How Iceman Wim Hof Uncovered the Secrets to Our Health

It’s a gray and drippy Saturday morning in Reykjavík, with a raw wind whipping off the North Atlantic, but the people filing into the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center don’t notice the cold. Why would they? This is balmy compared with what’s coming. The day will be given over to the Wim Hof Experience, a workshop that culminates in everyone here—all 450 of us—going into ice-cold water with the Iceman. 

The crowd is about 70 percent male and 80 percent young and 100 percent folks you’d want on your team during the apocalypse. There’s a calm, strong warrior vibe befitting the descendants of Vikings, but more than that, these people look happy. I run into Gudnason, who’s awaiting the delivery of three tons of ice, to be dumped into portable tubs. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Ice Crew” on the back. “We’re a small country, but Hoffing is in our blood,” he tells me. From what I’ve seen that is certainly true, but as he walks away I wonder if it’s in mine. I’m Canadian, so I should be genetically winterized, but two decades of early-morning swim practice—diving into frigid pools in the predawn darkness—left me so averse to cold that I eventually moved to Hawaii. I’ve never met a hot tub I didn’t like. An ice tub is a hard sell.

In the greenroom I meet Laura, one of Hof’s two daughters, a serene 33-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair. Hof’s business is a close-knit family affair. Laura is the event manager; his eldest son, Enahm, 37, serves as CEO. Their sister Isabelle, 35, runs the training academy; Michael, the youngest at 31, is listed on the website as the “resident problem solver.” Even Zina, Hof’s dog, has a place on the roster. Hof also has a two-year-old son with his partner, Erin, an Australian woman he met in Poland, and a 15-year-old son from a former relationship. “We love each other,” Hof says of his clan. “The real love, not the sentimental bullshit.”

In the auditorium—a glass cube with cavernous ceilings and walls lit up like the aurora borealis—people take their seats. After a brief introduction and much cheering, Hof comes onstage. He’s barefoot, in the same shorts and T-shirt he was wearing on the glacier, with a woolen tuque on his head. “After today you will be able to go into the deepest part of your brain and regulate your mood and your emotion for the rest of your life, in any situation,” he tells the audience. “You won’t be overwhelmed by any form of stress. And if you can do that, what else can you do?”

Hof mentioned earlier that he never scripts his appearances, and sure enough his delivery is freewheeling, with dollops of swearing. Some of his scientific claims seem facile—“You can bring more neural activity in through the breath”—but the crowd is rapt. “What do you need if you are happy? If you are healthy?” Hof asks rhetorically, pacing the stage. “Money makes us crazy. More, more, more, more. Keep the people sick and you get more money. The systems are obsolete! The systems that are exploiting and polluting and making people insensitive—it’s over! It’s done! It’s now only a matter of waiting until they leave.” Hof stops pacing and wags a finger in emphasis. “I think the awakening is imminent. It’s coming. Humanity is beginning to realize that batshit is batshit.”

Instantly, I want to do it again—in fact, I crave it. The ice bath is a high, alright, a full-spirit wake-up call served with a cocktail of the body’s finest chemicals. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m sold.

Later, Hof invites people onstage to give testimonials. Gudnason goes first. “I’m named after the Thunder god, Thor,” he begins. “And a few years ago I didn’t feel very powerful. I had three inhalers, ADHD medicine, and allergy pills. I don’t use any of them anymore. I don’t need them.” Watching Gudnason, it’s hard to imagine him enfeebled. He’s ropy with muscle and has a shaved head, a peppery beard, and eyes that look like they could bore into metal. In Reykjavík, he owns a gym called Primal Iceland.

Next up is Lea Galgana, a young Icelandic woman with a long, glossy ponytail. She’s also visibly athletic, radiating health. “Eighteen months ago, I was hospitalized with fibromyalgia,” she says. “I had crutches. I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit down. No pain medication worked. So I needed to find something new.” After adopting Hof’s training and feeling her symptoms recede, Galgana sat in an ice bath for 42 minutes, a new national record. “I was able to get off all the medications,” she says, smiling. “And I hated the cold! If I can do it, you can do it.”

Forty-two minutes in ice water!” Hof bellows from the sidelines. “No medications!” The room erupts in applause.

“We have, I don’t know, 50,000 testimonials from people who couldn’t be treated with regular health care—completely healed,” Hof tells me later. “They say I shouldn’t say these things too much because of the pharmaceuticals and the food industry—the ones who will really fuck us up. But it’s over, guys! It’s over. We’re not taking it anymore. We’ve got millions of people doing this now. But it needs to be at least a billion.”

After a medical presentation and an explanation of how Hof’s method works by Bart Biermans, an M.D. and Hof instructor, it’s time to try it. We do the breathing exercises together in the auditorium, guided by a timer projected on a screen—six sets of 40 breaths. Some people stay seated, but others, including me, lie on the floor. The experience is intense, and by the end of it I’m spinning, tingling, and soused with endorphins. I like the feeling very much.

En masse, we strip down to our bathing suits and file outside, where three kiddie pools await us. The pools are roughly three feet deep, each with room for about 15 people, and they’re brimming with so much ice that you can’t see any water. Hof laid down the protocol: no wavering, waffling, or whining. When it’s your turn to get in, you sit low enough that the ice hits your chin, and you stay there for two minutes, using your breath to wrangle your mind into submission. “The cold is a mirror to awaken you to your own power!” Hof shouts. “You are the boss within!”

The ice bath isn’t fun in the usual sense of the word, but it is thrilling. I can feel the cold as a real force, but somehow I’m detached from it—probably because I’m pumped with adrenaline and I’ve spent the past 30 minutes shouting and punching the air in unison with hundreds of fellow ice bathers. I stare into the middle distance, thinking calm thoughts and humming loudly. Whenever the urge arises to bolt from the water, I shunt that impulse aside and focus on my breathing. The burning sensation in my hands and feet is distracting but not intolerable; two minutes zip by fast. “I’m alive!” a guy next to me roars. My group stands up and we’re all as pink as shrimp. Instantly, I want to do it again—in fact, I crave it. The ice bath is a high, alright, a full-spirit wake-up call served with a cocktail of the body’s finest chemicals. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m sold. (This feeling doesn’t disappear, either: in the months since I left Iceland, I’ve continued to practice Hof’s method, setting up an ice bath in my backyard.)

We spend a few minutes embracing and high-fiving, milling around barefoot on the sleet-encrusted cement. Nobody fails to complete the challenge. Everybody looks like they’re having a blast. Hof watches us, smiling like the Cheshire cat, and then he calls the next group into the ice.

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