As you continue on your cancer journey, my goal is to offer as many tools and resources that I can to support you on your journey. One of the tools that I’ve been exploring recently is the Wim Hof Method. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I often talk about the power of the breath. Today I’m going to introduce you to the Wim Hof Method of breathing and discuss the benefits of the three pillars he teaches - breathing, cold exposure, and willpower.
Wim Hof started his journey by experiencing an incredible level of pain when he unfortunately lost his wife. After struggling with depression for several years, she sadly took her own life. Wim Hof devoted his life to raising their four young children. He wanted to find methods that he and his children could utilize to better cope with the anxiety and depression they were left with after losing their wife and mother.
After many years of continuing to hone his tools and methods he has developed what is now known as the “Wim Hof Method.” He has utilized this method to accomplish amazing feats. You’ve likely heard of him referred to as “The Iceman”. Some of his accomplishments include running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot through the snow wearing only shorts, swimming underneath ice caps for 72 yards (which is essentially a football field), and climbing Mount Everest barefoot in the snow. He is truly incredible!
He teaches his methods to others because he believes anyone can tap into this level of resilience and willpower. You can read more about him and his method on his website, www.wimhofmethod.com. I’d like to dive into the three pillars he teaches:
Clearly, no one is ready to swim under ice caps right away. Wim teaches a progressional method, starting with the breath. The breathing techniques he teaches are so beneficial. As I've talked about the health benefits of deep breathing, I’ve mostly talked about the benefit to override your sympathetic nervous system - that fight or flight mode. As we talk about the benefits of breathing using the Wim Hof Method, we'll be looking at it from a slightly different angle: the benefits of lowering your carbon dioxide levels. Several academic research institutions have studied Wim Hof and have scientifically proven multiple health benefits from his breathing technique. These include increased energy, reduced stress levels, and improved immune response.
When we breathe, we take up oxygen and then release carbon dioxide from our blood during the exhale. Our blood is typically already fully saturated with oxygen (about 99%). While breathing deeply does not raise that saturation, what it does is release extra carbon dioxide. This in turn lowers the urge to breathe. The brainstem is sensitive to carbon dioxide, and having too much carbon dioxide in the blood will trigger your brainstem to breathe. By removing carbon dioxide from the blood through deep breathing, this breathing impulse from the brainstem is lowered. The lower the level of carbon dioxide, the longer you can hold your breath. By breathing deeply, the pH level in the blood increases, which makes the blood more alkaline. Normally, the average blood pH value is 7.4, but by exerting this breathing technique, the pH becomes significantly higher and can even go up to 7.75.
To be honest, this breathing technique has taken me a lot of practice and I still haven’t mastered it at all. However, on the website, you can sign up for a free mini course where Wim will walk you through some teaching sessions and techniques, which is really helpful. He's a wonderfully charismatic guy from the Netherlands with a great accent, and he's excited about everything he teaches. I really think you'll love exploring his website and videos! They do recommend trying to do this breathing technique right after a walk or before a meal when your stomach is still empty. Just be aware that this is a really powerful breathing technique, so do it while you're sitting or lying down. You will get lightheaded and you’ll likely experience a tingling sensation throughout your body. This is actually a good indication that you’re getting rid of that extra carbon dioxide and tapping into the healing benefits.
To get started on this breathing technique, get comfortable. Be careful that you're in a safe place lying down or sitting down and just close your eyes. This is that kind of more meditative stance of focusing, and you're going to do 30 to 40 really deep breaths. Tapping into that diaphragmatic deep breath where you're pushing down your diaphragm and really expanding the lung capacity.
Inhale deeply through your nose and then exhale through your mouth. You want to really feel your chest and belly expanding as you do this, so use short, forceful breaths in and out - powerful bursts.
After 30 to 40 breaths, you'll exhale one final time as deeply as you can, really thinking about pushing all of that air out of your body. Then just stop breathing and hold that until you feel the urge to breathe again.
The fourth step is a recovery breath. Once you feel that urge to breathe again, you're going to draw in one big breath to fill your lungs. Feel your belly and your chest expanding, think about breathing into your full body. He actually even encourages you to think about breathing into your sinus cavities so you’re filling your entire body. First, your chest, then your belly, and then as much of your body that can take in breath, like your sinus cavities. When you feel like that's at full capacity, hold that breath for about 15 seconds, and then you're going to let go. And that completes a cycle.
Then you're going to repeat those four steps over again three to four more times - it's a process. Watching some videos is also really helpful, and he has lots of helpful tips on his website. This really jumpstarts what he does before he goes to the next pillar, which is the cold submersion.
Cold submersion is something that you gradually work up to, building a little at a time. Cold exposure has been scientifically proven to have a whole host of benefits including increasing your energy, better sleep, reducing stress levels, and improving focus. Cold exposure has also been linked to improving your immune system and lowering inflammation. Wim Hof teaches it as a pathway to building up your determination, resilience, and willpower.
You can easily start the practice of cold exposure by simply turning your morning shower to cold as you wrap up your shower. Then you can slowly lower the temperature each week so that you become more and more accustomed to the colder temperatures. You can also gradually increase the time that you spend in the cold shower. Eventually, you can progress to an ice bath, exposing more parts of your body each time until you are gradually able to tolerate a full ice bath submersion. Then slowly extend the amount of time you can tolerate the ice bath. The benefits are unbelievable!
Through those two techniques, you're building to the third pillar of the Wim Hof Method, which is willpower. I know for me personally, when I've done something where I have a huge sense of accomplishment, I’m stretched outside of what I thought was possible - what I thought those boundaries looked like. What I love about his method is as you keep digging deeper, and expanding your boundaries about what you're able to tolerate, it really gives you this newfound perspective about what you can face and overcome!
Armed with the focus and the determination that you're going to build through this process, you'll be able to go through so many of those hurdles that come your way without being totally disrupted by them. Visit Wim Hof’s website and start to explore the resources there. He’s such an endearing man and he’s so passionate about helping people build this resilience muscle. I can’t wait to hear from you as you implement this method into your life!