THE FIRST TIME Wim Hof jumped into freezing-cold water, it was love.
“It’s like the first time you meet your beloved,” he tells me from Amsterdam. Hof talks about cold water the way Shakespeare wrote sonnets — lilting, aching declarations of love. “It’s like you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s a deep understanding, a deep thing that has hit you. You don’t know what it is, but it’s what you’ve been looking for. You get struck, and from there it will never leave you again.”
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That was 46 years ago and in that time Hof, now 62, has built his life around icy cold water: living in tandem with it, learning to adapt to it, becoming one with it. His entire world, it seems, is inextricably tied to penetrating its frigid surface in hopes of understanding its primitive secrets. It’s for this reason he’s been christened “The Iceman.”
Hof, a hearty, unkempt man with a rumbling voice and clipped accent when speaking in English, has savvily parlayed this into the Wim Hof Method, a mini media empire that includes instructional videos, group seminars, and a podcast. A BBC docuseries and movie of his life, starring Joseph Fiennes, are in the works.
Boiled down to its essence, the method consists of three pillars: exposure to extreme cold, breath control, and repetition. According to Hof, the first two pillars are a delicate dance with one another. By learning to control one’s breath, a person can exert power over their sympathetic nervous system — commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response, as it’s responsible for regulating moments of extreme stress in the body. The cold therapy, meanwhile, shocks the nervous system, which, he says, triggers various natural bodily functions, like reducing inflammation and the release of endorphins. More importantly, it is a galvanizing act, which brings you into the now, like meditation but with a visceral punch. The breathing techniques he teaches — long, slow, deep inhalations through the nose and exhalations out through the mouth, 30 times — are meant to help calm the body and mind during this moment of induced trauma. The last part, repetition, is just practice, continually exploring the ways we can control our bodies. Through our breath, the most basic life force we have, we can connect our physical and mental selves.
“When you get into the cold water, you are forced to go into the body,” he explains, his eyebrows shooting upwards toward his beanie. “And into the deepest part of the brain stem, which is connected to the opioids, the cannabinoids, the adrenaline, which is all part of our deep brain stem, the limbic system. It’s those moments where you have to be … I am here! I have to be here! These are the oldest systems we have that make energy, to be strong, to be healthy, to sense the purpose of life itself. Namely to get out of the fucking freezing-cold water, which is dangerous.” He pauses and looks at me, wild-eyed: “And then you know who you are, where you are, and why you are there. It’s all there, and it’s all so simple.”
‘And then you know who you are, where you are, and why you are there. It’s all there, and it’s all so simple.’
Hof is a prodigious, charismatic orator who speaks at length about his theories of the mind-body connection and the brain’s ability to heal one’s physical self through sheer will. It’s intoxicating and also sometimes dubious sounding, but always highly engaging. And, at times, it all feels like a bit of New Age ballyhoo, the sort of thing that would attract the attention of modern-day mystics like Gwyneth Paltrow, Joe Rogan, or Twitter founder Jack Dorsey — which it has.
And yet, despite some of the more outlandish claims, Hof has become something of a fascination to the world of empirical science. Most famously, in 2014, Radboud University in the Netherlands conducted a study on Hof, where they injected him with an endotoxin that typically induces flu-like symptoms, such as fever and headache. Hof didn’t experience them. “These results are definitely remarkable,” Dr. Peter Pickkers said at the time. Not only that, but Hof was also able to train 12 others to achieve similar results. Right now, Hof is working with scientists in San Francisco on studies having to do with inflammation in the body, DNA, and chromosomes’ effects on aging.
“Only later, much later, did I understand the science behind it,” Hof says. “I just felt great doing it. Everyone was calling me an idiot, and crazy!”
Hof has, in the last several years, moved, if not into the mainstream, then closer to it. Or maybe the mainstream moved closer to him. It makes sense. In a world where we are more distracted and less present and at home in our own bodies than ever before, he offers a simple, straightforward way to reconnect to some lost version of ourselves — using little more than the cold-water faucet on our shower. “We have a responsibility to awaken to our deeper mechanisms,” he says, practically shouting. “Everybody is able to feel divine!” In a time where everything feels chaotic or beyond our control, he offers actionable advice: breathe. He reminds us that the human body and mind are so much more mysterious and unknowable than we can ever imagine.
