In the New Hampshire winter of 2005, I gave up use of all jackets, sweaters, and warm layers for the season. Crossing between high school campus buildings in a t-shirt during snow and freezing rain, I received appalled looks from my peers and teachers, but felt invigorated and unconstrained. I began asking, why are we afraid of the cold? I later reverted to social norms, and by college, I was a lover of warmth. But the question stayed with me.
Then, about a year ago, I heard of Wim Hof. Hof holds world records for running barefoot marathons above the Arctic circle, for swimming under solid ice, and for climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in shorts. My small question became an obsession.
At IDEO, we look to extreme users to inspire the things we design, and Wim Hof seemed like the ultimate extreme user. I joined one of his workshops in the Pyrenees, Spain, and met folks from all over the world, who had come to find answers for their mental health, physical health, or athletic performance.
Hof is the cold fairy. He gives you permission to go into the cold, to enjoy it, to seek it. Cold has been his teacher, and breath-work his toolkit. He is happy to share his methods, and create the conditions for others to push their boundaries. Under his guidance, I took a 10 minute ice bath and did not shiver, during or after. I saw many new friends make breakthroughs that week. The cold was teaching us that we were in control and the decider of our own experiences: we could overcome pure pain.
Stanford Neuroscience Professor Andrew Huberman was invited by Hof to join our workshop, and we spoke about how to apply his Method, and about bringing Hof to California.
I began teaching my distillation of the Wim Hof Method to fellow IDEOers in Palo Alto, and to my surprise, over a third of our studio expressed interest in a mini-course. We got ready. We talked about how we stay warm—from shivering, to insulation, to mitochondrial chemical energy. We breathed, and observed the adrenaline-high cortisol-low effects of deep breath cycles with retentions.
Then Wim Hof and Prof. Huberman joined us in person for an afternoon of ice baths and to present their talk, “The Mind Made Visible”. This led to a great discussion on the inner workings of the Hof Method, and about the science behind his approach. Scientists are intrigued by this case of the “extreme user” who can teach his methods to other people and show results immediately—in contrast with a pranayama guru who requires 20 years of study. A groundbreaking study has shown that participants trained in the Method can control their autonomic nervous systems and suppress immune response to an endotoxin injection (the introduction of bacteria, which can trigger many adverse physiological reactions in humans).
The Method involves several minutes of deep inhalation-driven breathing, followed by holding the breath on a full exhalation for as long as is comfortable. Beginners can hold their breath for a remarkable 1- 2 minutes. After extended practice people can reach 4+ minutes. During this process, the blood pH becomes alkaline and prevents you from passing out, while also serving to restore balance in the endocrine and immune systems. At around the 90 second mark, an adrenaline release is triggered. Unlike when adrenaline is pumped out if your life is in peril, low cortisol levels ensure that you remain calm, focused, and able to direct the superhuman power boost.
The cold and breath work go hand-in-hand—the breathing fortifies you for the cold, and the release of cold-shock proteins from sustained ice-water immersion amplifies the effects of the breathing. The practice, Hof says, resets insomnia/jet lag, reduces chronic pain, heads off depression, improves memory, and increases longevity. (Note: the breathing Method should be performed in advance of, not during, cold water immersion).
For me, the Method has been most helpful while mountaineering. By controlling my body's reactions to cold and over-indexing on oxygen, I stay comfortable in extreme conditions and acclimatize more effectively. After meeting Hof, I'm no longer asking, why are we afraid of the cold? But instead, how might we harness the cold to unlock our own potential?
Kate is a principal software designer & project lead at IDEO, who planned for life by reading science fiction novels, and accordingly specialized in translating between robots and humans. Kate also rides bicycles underwater, sleeps in a tent 50 nights a year, and abstains from an internet connection at home.