Yoga and mastery over the elements
When I first heard about Wim Hof, he reminded me of the ancient Yogis of India. They were famed for their impossible feats – surviving burial underground, stopping their heart, changing body temperature at will.
The Yoga Sutras of Pantajali lists many supernormal powers said to be available to those who dedicate themselves to the eightfold path of Yoga. Invulnerability, exceptional health, mastery over the elements and the ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures are among the remarkable siddhis or special powers said to be attainable.
It is easy to dismiss such stories as the stuff of myth and legend. But let me introduce you to Wim Hof, aka The Iceman. Born in 1959, Wim is a Dutchman who has discovered remarkable abilities.
Wim is famous for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He has climbed to 7200 metres on Everest and to the summit of Mount Kilmanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes. He has set world records for the longest swim under ice and the fastest half marathon barefoot on ice and snow.
Wim claims that regular practice of his method can help anyone improve their immune system, cold tolerance and overall mental and physical health. He teaches a combination of breathing exercises, meditation and cold exposure, including cold showers and ice baths.
Breathing and Meditation
Wim does not describe himself as a Yogi, but the breathing and meditation aspects of his approach are strikingly similar to Yoga practices. Bhastrika pranayama or bellows breath in Yoga is a form of hyperventilation very much like Wim’s breath exercises. Both should be carried out only with some caution, but both can feel energising and may even induce feelings of light headedness and euphoria.
When I heard about Wim Hof and his method I was fascinated and had to learn more. My studies and practice in Yoga have given me a growing respect for the power of breath and the mind-body connection.
This year I have rediscovered the joy of outdoor swimming in cold water. I have read many fascinating accounts of the apparent benefits of outdoor cold swimming for depression, grief, chronic pain and other difficulties. I have a growing belief in the innate power of the human body to find its own strength and achieve more than we think possible.
As a birth preparation teacher, I am also fascinated by the ability of the body and mind to journey through intense sensation. A birthing woman can discover unknown strengths deep within herself. I use ice in my pregnancy classes to help women explore their coping strategies. We just use a couple of ice cubes held in the hand, but it is a powerful metaphor for testing one’s limits.
Wim Hof Method Workshop
On my Facebook feed, a “Wim Hof Method Workshop” in Southend popped up one day. I had to do this. I immediately booked my space with excitement.
As the date crept closer, my nervousness about the ice immersion grew. I knew I would have to sit in a bath of ice cubes. How hard would it be? Would I be able to cope? Would it hurt, and if so, how much?
The workshop was brilliant. William Frost, our (appropriately named!) tutor, gave a clear and interesting explanation of the method and its scientific background.
As someone with a medical training, I always feel much happier and safer when I know something is grounded in science and research. It is my personal view that one day we will understand how eastern and western philosophies fit together. Both contain different parts of the jigsaw of wisdom about our bodies and ourselves.
Invigorating breath exercises
We lay on yoga mats and practiced the breath exercises. I found them invigorating, and was left with a feeling of deep joy and power. Then a meditation, during which I travelled in my mind to another planet where I met with a dear old friend.
Then it was time for the ice bath. We changed into swimming kit and went outside the yoga studio where two tubs of cold water and a large pile of ice cubes awaited. It was December, so we were already feeling quite chilly!
Watched by a few bemused local residents, we emptied bag after bag of ice cubes into the water. When William decided the water was cold enough, we each took a turn to climb in and sit for two minutes, submerged up to the neck in freezing ice water.
I was very nervous, but as soon as I sat in the tank I exhaled deeply, as instructed, and closed my eyes. It was very cold, but to my surprise I immediately knew this would be ok.
Om through it
Focusing on my breath, I heard someone say “You can ‘Om’ through it, if that helps”. Instantly in my mind I was in my Yoga Studio, teaching pregnant women “‘Hummingbee breath”. The long, slow, humming exhale calms the mind and body. I had told my pregnant students many times that this was a good way to cope with intense sensation. Now I was doing it for myself.
It worked! Keeping my eyes closed and travelling to a strong place within, I hummed and “Om”ed loudly, focusing on the out-breath, staying calm and still. When someone asked my “How are you doing?”, I heard myself reply, “I’m giving birth – this is like giving birth!” I felt elated, powerful, alive.
When my two minutes was up, I climbed out with a massive grin on my face. Joining my comrades in ice, I danced in my swimming costume on the concrete outside the Yoga studio. I felt incredibly alive.
If you get the chance, I would highly recommend trying out the Wim Hof Method. Various workshops are on offer, and there is a website and app which will give you plenty more information.
We are all amazing
At the end of our workshop, our trainer stressed that this was not a “bucket list” one off experience, but rather an introduction to a new and life-enhancing practice. I will definitely be building cold showers, Wim Hof breathing exercises and the occasional ice bath into my life for 2020. Why? Basically because it makes me feel fantastic!
Yoga, breath, ice, birth, the power and mystery of the human body. I love the way they all come together. We are all amazing!
Karen Lawrence is a teacher of Pregnancy Yoga, Postnatal Yoga and Yin Yoga in Billericay, Essex. She is a Reflexologist and a former Midwife. You can learn more about Karen’s classes and therapies at http://www.thecalmspace.co.uk
You can learn more about the Wim Hof Method and search for a workshop near you at https://www.wimhofmethod.com/