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We all know breathing is fundamental to our existence, but it's rare most of us do it consciously. Meditation is one instance when we're reminded to bring our attention back to our breathing. So, it makes sense that I first heard about the Wim Hof Method while trying meditation for the very first time. In fact, I ended up interviewing my meditation instructor for one of my first-ever Byrdie stories—how to find the best breathwork practice for your personality type. Asher Luzzatto, co-founder of Hyperslow in L.A., recommended the Wim Hof Method for extroverts and thrill-seeking individuals who enjoy spontaneity. While I'm not sure I necessarily fit into either of these categories—and only in moderation when I do—I decided to give the Wim Hof Method a go.
The Wim Hof Method comprises three components: breathing exercises, training your mindset and concentration, and gradual exposure to the cold. For my trial, I focused mainly on the breathing exercises (though did dabble with the cold exposure). Below I share my experience, as well as some background on what exactly to expect when practicing the Wim Hof Method so you can decide if it's right for you.
What Is the Wim Hof Method?
Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete who earned the nickname "The Iceman" because of his ability to withstand extreme freezing temperatures, developed the Wim Hof Method. He coined the method after documenting his findings while undertaking an impressive list of physical achievements in nature, from swimming underneath ice to running a half-marathon above the Arctic Circle (barefoot and in shorts, no less). Essentially, the Wim Hof Method seeks to cultivate a natural path to an optimal state of body and mind.
As the second pillar of the Wim Hof Method, the breathing exercises are meant to train the body to breathe actively, encouraging the regaining of control over a range of physiological processes in the body. The practice is premised on the idea that the amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing influences the amount of energy that is released by the cells in our body—unearthing a number of health benefits.
Benefits of the Wim Hof Method
According to the Wim Hof Method website, the benefits are quite extensive. The method claims each of the below is possible after working through the pillars:
- Boosts immune system
- Increases energy
- Relieves stress
- Improves sleep
- Increases willpower
- Relieves some symptoms of depression
- Improves concentration
- Improves mental wellbeing
According to the Wim Hof Method website, the Radboud University Medical Center is completing a study on the effects of the Wim Hof Method on inflammation and pain, while the University of California San Francisco is studying how the method influences mental health and stress resilience. A 2015 study found that mindset and expectancies—two things cultivated in the Wim Hof Method—play a significant role in immune-mediated outcomes. More specifically, a training program consisting of meditation, breathing techniques, and cold exposure has found highly promising results. During an expedition on Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2014, a group of 26 trekkers trained in the Wim Hof Method used breathing techniques to accelerate altitude acclimatization.
How to Prepare for the Wim Hof Method
The first rule of the Wim Hof Method is to "listen to your body and never force." In fact, the reminder to "never force" recurs throughout the practice. Hof recommends doing the breathing exercises on an empty stomach to get the most out of the practice. I'd often do it right after making coffee but before drinking it, killing two birds with one stone by allowing enough time for the coffee to cool.
You should be comfortable before starting the exercise. Hof recommends sitting or lying down on a couch or bed. He warns to never do the breathing exercises in a situation that could put you in danger if you were to faint—such as in water, in the bath, or while driving. Set your intention before you start, and then take it from there. Last, but most importantly, it is advised you consult with your doctor first if you have any special conditions.
What to Expect While Practicing the Wim Hof Method
While it initially sounds intimidating, the Wim Hof Method's breathing exercises are quite approachable—and quick. I recommend setting aside 10 to 15 minutes when you can give your full concentration to the practice. After positioning yourself comfortably, seated or lying down, you begin the breathing exercises. You begin by focusing your attention on your breath—breathing consciously from your belly and making sure each subsequent breath is deeper until they fill your lungs.
The breathing is very circular, like you might do during meditation. While Hof advises to breathe slow, I found that the recommended speed (in his app and demonstrational videos) is actually a faster pace than normal breathing. I definitely recommend downloading the app or at least viewing the videos on his site before practicing. Your exhales should be effortless, not forced—you're just letting the air go. This proved tricky for me in the beginning, but after watching videos of Hof himself perform the breathing exercise, I was able to see and understand the technique.
These rounds continue for thirty to forty breaths. I began with 30 breaths then worked my way up as I tended to feel lightheaded in the beginning. Still, each time varied and as Hof advises, I stopped whenever I began to feel lightheaded and felt the urge. After your final exhale, hold your breath as long as you can. The first time I did it, I predicted that I'd only last 20 seconds. I thought it was wild that Hof said it's not unusual to reach somewhere between one and three minutes. I ended up lasting just over a minute and 20 seconds. If you use the app, it keeps track of your retention time and shows you your average. While it's cool to see the numbers, Hof reminds us that it isn't a competition. Even though I tried to increase my retention time and did notice improvement with more practice, there were days when I simply couldn't hold it for as long, and that was okay too. The most important thing about the practice is to listen to your body.
Once you feel the urge to breathe, take in one deep breath and then hold for 15 seconds. Once you exhale, you begin with the breathing again, 30 to 40 breaths. You can repeat this three to four times.
After just two weeks (and even sooner), I could feel the benefits of practicing the Wim Hof Method. The breath work has snuck into other parts of my day—while exercising or when feeling overwhelmed or depleted—to rejuvenate my body and mind. The biggest positive change I noticed was my ability to push myself further while working out. Perhaps it was the "I can do this" mindset or the boost of oxygen to my muscles, or a combination of the two, but a handful of deep breaths allowed me to push through stronger and more invigorated. While the two weeks I committed myself to are up, I've continued to practice the Wim Hof Method, incorporating the cold exposure as well.
The only negative side effect I experienced, and only occasionally, was lightheadedness and at worst some nausea in the short time following the breathing exercise. This didn't always occur, and it varied in intensity (for whatever reason, it was worse when I did the breathing exercise lying down), and it always dissipated within a couple of hours. Most of the time I felt energized after. I definitely had that all-over buzzy feeling, almost like a high, and while this sensation only lasted for an hour or so after the practice, the positivity of it would last all day. If you have any health conditions, especially any concerns that are respiratory related, you should consult with your physician before doing any breathing exercises.
The Final Takeaway
One of the biggest takeaways I've had from practicing the Wim Hof Method has to do with attitude and mindset. I've learned we're a lot more capable than we believe ourselves to be. Much of daily life is staying within the confines of comfort, even when inching out of that comfort zone is not only not dangerous but can actually improve our immediate experience and long-term wellbeing. While I do appreciate the physical benefits of the breathing exercises, I'm happiest with how the process has opened my eyes to how our bodies and minds can do so much more than we ever thought possible.
van Middendorp H, Kox M, Pickkers P, Evers AW. The role of outcome expectancies for a training program consisting of meditation, breathing exercises, and cold exposure on the response to endotoxin administration: a proof-of-principle study. Clin Rheumatol. 2016;35(4):1081-1085. doi:10.1007/s10067-015-3009-8
Buijze GA, Hopman MT. Controlled hyperventilation after training may accelerate altitude acclimatization. Wilderness Environ Med. 2014;25(4):484-486. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2014.04.009