As an avid consumer of health podcasts, I’m familiar with the earnest, small-step approach most experts advise for optimizing wellness. Turn off screens half an hour before bed, for example, or try one new vegetable this week. So, when I hit “play” on Wim Hof’s episode of Feel Better, Live More hosted by British physician Rangan Chatterjee, I expected the same low-key vibe.
Instead, I was plunged into completely bracing new depths.
The 63-year-old Dutch-born Hof is a motivational speaker, life-optimization guide, and extreme athlete rolled into one. He set a Guinness World Record for the longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice (1 hour, 44 minutes), climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, and ran a half-marathon, barefoot, over ice and snow above the Arctic Circle.
The “Iceman” claims that he can withstand these brutal temperatures through a distinctive breathing technique he developed that changes how the nervous system responds to cold. This breathing technique also suppresses pain, he says, which is handy if you’re going to hang out in a tub of ice cubes.
“Going into the water makes you breathe deeper and more consciously,” he writes in The Wim Hof Method. “The carbon dioxide goes out, and the muscles begin to contract. It’s basic physiology. But it’s also that electricity, the autonomic nervous system, at work.”
Hof has made numerous claims about his method, of which his breathing technique is a big part. Some, like improved longevity and lower heart health risks, have yet to be confirmed; others—better sleep, reduced stress, and faster workout recovery—have already been researched.
Here’s what’s involved, what the research says, and what happened when I tried to get some Iceman energy for myself.
What Is the Wim Hof Method?
The Wim Hof Method includes three pillars. The first is the specialized breathing technique (more on that next), followed by cold therapy. The third pillar— “commitment”— encompasses willpower and self-control, and Hof suggests that’s achievable by focusing on the first two pillars and combining those with meditation.
Breathing is at the core of the method, and if that’s the only technique you do, Hof claims you’ll still reap advantages such as a better immune response and reduced stress. That’s because the amount of oxygen you inhale influences how much energy is released into your cells, Hof explains on his website.
“[T]he way you breathe strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities in your body,” he writes. By manipulating this process, Hof says, you can maintain control in extreme conditions—that might be mountain climbing in lightweight gear, turning the shower cold for a few minutes a day, or swimming in freezing water like Chris Hemsworth in Limitless.
The breathing exercise is focused on what Hof calls “controlled hyperventilation”: deep, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations that aren’t forced (although you may need some force when you’re first starting), along with periods of holding your breath.
Hof believes this technique creates a brief stress response in the body that fires up your nervous system in a way that builds resilience.
How to Do It
The foundational protocol involves five steps:
- Sit in a meditation posture or lie down. Don’t try the technique while walking or driving.
- Close your eyes and try to become fully conscious of your breath. Take 30 to 40 deep breaths through your nose or mouth. Fill up your belly and chest. Don’t force the exhale; relax and let the air out.
- At the end of the last breath, fill your lungs to maximum capacity, then let all the air out. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again. This is called “the hold” or the “retention phase.”
- When you feel the urge to breathe, take one deep breath in and hold it for 10 to 15 seconds. This is the “recovery breath.”
- Let your breath go and breathe normally for a few breaths before repeating the full cycle three to four times.
After you’ve finished, Hof suggests taking some time to enjoy the feeling and tap into how your body and mind are reacting—most notably, in noticing your energy levels and overall stress response.
How to Learn More
If you want more thorough training there are “certified” teachers through Hof’s company you can work with, but it’s not hard to find free, guided examples of the basic breathing protocol online, including a video with the Iceman himself. You can also download Hof’s mobile app.
Hof claims the benefits of incorporating all three pillars are formidable, including enhanced creativity, increased willpower, greater cold tolerance, and better immunity. Only a few of these are backed up by research.
Immune system response
In a 2014 study in the journal PNAS (1), 24 young, healthy participants practiced the Wim Hof Method and showed significantly increased production of anti-inflammatory compounds in the body, which researchers said could have important implications for those with autoimmune diseases.
Research published in PLoS One in 2019 (2) looked at 24 people with axial spondyloarthritis, a condition associated with high pain levels. Participants were trained by Wim Hof, then exposed to cold. They showed a significant decrease in an inflammatory marker associated with pain.
Although studies like these indicate that the techniques are promising, some experts have pointed out that much more research needs to be done—and on larger participant groups—to earn a “scientifically proven” label for Hof’s method.
What Happened When I Tried It
In starting Hof’s method, I wasn’t new to breath work. I’m a registered yoga teacher and my training involved breath training, including a technique called “breath of fire” that’s very similar to Hof’s forceful exhales. I’ve also practiced breathing exercises focused on breath holds, “locking” the diaphragm into place, and extensive exhalations.
Even with that level of training, I found Hof’s method to be a doozy. While simple and easy to do, my first few attempts sent my restless monkey mind into overdrive. The powerful exhalation bursts set me on the edge of a panic attack, which I’ve never had before. Something was getting triggered in my nervous system, and I wondered what would happen if I kept up with it.
For the next two weeks, I did, twice a day. At the start, I struggled with light-headedness, which is common, Hof says in the breathing instructions. But the panic didn’t return. Eventually, I felt myself craving the breath break. Finally, near the end of that timeframe, I hit a true sweet spot.
During the hold at the end of step three, I’d spent most of the sessions grimly determined to hang on for just a couple of seconds more than the last time. But at some point, I began to relax in the hold. It honestly felt like I could hold my breath for hours without effort. Soon, I stopped counting because I realized that extending the hold didn’t matter.
Outside the breathing sessions, I noticed subtle changes, like more sustained energy throughout the day and reduced stress.
Then: ringing in my ears started.
I’d read this can be a side effect, along with dizziness and a tingling sensation in the fingers and toes. I thought the ringing would fade, as a temporary glitch, but the opposite occurred. Each time I did the breath work, the ringing was a little more intense and lasted for a bit longer. When it continued for over half an hour after a breathing session, I decided to stop.
The ringing didn’t return, so I know it was the right move for me, but I miss that spacious, relaxed groove of breath-holding. My monkey brain was so fond of the practice that I’ll likely restart at some point and possibly tweak it in some way that reduces the ringing risk.
Precautions and Takeaway
Hof cautions that before engaging in the breathing technique, people should be mindful. “Listen to your body and learn from the signals your body and mind send you while you are doing the exercises,” he writes. “Use those signals as personal feedback about the effect of the exercises on your body and mind, and adjust them as needed to find what works best for you.”
In other words, this might not work for you, even if you’re enthusiastic about it—that was my experience. You may have negative effects related to mental or emotional health or physical reactions to the technique. If those crop up, pay attention. Hof notes that the point should be to make this breathing into a meditation over time. If it’s becoming a problematic slog, it might not be for you.
Some specific conditions don’t play well with the Wim Hof Method: high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and oxygen-related problems like COPD.
If you don’t fall into any of those categories, I’d recommend trying it out, in part because it’s an interesting reset for the brain and at least creates more awareness of how breath affects you. If you can cultivate even a bit of that controlled chaos of energy Hof brings to every day, it’s worth a shot.