Updated: 4 days ago
Love Wim Hof? Me too. I've been a cold shower girl ever since I read 'The Wim Hof Method'. 2-3mins of icy water every morning, while singing along to Wim's funky theme tune 'Crazy Like A Monkey'. For those of you who don't know Wim, he's a global health leader championing an all-natural method blending breathwork, meditation and cold therapy. In 2011 Radboud University conducted a study on Wim that proved he could voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system using a breathing and meditation technique - something previously thought impossible.
In 2014 Radboud went on to prove that Wim's technique could be taught to other people and they too could then influence their nervous system. Thirty participants were injected with an endotoxin that would usually make you nauseous and bring on aches, pains and shivering. Eighteen of the participants reacted exactly as expected. Poor guys. The other twelve were trained by Wim to use the power of their mind and breath to fight back. The results were triumphant. The participants trained by Wim were able to control their sympathetic nervous system and immune response. Let me break that down for you:
Wim's group had a lot more adrenaline due to the breathing technique.
This spike in their adrenaline correlated with a spike in production of Interleukin-10, an anti-inflammatory cytokeyne (a protein that sends messages to other cells).
Interleukin-10 inhibits the release of other cytokeynes that contribute to inflammation.
This meant Wim's group had a less pronounced release of inflammatory proteins, less acute symptoms and they recovered faster.
While their inflammatory response was suppressed, their white blood cell count increased due to higher adrenaline in their system (leukocytosis). Their white blood cells were still able to fight off any threats to their system, but without having to feel sick or shaky.
Don't be put off by the scientific language. Really, it's simple. If you practice Wim's breathing technique it boosts your immunity. The same goes for practicing Transformational Breath®. What's more, if you suffer from conditions associated with persistent inflammation e.g. autoimmune diseases, both these breathing techniques reduce inflammation, which can alleviate your symptoms.
As a practitioner of Transformational Breath® I have met many people from all over the world who have profoundly improved their physical health with breathwork - and their mental health too. When I tried Wim's method I was immediately struck by the similarities between Transformational Breath® and Wim Hof's breathing technique, and it got me wondering if there was any cross-fertilisation that could happen between these two schools? One thing I adore about Wim is that he keeps things simple. There's a chapter in his book simply titled 'Breathe Motherf*cker', which says it all. Yet after some pondering I realised there are indeed learnings from Transformational Breath® that could potentially optimise your Wim Hof ritual, so I'm compelled to share them - simply of course. Here are my top three tips...
1. Big noise does not equal big breath
When practicing Wim Hof breathing I've noticed some people inhale loudly. It's easy to associate big noise and big effort with big breath, but noise can be misleading. Often the big inhale sound is created from tensing muscles in the throat. We can get just as deep a breath in, if not a deeper one, by relaxing the throat. Focus on activating your diaphragm instead. Bring that breath down into your belly and lower abdomen. You can do this quietly.
You can also focus on flow instead of volume, and by volume I mean both the sound your breath makes and the amount you're getting in. When our breath flows continuously, in a loop with no pauses, it creates a high vibration in our bodies. This high vibration draws towards it any energy vibrating at a lower frequency, and guess what vibrates at a lower frequency? Negative emotions. At the end of the day, all our thoughts are energy. Everything is. By allowing our breath to flow freely, round and round without stopping, we give ourselves the opportunity to let go of painful feelings. To integrate them and move on. Now you know why so many people cry when they try connected breathing. Better out than in.
2. Work smart not hard
This one's similar to the previous point. Sometimes people move a lot when they breathe, and I mean a lot! Their shoulders go up and down with each breath. They use certain muscles in their back that aren't required for breathing. They may even push their neck in and out ('the pigeon'), rock back and forth, or scrunch up their nose and forehead. There are many reasons why people do this. Some have the perception that a physically demanding breath session, a 'work-out' so to speak, is a better breath session. Others have a deep-rooted belief that life is a struggle, perhaps at an unconscious level, and so we see the struggle play out in their breath, which they work very hard at keeping going.
The truth is the major muscle influencing the depth of your breath is your diaphragm, the sheet of fibrous tissue that forms a wall between the chest and the abdomen. Intercostal muscles between each rib also play a role, expanding and shrinking the chest cavity with each breath, but just try activating your intercostal muscles for me. Humour me. You'll quickly notice that the feeling of your rib-cage expanding and contracting can only be achieved by focussing on activating the diaphragm, or perhaps by focussing on your nose/throat. I'm yet to meet someone that can consciously connect with their intercostal muscles, and so what I encourage you to do is become the master of your diaphragm.
All this to say, work smart not hard. Use your diaphragm effectively and you do not need to waste energy moving loads of other muscles. Breathe with your shoulders still and relaxed. Same for you neck and back. In stillness you might discover an even deeper sense of calm.
3. Become aware of fidgeting and stop it...lovingly
We're a funny lot us humans. Sometimes, even when we have chosen to practice breathing, we still manage to sabotage the experience. We suddenly need to scratch our head, sip some water and go to the loo. Then we need to adjust the way we're sitting, swap our red meditation cushion for the blue one, then swap it back again. Don't beat yourself about it. It's normal to resist new things, that's why it takes great effort to create good habits. Learn to laugh at your tics and twitches. Accept them compassionately as resistance. The mind sabotages our practice because its job is to keep us in our comfort zone, the place it perceives as safest for us. It genuinely doesn't know what will happen on the other side of our 'strange', new breathing practice so it tries to get us to stop doing it.
Overcome fidgeting by taking a moment to scan your body, a few times each breathing session. What are you moving that could keep still? Common fidgets include moving fingers, toes and stopping to lick your lips or swallow. It's true, you can get a dry mouth when you open-mouth breathe, but if you're honest with yourself is a dry mouth uncomfortable or just unfamiliar? When you challenge yourself to breathe through unfamiliar sensations, you'll soon find that you eventually forget about them. You can also try a positive affirmation, out loud or in your head: 'I am safe and still', 'It is safe to surrender'.
I hope these tips take your Wim Hof practice to a whole new level and that you feel the benefits of going even more deeply into the experience. Let me know how you get on and don't forget to subscribe via my website to receive next month's column straight to your inbox. Thanks for reading.
'Crazy Like A Monkey' song by Wim Hof