The Wim Hof Method (WHM) has exploded in popularity over the last decade, partly due to the uniqueness and charisma of it’s founder and partly due to its powerful ability to help people’s lives. In a nutshell it is composed of 3 elements- breathwork, cold-water exposure, and mind training. The breathwork technique involves taking 20-30 swift big breaths, then exhaling and holding the breath out whilst relaxing the body. This initially boosts oxygen throughout the body and the breath-hold then increases the base level of CO2 in the blood, which in turn makes more oxygen and energy available to the body. The over-all effect is one of feel light, relaxed and energized in the body and calm and clear in the mind. The cold-water exposure progresses from finishing your shower with 30 seconds of cold, to having purely cold showers and then to cold-water swimming and ice-baths. This invigorates the body and has a potent effect on many aspects of our health, from reducing inflammation and clearing out toxins from the body, to helping with pain and greatly boosting blood circulation. Wim Hof himself has drawn heavily from Eastern practices and through experimentation he has innovated to create this simple system that aims to transform people’s physical and mental health.
If we look at the WHM through the lens of Chinese medicine, we can uncover some useful knowledge about how it is best utilized and gain a different angle on how it affects our health.
The first thing that stands out to people familiar which Chinese medicine is the question of exposure to the cold- is it beneficial or detrimental to our health? From the traditional perspective exposure to cold is seen as playing a definite part in many illnesses. It is thought that when the cold ‘gets into your bones’ it can lodge there and freeze up our blood circulation and general health. This plays a role in the common cold and flu but also significantly in women’s health and digestive health in general. In Chinese medicine all the metabolic processes are envisioned as types of fire in the body, like a digestive fire or a fire in the heart. Maintaining a healthy fire that is not raging but not too low is key to regulating many aspects of our health. As a rule of thumb, unless someone is constitutionally very strong in this area we advise to always keep the feet and waist warm in cold weather and to avoid drinking iced drinks, especially after meals. So, how could having an ice cold shower in the middle of winter be any help at all? Well, we need to look in more detail about our own temperature regulation to understand this.
When we are hot our bodies adapt and self-cool, the pores open and we sweat. When we are cold our body adapts and retains heat in the trunk so our vital organs don’t freeze up. These two extremes can be thought of as reflections of Yin and Yang, with Yang being heat and Yin being cold. The nature of Yin and Yang is that they balance each other, support each other, and also transform into each other. So, when we experience extreme cold, there is a tipping point where our coldness transforms to heat. It’s as if the initial retention of heat in the trunk bounces back and flushes warmth throughout the whole body. If you have ever jumped into cold water you may have experienced this- often people come out with bright pink skin and after the initial drop in temperature the body alights and becomes very warm. Rather than just contracting against the cold this actually opens the blood vessels and boosts circulation. This is also the reason why steam sauna’s are so popular in hot countries, like Thailand or Turkey- after getting very hot, the body releases so much heat that everything feels very cool and clear afterwards. There is a caveat here though in that to initiate this transformation in temperature our body needs a certain kind of strength and energy. If you are too weak, jumping into ice water will just shock the body and give you hypothermia. You actually need to feel this bounce-back of heat rather than just feeling cold after exposure. So, a gradual process of acclimatization is needed.
In Chinese medicine, this aspect of our health, which controls temperature regulation and transformation, is called the San Jiao, which translates as the Triple Burner. Although it is considered an organ, it’s quite unusual in that it is described as having no physical form. Rather it is a process of transformation that occurs throughout the body and in particular between the upper, middle, and lower aspects of the trunk of the body. Closely related to metabolism, it is sometimes thought of as the bodies’ ‘shock-absorber’ and is known to be sensitive to sudden changes in temperature.
This is an important key to understanding the WHM- the goal is not to shock the body, but for the body to slowly acclimatize to colder and colder temperatures. Experientially, this means that when you turn the shower to cold, you don’t flinch and yelp, but allow your body to be non-reactive and contained, and this only works if you find the right temperature threshold where this is possible- not too cold too quick in other words. Gradually this will have an effect of strengthening the San Jiao and help us deal with shock with more resilience. This is where the mind-training aspect comes in- rather than flinching from the cold, both our body and mind become fortified to it, which entirely changes the experience.
Whereas in the West the mind is thought of as being distinct from the body, in the East the mind and body are intertwined at every level. It is said that our mind is rooted to the body not only in our brain, but more significantly in our blood. The experience of feeling our blood flowing through our body and our heart’s ceaseless beating, this is a foundation of not just our physicality but also our mentality. It gives us an underlying sense of our embodiment; feeling our heart beating makes us feel alive much more so than any sensation in the head. And so, when we hear the WHM as exercising and strengthening the opening and closing of all the micro-vessels and blood circulation in the body, we can see this process as flushing open our minds too and unblocking ‘psycho-sclerosis’. This accounts for people’s reports for WHM helping them with all manner of depression, anxiety and trauma. The feeling of invigoration breaks down any divide between mind and body.
