As a curious cynic, Holly O'Neill is looking to separate the fads from the fascinating by trying the most unconventional wellness practices.
Let me save you a winding introduction on the busyness of modern life and just say we’re all very, very busy. Modern life’s current prescription for this is wellness and whether you love it or loathe it, a multi-trillion dollar industry is not to be sniffed at.
Wellness, to me, is too many drinks with friends at the end of a hard week and marvelling at how revitalising it is to feel bored in Creative Spa as I get my eyelash extensions done to the sound of panpipe music. So, when I began this new wellness column, I imagined a lot more essential oils and chanting and less of what I got: an ice bath outdoors on a Saturday morning.
Wim Hof is an extremist, to say the least. He holds 26 Guinness World records. He has run a marathon in the desert without drinking water, climbed Mount Everest in nothing but hiking boots and shorts and has controlled his immune system against disease in a medical study, then trained a group to do the same in just four days. He had tried many kinds of esoteric traditions, disciplines and religions, from Buddhism to karate, but didn’t find true connection until he one day felt drawn to swimming in cold water. When his wife died by suicide, he used cold water as a method to silence his grief and made it his mission to bring his method of breathing techniques, cold water exposure and the training of your mindset to the masses. Scientific recognition allowed him to silence the doubters and sceptics and now biology students learn about Wim Hof in textbooks. Wim Hof’s purpose is not to teach you to test the limits of your body but to become happy, healthy and strong. The benefits of his method are a cure to many of the ailments of modern life; increased energy, better sleep, heightened focus and determination, increased willpower, reduced stress levels, enhanced creativity and more. You had me at increased energy.
And yet, because of all the world records and the bit about the ice bath, when I arrive at the workshop I’m expecting to enter a room of extremist and daredevil men who spend lots of time in the gym, looking to test their body’s limits and best their personal records. What I meet is a room of men and women of all ages, from 19 to 70. Some want to handle the daily stresses of modern life better. Some are sea swimmers who want to manage the cold better. Two received a ticket as a Christmas present and have no idea what they’re doing there. Some want to feel less tired, have more energy or sleep better. Some are there for a release from trauma or physical pain. Many are there for anxiety. Lots are inspired by coming across Wim Hof online.
“I am not afraid of dying. I am afraid of dying without fully living.” – Wim Hof
Our teacher is trained Wim Hof Method instructor Níall O’Murchú. He stumbled across Wim Hof on the Joe Rogan podcast while making the late-night bottles for his twin babies. He was tired, stressed and strained and Wim Hof sold him on more energy and better sleep. Three days into the method he was clearheaded and bursting with energy. Three months in, he left his job and started two new businesses. Níall is rousing, sound and BS-free and I am ready to drink the Kool-Aid.
Lying down on yoga mats, we do a series of breathing; fully in and out 30 times, then draw the breath in once more and fill the lungs to maximum capacity. Then we let the air out of the lungs and hold our breath for as long as possible without force, until our body tells us it’s time to breathe. I can’t believe how long I can hold my breath for. When you need to breathe, you inhale once to full capacity, hold the breath for around 15 seconds and let it go again. It is, bizarrely, completely revitalizing. All I did was breathe.
A few rounds of this in, we experiment. During the part of the breathing exercise where we hold our breath, we do sit-ups and press-ups, without breathing. Those who know their typical capacity for press-ups report beating their personal bests. One man, whose back pain prevented him from lying on his back on the yoga mat at the beginning of the workshop says that one round of breathing in, he was lying straight for the first time he could remember in months.
After more breathing exercises, it’s time for the ice bath and it takes a pretty harsh pep talk to myself in the bathroom to convince me to actually do it. We each take turns in three ice baths and I hang back until I’m left in the very last three to go, still hoping I won’t be noticed and that maybe I can get away without actually having to get in. We’re all breathing together now, but not the breathing technique we’ve been taught, as that can leave you lightheaded and should only be practised when sitting or lying down. We’re slowly inhaling and slowing exhaling, all together, at the same time. This breathing stimulates the vagus nerve; reducing the heart rate and blood pressure, helping you relax. Nobody getting into the ice bath is screaming or panicking in any way and I’m beginning to think that maybe I am in a workshop full of daredevils… and then it’s my turn in the ice bath.
The ice is like stabbing knives in your body, rendering you to think of nothing but the sharpness of the cold, visceral in every cell. Your fight or flight mode kicks in and every fibre of your being is screaming at you to get out of the ice. Except that with the slow controlled inhales and exhales, this is all a kind of secondary feeling that lies beneath a wave of calm, focus and control. Niall stares at everyone intensely until their breathing is controlled, breathing in unison with us. The adrenaline is instant; mind clear, body alive. The whole ice bucket part lasts maybe a minute or two. The energising effects will last in your body for up to six days. As with most fears, the thought of getting into the ice was much worse than the experience. When I get out of the ice, my body feels warm. I’m completely sold.
Three weeks since after the Wim Hof Fundamentals workshop, I’m still having cold showers and practising breathing every day. I feel less stressed, clearheaded and energised. What doesn’t kill us, I guess.
The Wim Hof Method Fundamentals workshop, €90, breathewithniall.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of IMAGE Magazine.