Cold water on your body can feel, strangely, like intense heat — sudden and consuming. It can feel like the slice of a knife. I know because recently I found myself at a spa in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood, where submerged in an ice bath, I tested Hof’s theories. I had spent the better part of two days watching Hof teach his breathing techniques on his YouTube page (just shy of 2 million subscribers). As I practiced in my home, I experienced the tingling, dizzying euphoria that is common to new practitioners.
Breath is a funny thing, our most foundational life-giving act, and one we rarely, if ever, think about. Yet Hof, for all his mad intensity, is right — it’s the first thing that goes haywire when your body is under duress. After dipping a toe into the frigid pool, I took a few calming inhales, trying to connect to the rhythmic grounding effect that a slow, steady breath can provide.
And then I jumped in.
Immediately I felt the breath leave my body, forcefully, like I was a whoopee cushion being sat on. As a result, I gasped, drawing in a sharp intake of air. A tightness came to my chest and throat and my breathing felt immediately frantic, shallow. Even in the safety of this spa, my body was in a sudden state of panic.
‘This body, it’s your house and you’re standing right in front of it, and here’s the key.’
I remembered something Hof had said during our conversation: “The first thing you do when you go into cold water,” he said, taking a dramatic gulp of air, “is come alive! It’s like babies when they come into this world.” He paused. “And we get reborn every time we enter the water.”
After that initial shock, I forced myself back into the long, slow inhales and the forceful exhales, this time through chattering teeth. My skin felt taut with goosebumps and my body felt rigid. But another breath, and another, and another, and things, indeed, began to slow, to warm, to level out. I began to feel like I was pushing my own body heat outward into the water, instead of absorbing the water’s chill. After about 10 breaths, I had found an odd feeling of relaxation, with my eyes going a bit fuzzy, as if so slack they couldn’t focus. I felt a comforting sense of peace wash over me, and for a moment, I couldn’t help but think, Is this what it’s like before you die? But there, in the back of my mind, was Hof’s voice telling me that this moment, this calm in the face of extenuating circumstances, was me taming a part of myself that was once wild. We get reborn every time we enter the water.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Hof why it was he who was chosen to bring this message to the world.
“I think it was my mother,” he answered. “She was a pious, simple woman. Back then, in her town, when you got married you had to stay home — how crazy is that!?”
When Hof was born, he was one of a pair, twins, but they didn’t know he was there in her belly; he was hiding. “I was almost born too late, suffocating in the cold. But my mother, she was invoking that moment: Oh God, let this child live. If you do, we will make him a missionary. And I’m not a Protestant or a Krishna or whatever, but I am a man on a mission. I think that’s because of my mother.”
Hof remembers many years later standing in a hospital in Manhattan, overlooking Central Park. He had been working with Dr. Kevin Tracey of the Feinstein Institute, undergoing experiments to see if he could use his breath to control the vagus nerve, a sprawling system that travels from the brain to the belly, and that regulates internal processes like digestion, respiration, and heart rate. The early findings were promising. “The doctor told me, ‘Hof, if you can reproduce these findings, that means huge consequences for humankind.’ And it was then that I knew my mission was born.”
A few hours later, Hof received a phone call informing him that his mother had died. “You see how it all connects?” he asked me.
So all this — all the interviews, the magazine articles, the TV appearances — are part of his mission to help spread the word about life. “At the end of my life, am I going to say, ‘What was this all about?’ No. I’m here to bring it to everyone’s doorstep, to every person’s awareness. That they have the right and the power to enter into their own depth. This body, it’s your house and you’re standing right in front of it, and here’s the key. And it’s amazing — it’s your body, it’s your potential!”
Max Berlinger Writer
Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for GQ, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Pursuits, Men’s Health, and many other publications. He covers the intersection of fashion, lifestyle, culture, and technology.
Hsiao-Ron Cheng Illustrator
Hsiao-Ron Cheng is a Taiwanese digital artist/illustrator. She started to work as a freelance illustrator in 2012 and soon received international attention. In the same year, her work was shortlisted for the Young Illustrator Award. Cheng’s clients range from fashion brands to design agencies worldwide.