If you’ve heard of Wim Hof you may be familiar with the incredible records set by this 61-year-old Dutch athlete known as “The Iceman.” He’s run a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot only wearing shorts. He’s climbed the highest mountains in the world in extreme cold – again, wearing only shorts. He’s run a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking anything during his run.
Wim says that he’s not special – that anyone can do these things if they train their mind and body the same way he does. He’s a huge proponent of cold showers and ice baths. He has a cold shower challenge where you can toe into taking cold showers by starting with a 15-second cold blast at the end of your normal shower. Then slowly, you increase it by 15 seconds per week. From my own experience – after the first few days, it becomes normal (kind of) and it’s just “something you do” – like flossing your teeth. Which is weird, I know.
Wim is also a huge advocate for breathing deeply and he’s developed his own method – the Wim Hof Method (WHM). It’s very similar to Tummo meditation although it’s not based on this. If you’re not familiar with Tummo (I sure wasn’t), the idea there is to focus on individual experience of how the method works for each person. The specific practice involves breathing in deeply, breathing out slowly, and visualizing flames while breathing.
I gave WHM breathing a shot because I’d already been using his app for the cold shower challenge and I saw the Breathing Bubble widget and was curious. I’ve done some things like box breathing before and found it helpful for calming my body and slowing my heart rate, and I was curious how WHM breathing might be different. When I did box breathing in the past, it was usually just every once in a while when I felt especially stressed or anxious – but it wasn’t something I did on a regular basis. It was definitely a key part in one of the coolest peak experiences I’ve had in my life, which I wrote about here.
Wim says the main two things his breathing method can do for you are to help you relax and to give you more energy. I’ve found both of those to be the case for me. But what’s important isn’t what someone else says it can do for you – it’s what you get out of it from your own experience.
If you only get one thing from this post – stop what you’re doing, download the app right now, and take 10 minutes to do a guided breathing bubble session. If you want, pick back up here after you’re done to catch the rest of the post. I’ll wait.
The reason I’m writing this is that the WHM breathing has been the most calming thing I’ve found that works for me, with a stronger effect than post-yoga or post-meditation. Wim Hof has a pretty high profile and there are plenty of articles and videos about his cold shower challenge which I’d definitely recommend. But in my opinion, his breathing method is the real magic. I’ll tell you how I’ve done it, challenges I’ve run into, and what it’s done for me – and my kid. I believe it can do the same for you and yours.
WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO DO IT
It’s really very simple: you take about 30 deep breaths in a row in a specific way, then you hold your breath for as long as you like. Then you take one deep breath and hold for 15 seconds. That’s one round – repeat as few or many times as you like. I usually do three rounds and that takes me about 10 minutes total.
I’ve used Wim’s app for it every time – you could do it without the app if you prefer to count the breaths yourself and use your own timer for the breath-hold. To me it’s much simpler to just use the guided breathing in his app. It’s also really motivating to have his voice, the count, the sound of the breath, and the guided timers for the breath hold plus his encouragement and the music along the way.
The breaths are on a guided pace – you can choose the standard pace or a slower pace. You pick if you’re doing 30 breaths, or 31, or 32 (up to 40 max) – and when you decide that’s enough deep breaths, just tap the screen to move to the next step. Then you hold your breath until you decide you’re ready to breathe again. When you’re done with the breath-hold, tap the screen and he’ll tell you to take a deep breath in and hold for 15 seconds.
After I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, I start most days out lying on the sofa and then doing my three rounds of WHM breathing. Depending on how many days I’ve strung in a row, I’m around two minutes of holding my breath. I know that sounds really long but I promise it’s not as long as it sounds. And it’s a gradual progression over days and weeks, so you don’t even feel the difference and it never seems long. You can start out with whatever length breath-hold you want – 5 seconds, 10 seconds, it doesn’t matter. The point is to let it be with ease and not to force anything.
For me there’s usually a progression of increased duration if I’m doing three rounds of WHM breathing. The first round breath-hold is the baseline, then the second round is usually 10-15 seconds longer that the first, and the third one is usually 10-15 seconds longer than the second.
Deciding When in the Day to Do my WHM Breathing Session: During the week it’s easy when I’m the first one in the house to wake up because it’s a quiet house. When I start my day with the breathing during the week, it sets a calm, quiet baseline and it feels like it’s supercharging my body. On the weekends it’s less quiet and I’m usually not the first one to wake up. So on the weekends, I’ll often do my 10 minutes sometime during the day instead of first thing. It’s still really useful although I can tell there’s a difference for sure when it’s the first thing I do after I wake up.
Telling my competitive ego to chill the F out: For humans, it’s generally true that “progress equals happiness.” It doesn’t necessarily matter how quickly we’re improving or moving ‘forward’, just that we’re stacking up tangible wins – regardless how small. Well, with WHM breathing I know that I’ve done more than two minutes for the breath hold a handful of times. My brain knows that number and I can get to a place where I assume that I should always be close to two minutes. When I do that, I can feel my body start to tense up and I realize that I’m trying to force it. When I take it easier and don’t worry about the number on the screen, it works much better.
