Michelle Moroney: ‘The Wim Hof Method made me a more tolerant, resilient person’
Yoga teacher Michelle Moroney from Co Meath became a Wim Hof Method instructor in 2018 and says the practice of cold immersion coupled with breath work has transformed her physical and mental health.
“I’ve always been on the hunt for life hacks or new tools to help in my journey of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
I live by the ocean and before the sea-swimming craze of the pandemic, I just got this thing in my head that I wanted to swim in the sea every day. I knew on some level that it would have huge benefits, and I knew accountability would be much easier with friends.
So, back in 2017, a group of us started to meet at 7:20am every day at the prom in Lahinch. The tide was out, the wind was howling and the water was freezing cold. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
My kids were still young at the time. I was exhausted and the sleep I was getting just wasn’t enough. I’d wake up tired and get into the sea and, as viscerally challenging as it was, when I emerged from the water, I was a completely different person.
I saw the effect it had on me both when I got home, and when I got up the next day to get the kids to school.
I really wanted to know what was happening because it wasn’t just a physical change. It was mental, emotional and, ultimately, spiritual.
Intrigued, I Googled the benefits of cold-water swimming and I kept running into this hairy Dutch guy named Wim Hof! I just ignored it for the longest time and I’d go down another route, but all paths would eventually lead back to Wim and his cold-therapy method.
I later discovered that the main Wim Hof practice is breathwork. I’ve been a yoga teacher since 2003 and all yoga teachers are essentially breathwork teachers.
In fact, I trained in an ashram in India where 50% of the work we did was breath work. Of course, it wasn’t known as breathwork back then. It wasn’t as sexy as it is now!
I started the Wim Hof Method online course and I really started to notice the difference. With a little bit of cold immersion and breath work each day, I started to observe that the space between a situation, and my reaction to it, was increasing. I had more energy and I became more tolerant with my children.
The cold represents our struggle, or whatever it is we’re going through.
Essentially, I was learning how to manage my nervous system. Whether it’s a cold shower or an ice bath – it doesn’t really matter what it is – the cold represents our struggle, or whatever it is we’re going through.
When we are exposed to cold, the body immediately goes into fight or flight. It’s a stressful situation but because it’s a controlled environment, we get to practise managing stress by using our breath.
Then, when a stressful situation happens in real life, we have this tool. As a working mother and someone who endeavours to find balance in all areas of my life, it’s just been such a gift.
One thing I really like about the Wim Hof Method is that it’s proven. I know some things don’t need to be proven if it feels good in your body, but I like the science part.
The breath work increases oxygen levels, which strengthens the respiratory system and, in turn, increases the amount of energy that is released into our body cells.
One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs, and probably why I got drawn into doing Wim Hof training in the first place, was a study at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, which showed that we can voluntarily influence the sympathetic nervous system and innate immune response.
Wim took a group of people to Poland where they performed his cold-therapy method. A controlled group was later injected with an endotoxin but, fifteen minutes before the Wim Hof study group was injected, they started doing the breathing, while the other group didn’t.
Every single person in the other group got sick, but no one in the Wim Hof group did.
It used to be thought that the immune system was automatic. Yes, we could affect it with diet, lifestyle and sleep but we couldn’t automatically turn it on and off. What this study concluded is that we can voluntarily influence it.
The first thing I saw was all these bearded men. There was a lot of testosterone in the room and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I am so out of my depth.’
I’ll be honest, when I first decided to go down this route and train in person with Wim Hof in the Netherlands, I was terrified. I cycled out from Amsterdam and the first thing I saw was all these bearded men. There was a lot of testosterone in the room and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I am so out of my depth.’
But once they began the training, I realised that it was incredibly yin because you can’t fight the cold. You won’t win. The method is about knowing your own limits.
Forty of us climbed a snowy mountain in minus 18C weather in our shorts
When we were doing the final training in Poland, 40 of us climbed a snowy mountain in minus 18C weather in our shorts, with our clothes in backpacks. I’ll always remember what they said to us: ‘It’s not that if you don’t make it to the top, that you fail; it’s that if you get to the top and one member of the group gets hypothermia, then you all fail.’
Another thing I really like about the Wim Hof Method is that it’s essentially free. Of course, you can do the training in Poland or you could do a Wim Hof retreat with me in Co Clare, but these things obviously cost money.
Everyone can access the cold, especially here in Ireland. Everyone can have a cold shower and everyone can lie down and breathe.
However, even if you don’t have money, everyone can access the cold, especially here in Ireland. Everyone can have a cold shower and everyone can lie down and breathe.
I feel like we’re living in an age where a lot of healing practices, which have come from indigenous people, have been appropriated and the message has become quite confusing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love yoga and it’s a fantastic tool for me, but it’s not accessible to everyone and it seems to be for a very particular demographic. It is ultimately a spiritual practice but, somewhere along the way, it has become an exercise class.
That’s why I find the Wim Hof Method so refreshing. It’s accessible and there’s no dogma attached to it, which I like.
How much cold can I handle now? That’s the number one question everyone asks! And the truth is that I’m different every day. Some days the cold kicks my ass, and some days I think, ‘This actually feels good’.
Overall, I feel more resilient. There are so many things we’re preconditioned to believe like, ‘Put your coat on!’, but they’re not always necessary.
Sure, I wouldn’t want to get stuck outside without the right gear, but I now trust myself to walk to the shop without a jacket, and I know it’s going to be okay.
The second we’re not mindful and focused, that’s when we get cold. It really is the power of the mind. That’s what I’ve learned.”
Michelle runs regular Wim Hof retreats at the Cliffs of Moher Retreat in Co Clare. Find out more here.
This article was originally published in June 2022.