In many schools of thought in Chinese medicine, ‘blood stagnation’ is considered the single most detrimental factor in our health. A simple way of understanding this is to compare the blood circulation of a newly born baby with that of a 90-year-old. It is very rare to see a bruise on a baby, even though they are always falling over and knocking themselves- their blood circulation is so good that they heal incredibly quickly. But if you look at the hands and feet of a 90-year-old they constantly look all blue and bruised.
As we grow older our blood circulation gradually slows and becomes stagnant, leading to all manner of poor health and disease. Therefore, a major protocol in Chinese medicine is to ‘move blood’, to get things flowing, warm, and well circulated. For this reason, in acute injury, we only advise icing the injury if there is significant swelling and inflammation, and only at short intervals. For this same reason, many Chinese medicine practitioners might be skeptical of WHM. However, if it is done sensibly in a gradual manner and if we consider it’s potent effect on blood circulation, we will see that it actually works under the same premise of clearing blood stagnation and strengthening the body’s inner fire.
Lastly, let us consider the breathwork. In WHM the technique is known to have been adapted from certain Indian and Tibetan pranayama techniques. In Chinese medicine breathing is considered perhaps the most significant thing that we can change to improve our health. Chinese medicine has five branches, and breathing techniques fall under the branch of ‘qigong’, which is a type of therapeutic exercise used for daily maintenance of health and for healing. Although there are hundreds of styles of qigong, the most common feature in all qigong breathing though is that there tends to be more emphasis on breath structure rather than rhythm and volume. Whereas in WHM the instructions are fairly basic and focus simply on breathing fairly quickly and not straining the body, in qigong more attention is given to gently opening the postural habits and constrictions that hamper a naturally full breath. This means working with the natural expansion of the breath to stretch and release tension in the rib-cage, armpits, abdomen, spine, neck and shoulders. It also means switching from ‘top-down’ breathing to ‘bottom-up’ breathing.
A simple way to do this, which can greatly enhance the WHM, is to physically relax and release the perineum when you inhale. The pelvic floor is considered the base of the body and when our awareness is anchored there it shifts us into a more present state of being, similar to a ‘flow state’. The easiest way to engage this area is to gently squeeze and bring you attention to the perineum at the end of your exhale. When you successfully release the perineum, this will encourage the breath to release throughout the abdomen and fully through the body, which in turn will increase blood-flow and circulation. In qigong parlance the perineum is sometimes referred to as the ‘Stone Gate’, as fully relaxing it is easier said than done. But by simply dropping our awareness to the pelvic floor we will signal our body to reflect inwards, shifting us towards calmness. This will help still the mind during any type of breathing, but particularly in breath retention. It more generally will increase ‘vagal tone’.
When we exhale, and when we pause at the end of the exhale, we shift into a Yin state, where everything becomes very relaxed and restive. This is concordant with our modern understanding of physiology- the exhale slows our heart rate and increases the enervation of the parasympathetic nerve, the Vagus, known as the ‘rest and digest’ nerve or the ‘anti-anxiety’ nerve. This nerve runs from our face down through the front of our body, through all the internal organs. The primary Yin meridian in the body, the Ren Mai, runs down this exact pathway, from the tongue straight down the centre of the body to the perineum. If we mentally trace down the Ren Mai when we exhale we will support this process of shifting towards a Yin state. The most common characteristic of Yin is receptivity. So when we are in this kind of state we are more attuned to our gut instincts, and also have a greater ability to listen to others and integrate all that our senses perceive. This is exactly the same as what is termed ‘vagal tone’. It not only has a huge benefit on many aspects of our health, but actually can make us more effective in everything we do.
A great study which illustrates this is made by John Coates, a stock-broker turned neuro-scientist. He discovered that traders who were more aware of their bodies were across-the-board more successful in gauging the markets. In other words, people who are able to listen to their bodies open themselves to a much greater degree of sensitivity that lies below the conscious mind.
The Wim Hof Method can be approached and used in many different ways; it is a basic but powerful technique that can positively impact your health. However, the way in which you do it is key, as everyone has different constitutions and therefore will respond differently to its techniques. It also acts as a great spring-board for becoming more attuned to your own body and as an introduction to the subtler arts of meditation, yoga, and qigong.
The connections between WHM and Chinese medicine could be elaborated and explored much further, but to keep things practical I will summarize what I recommend in light of these observations:
2. Cold Showers