Being OK With Not Having 100% Ideal Posture All The Time : The ideal posture is to be laying flat on your back with one or two support pillows under your back from about waist-level to shoulders. That opens up the abdomen area and especially the upper chest to take nice deep full breaths without any of that area being slightly collapsed. But the point of this isn’t to only do it if you’re able to do it with that setup. One of my favorite places to do WHM breathing is in the car and it’s still incredibly useful when I’m seated upright. This is important – if you’re going to do WHM breathing in a car, make sure you’re not driving and that the car is in park. You’ll see the disclaimers in the app: effects can vary and can be very calming, temporarily impacting your perception and reaction time (in a great way!). That’s partially the point – to change our mental and emotional experience in the moment, especially to go from a heightened state to a much more relaxed state.
WHAT IT’S DONE FOR ME AND WHAT IT CAN DO FOR YOU (AND YOUR KID(S))
If all I got out of this each morning was the experience of being still and quiet for 10 minutes with a relatively clear mind, that would be enough for me. Many days, 10 minutes that are uninterrupted and quiet are less easy to come by and I would totally take just that. But for me I’ve gotten more than that out of it.
WHM breathing is like meditation on jet fuel for me – meaning it’s what I assume that meditation must be like for people who are pros, doing it in the most true sense and getting everything out of it that they’d hope to get in terms of calming and centering effects. I’ve dabbled in meditation with mixed results and a mind that likes to chase thoughts like a squirrel. I get the concept – just observe your thoughts like clouds and when you realize you’re having a thought, tell yourself “Oh yes, there I go having a thought. That’s totally okay. Now I’m going to go back to just repeating a phrase in my mind or I’ll pay attention to my breath.” I buy into the theory and I’ve definitely had times where meditation has worked fairly well on its own. But from my own experience, WHM breathing has given me that same experience every time without fail – and really without even trying.
That said, WHM breathing pairs great with meditation and if you have 20 minutes, I can’t say enough good things about doing 10 minutes of WHM breathing plus 10 minutes of meditation – any kind you like. But if I only had 10 minutes, I’d be doing WHM breathing every time. What I’ve gotten from it after the session each time is stillness, a quiet mind, a reset, lowered heart rate, and a return to here and now – meaning less thoughts about the past and future. Just being in the current moment and feeling the sensation of breathing. It may last for a while or only a few minutes and either one’s okay – it’s comforting just to know that it’s there and to experience it for a moment.
This one was unexpected – I’ve gotten our six-year-old daughter to do WHM breathing rounds with me too. Now I’m not trying to mischaracterize it – these are almost always under duress and I don’t give her an option of whether she wants to do it or not. These are moments when she’s overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated and so on – and when I realize that a reset for her will do a world of good. When I mention it, she tells me she hates it and that she doesn’t need or want to do it. I tell her that when someone says that, it means they DEFINITELY need to do it.
We’ll do one round – unless she doesn’t follow along, and then we do another one until she does. At the end when it’s time for the breath hold, she does maybe 10 seconds and then does her best to be still until we get to the one-minute mark. I tell her to just take it easy and she can hold her breath for as long or short as she wants but that the point is to do the 40 breaths up front and then to be still. Every single time it’s brought about a calmer kiddo like magic.
My favorite thing about Wim’s breathing method is that for me, there’s nothing subtle about it and there’s nothing that I need to buy-into philosophically for it to work. It’s all experiential and the results are very tangible and obvious. My mental and emotional state afterwards is night-and-day different than before the session, for all but the most extreme cases. There are definitely some times where it’s only felt marginally helpful – but those have been the emotions on the maximum end of the spectrum in terms of intensity.
Maintaining keystone daily habits can be tough to come by for me. By that I mean the habits that I do every day, no matter what, and that just become almost automatic – where it would feel stranger to skip a day than to just keep stacking up another day of doing the habit. They’re not time-intensive but they give me a boost that I can’t ignore, and they make me feel like I somewhat have my S together. I get so much from these and just doing them and stringing together days of these habits gives me a sense of having the train on the tracks and having some sense of command over my day and my life.
I have two keystone habits and they’re both right after I wake up: a dental “carwash” deluxe package (brush, floss, mouthwash, tongue-scrape) followed by a 10-minute WHM breathing session. They’re related in that I’ve done them back-to-back enough that I’m conditioned to “first I brush, then right after I do the breathing session.” That’s really helpful with the breathing because there’s not even a consideration to skip it. It’s like it’s part of a larger habit, the brush-and-breathe combo. It’s just not complete without either of the two, in that specific order.
That’s a big deal, because I’ve had low consistency in the past trying to stack up days in a row for either of those habits – both for the full-tilt dental-spa-package and for WHM breathing. Putting them together gives me something stronger than just the sum of their parts – there’s some magic in there that joins them to make a super-habit. I go on autopilot from when I first grab the toothbrush all the way until I’m done with the last deep breath. There’s something really comforting about it because I know all the little steps I’m about to do, but I don’t have to think about any of them. And I also know exactly how great my teeth are about to feel, and how calm and grounded I’m about to feel after the breathing. It’s like for a moment, I don’t see the process and the steps as much as I see the vision of the results. But that said, I’ve also really come to enjoy every little step along the way – like flossing (yup) and watching the 30-second mouthwash timer (also yup). Weird, I know.
I invite you to give Wim’s breathing method a shot and see if it’s something that you might find useful. Forget everything that I’ve said about it and see how it makes you feel. For just three days in a row, do a 10-minute session that consists of those three rounds of WHM breathing. You’ll know by the end of the third day if it’s for you, and it won’t be based on anything but your own experience and listening to your own body and mind.