically. Even to the point were medical handbooks had to be re-written as a result of what had been found. Since then several other academic studies are taking place, and more insights are to be expected.

And all this coming from a method that is simple and natural in all its facets.

The popularity of Wim’s method is soaring, which became evident in the days I spent with him. For example there was a film crew from VICE Media that made a documentary of our week and, on day three, The New York Times approached him for an extensive interview. Later that same week Men’s Health Magazine also expressed their interest in publishing an article and, an American production company asked if they could do a TV item.

I am really happy for Wim he is getting this exposure and for all the people who can gain benefit from his simple but powerful method.

‘The basic idea behind his techniques is to make the body alkaline. Meaning; to remove the acids from the body by breathing more consciously and undergoing exposure to cold.’

On our first day we skipped the introduction ritual that other training programmes usually begin with. It immediately became clear that Wim is not the kind of guy that ‘beats about the bush’, no chit-chat but straight to the heart of the matter, which is what we all came for: PRACTICE.

The philosophy behind all of Wim’s techniques is becoming alkaline, removing the acid from the body, by breathing more consciously and undergoing deliberate exposure to cold. Most western bodies are acid, mainly owing to high levels of stress and our food intake. This prevents us from reaching the natural potential we have in areas such as illness prevention, vitality and energy management, and happiness.

His basic breathing exercise consists of taking a series of about 30 deep breaths followed by a long exhalation and holding your breath for at least 3 minutes. During these minutes the built-up store of oxygen is transported through the 124,000 km of veins and arteries throughout the body. This enables the muscles and vital organs to remove acid and turn it into alkaline, and so achieve better functioning.

This exercise was extremely difficult for me, in my first attempts I did not even manage to achieve the one-minute mark. My body started to shiver from fear the moment I realised I was out of air. Basic mammalian fears seemed to do their work and the amygdalae, the parts of the brain that are associated with emotional reactions, fired like crazy. Still the bodily effect was amazing. A sensation of tingling and relaxation throughout the entire body set in after several attempts.

Some participants managed without breathing for more than eight minutes, and they said that this was like experiencing a kind of psychedelic trip. I became a little envious about this idea, however I was not yet able to shift my awareness ‘from my mind into my body’ and to give up my ‘cortical’ control. After some practice I achieved two and a-half minutes, accompanied by a relaxed feeling throughout my entire body. Although I have done a lot of meditation, this felt different from what I had experienced previously.

Training days consist of approximately three programme segments. We started every day with the basic breathing exercises. We ended the morning breathing sessions with some yoga postures. After breakfast at around eleven a.m., we had two meals a day, we often gathered in the living room prior to going outside in the snow for 15 to 30 minutes wearing only shorts to do some ‘snowga’ postures (yoga in the snow) or other exercises. We often finished the day with a brief dip in the freezing water (approaching 0 degrees Celsius) of a nearby waterfall. One day we even hiked to a mountain top, a 3 to 5 hours climb, with bare legs and upper body wearing just our shorts.

When focussing on my breathing I did not experience any great difficulties during these activities and actually felt refreshed when we went back inside. It was all relatively easy when I focused on my breathing and didn’t became absorbed by all kinds of thinking patterns. Even the dip in the freezing water felt great when being able to keep one’s breathing constant and easy. People who did experience difficulties started to panic and breath uncontrollably.

The breathing pattern combined with strong mental focus seemed to be the key to mind and body control. It is amazing what the body is up to once sufficiently oxygenated and when one has sufficient mental discipline not to get caught in restricting thoughts.

Be patient, do not suffer, just explore the boundaries of your comfort zone. 

During the lectures in between the different outdoor activities Wim talked a lot about the mindset. This type of training is not about learning to suffer, he says. On the contrary, it is about finding the triggers at the limits of our comfort zones to reveal the natural abilities and potential of our body and mind.

In our western society we have drifted away from our natural abilities such as dealing with cold and correct breathing, with poor physical functioning as a consequence. Most of us breathe quickly and shallowly, and we constantly seek comfort in warmth by means of various layers of clothes or heating. This makes our bodies less resistant than potentially possible, and we feel less vital than we could.

With our shallow and nervous breathing patterns, and our food intake, the levels of acid build up in our body. This results in symptoms such as mood swings and, in the longer term, possibly serious illness. By deliberately choosing to explore the boundaries of our comfort zones we learn that we are capable of far more than we assume.

Wim explains that the mindset is the belief that we can change our bodies and minds by willpower and that we have far more potential than we utilize. Our bodies and minds are enchained by all the conditions and habits we have adopted over the course of our lives. Changing the mindset is the first step towards happiness, strength and health. We have far more control of our minds and bodies than we think. Believing this is step one in the process towards personal transformation.

As a result of the breathing exercises and the cold experiments the body starts to de-condition, as Wim calls it. Over the course of our lives our minds and bodies become conditioned by culture, upbringing, habits, etc. and this limits our ability to realise our full potential. I had felt this in a sense that after two days my body had started to hurt in places where I had not previously experienced pain. I could hardly move my head as my neck was completely stiff, and I felt a bit nauseous during several days of my stay. Strange things had happened in my body, and my mind felt a little disoriented. A lot of processes seemed to have been stirred up, physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Now, at Prague Airport, before flying back to Amsterdam I gradually feel able to reflect on the past week. My body still feels a little sore and my mind a little disoriented, but I can already feel a lot has happened in positive sense, with a lot of benefits. I feel somehow more clear and relaxed, and I feel that I am, as it were, more part of a journey that can help people become much happier and healthier.

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