It's a few days after his birthday when I call Wim Hof, the legendary ‘Iceman’ and extreme athlete known for his superhuman ability to withstand long-term exposure to sub-zero conditions. It’s the middle of coronavirus lockdown, but he tells me he was still able to celebrate the occasion by spending a frosty 61 minutes in an ice bath. He shrugs it off and tells me he could have endured longer. Most people would struggle to do 10 minutes in similar conditions.
Hof has an infectious personality, his wide-eyed enthusiasm for wellness and giddy verbiage only occasionally tempered by a reference to the hard science backing his claims. In other interviews, he’s been challenged for getting the facts wrong, and he explains that his children, who also help him run his business, are always having to remind him to stick to what can be proven – not stretch his claims too far, so as to avoid drawing criticism from the sceptic community. But with Hof, it seems he can’t quite help himself.
He does make a few mistakes on the science in our interview, and he certainly has a tendency to get carried away. But he is genuine – I get the definite impression he truly believes in making a positive impact on people’s lives through the Wim Hof Method. And while he may have scientific blind spots, there are plenty of studies to back up the benefits of the deep breathing techniques and cold exposure he has pioneered. Thousands of people from the around the world can attest to the effectiveness of his method.
In your own words, what is the Wim Hof Method?
I employ two very simple techniques: breathing – specific breathing exercises – and cold adaptation. But it’s organic. It’s alive. It’s changing. I’m into interacting with the world itself, getting into the mainstream, globally, through universities, doing world records and a lot of television. But in the end, the goal is to give people confidence and belief in themselves.
So the Wim Hof Method is a lot more than just breathing and exposing yourself to cold? It sounds like it involves a lot of ‘life-coaching’ ideas too…
It’s absolutely more than the physical. It’s about the soul itself. And what is this soul? The soul is inexplicable. You can’t see it. But you can feel it, you can be it. And beyond any doubt, you can experience it.
Which parts of your practice specifically help you get more in touch with yourself?
If you go take the course, for example, you don’t think – you are. You get into the depth of the brain where normally you are not. Killer number one in society is cardiovascular disease. In every person on earth there are millions of little muscles helping to control blood flow. How do you train these muscles? By going into the cold. Blood flow will improve with training, and will improve access to oxygen, nutrients and vitamins for your cells. Then the heart. Because we wear clothes all the time and avoid exposure to the cold, our skin becomes de-stimulated. All our thermal receptors, which are designed to pass on the cold and react to it, no longer do so effectively. By exposing ourselves to cold, we give our heart relief, because all the millions of muscles that make up our cardiovascular system are being optimised, providing more access to energy.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out on the Wim Hof Method. What should they expect? How soon can you see results?
You see results – no you feel results – within half an hour. Just do the breathing exercises. The first time you go into the cold, the first thing you do is breathe. You learn to change your chemistry through deep, specific breathing techniques.
What do long-term benefits look like?
You learn to control yourself and you get a lot more confident. You are better equipped to deal with stress of all sorts; that means biological stress, emotional stress, mental stress, viral stress and bacterial stress.
How did you discover your own superhuman resistance to cold?
Let me say, everybody has this superhuman ability to regulate his or her own chemistry. Everybody. We have been showing this in comparative studies now in which we showed that the existing paradigm in medical science – that the autonomic nervous system cannot be influenced by humans at will, nor the endocrine system nor the immune system – we have shown that we can tap into all three consciously. We changed science there, fundamentally.
"They promised us everything and gave us shit. what i'm here to do is give people a direct, evidence-based, non-speculative connection with their minds and bodies."
So how did I do it? I went into nature, challenged myself, challenged my mind, challenged my body and then came back to research institutions to show how simple but very effective techniques allow us to go deeper, and suddenly do what seemingly was impossible for humans to do.
You’ve spoken often about your early ‘soul-searching’ days. Which other practices have you found fulfilling, and were there any practices you think are bullshit?
There’s so much bullshit going on. Anything that doesn’t give you clear results rapidly is bullshit. If I go to a restaurant and I ask for a coffee and in half an hour, I still don’t have the coffee, but they’re saying, “Yeah, the coffee is coming. It’s beautiful and it’s going to come with cream and honey.” And an hour later, the bloody coffee is still not there – you get annoyed. That’s what religion has done. They promised us everything and gave us shit. What I’m here to do is to give people a direct instance, evidence-based, non-speculative connection with their minds and bodies.
What inspires you to push your body and mind to its limits?
I push it until I feel united consciously with that feeling, with that deep gut feeling of mine. Nothing more, nothing less. And there I feel I’m connected not only with the truth inside, the way nature meant it to be, but also with my destiny. Suddenly I have a connection with the deepest part of my brain, with my heart, and everything makes sense.
How do you deal with fear when you’re out trying to break a world record or do something most people would consider incredibly dangerous?
There is danger in nature. You always see it coming. You always feel it coming. It’s very clear. Only society is sneaky. In society, a lot of people get diseases, depression. It sneaks in. You don’t feel, you don’t see. In nature, you always see the danger coming. You always feel the danger coming. And you never cross the line.
What is your opinion on the state of healthcare in western countries? Are you an advocate for alternative medicines and wholistic treatment across the board in all areas of life?
How can you develop a model monetising our sickness? You don’t want anybody to become healthy if you make money out of people who are sick.
People advertise all kinds of pills and medicines all over the world, get it into our systems, get it into the new doctors, that it is normal to be sick and to be treated.
If they see arthritis, they see six kinds of medicines behind it, all approved by the FDA and the ethical commissions of the pharmaceutical industry through research. But there is no research showing how to heal without medicines, and I know those ones. We have showed with thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, healing through no medicine, no pill, just their own belief, breathing and cold exposure.
What are your health tips in other areas of life? What tips do you have outside of the Wim Hof Method?
I like to do high-intensity interval training myself. I like the cold obviously, or anything I can come up with. I like playing guitar, singing, painting, and doing crazy stuff with my little one, or being outside in the garden. It’s all there. It’s very obvious.
What are your thoughts on marijuana and alcohol?
I’m not drinking anymore, and I feel great. And weed, I’m not smoking weed. I smoked hashish when I was in my 20s, and it was amazing. I’ve been doing anything that is prohibited by the church. Anything, man. And I enjoyed it, I loved it. But I am enjoying not needing it. Now, I just say, “Get high on your own supply.” The breathing really does it and cold does it, intensity training does it. And my cute little son, he does it, too, because he’s ridiculously beautiful.