What if conditioning yourself to withstand extremely cold temperatures was the secret to a healthier—maybe even happier and more peaceful— life? In the second episode of Netflix's new six-part series Goop Lab, six of Gwyneth Paltrow's employees experiment with this very idea.
During the episode, which is entitled "Cold Comfort," staffers head to wintery Lake Tahoe to meet with Wim Hof, the legendary ice man, whose self-developed wellness practice is touted as a means to make the body more resilient against both physical and psychological stress. Over the course of the episode, staffers confront individual fears about cold exposure through learning the specific Wim Hof breathing technique, and then employ it when they jump into the frigid lake—only dressed in their swimwear. Here we explore Wim Hof, his method and the potential benefits from its practice.
Who is Wim Hof?
Wim Hof, otherwise known as "The Iceman" is an eight-time world record holder, for accomplishments such as swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice. He even holds a record for running a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow. Hof and his identical twin brother, Marcel Hof, have created the Wim Hof Method, which is based on three pillars: cold therapy, breathing techniques, and a conscious meditative blend of the two first pillars.
The idea is simple: mastering these pillars will help us control our instincts, our thoughts, health, and even our happiness. Hof developed the techniques espoused by his method following the suicide of his first wife in 1995.
What is the Wim Hof Technique?
The Wim Hof technique has three tent-poles: cold therapy, specialized breathing techniques, and a commitment to mindful mastery of both cold exposure and conscious breathing.
The Wim Hof method has variations on its breathing method, but there are three basic phases. The first is controlled hyperventilation, in which the participant performs 30 cycles of breathing. In each cycle, the individual takes a powerful breath in to fully fill the lungs and then passively releases the breath, instead of actively exhaling. This is repeated at a steady pace thirty times, creating similar tingling sensations or light-headedness to hyperventilation. Then once the 30 cycles of controlled hyperventilation have been completed, the exhalation phase of the method is initiated. The participant is then instructed to take another deep breath in, and let it out completely. Then with empty lungs, hold one's breath for as long as possible. The last phase is breath retention. During this last phase, when the participant has a strong urge to breathe, they can take a full deep inhale, which they are instructed to hold for around 15 to 20 seconds before they let it go, which might cause a slight sense of a head rush.
These three prongs of controlled breathing, according to Hof, are essential to being able to withstand cold exposure—and other conditions that might cause the physical body, or brain distress. Hof explains during the Goop Lab episode that his breathing technique helps create an alkaline environment in the body, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a feeling of calm and relaxation.
So what happens next? In the episode, after Goop staffers learn to breathe properly, they head outside in snowy Lake Tahoe, clad only in bathing suits, to do a few simple exercises—and then plunge into freezing water. His method of breathing is then employed to help the participants control their involuntary natural physical reactions to the 38-degree water, allowing them to endure the shock of the cold to their system.
This exposure to the cold is thought to activate the nervous system and jumpstart a release noradrenaline, helping the body respond to stress. Hof also claims that this exposure to the cold elevates brown fat stores, to help keep us warm, but also convert stored fat into heat.
What happens to your body when you do the Wim Hof method on a regular basis?
According to Hof, a regular commitment to the breathing practice can help on induce calm in the body, with therapeutic effects including reduced inflammation, anxiety, depression, and even physical pain. The Wim Hof method is also suggested to rev the metabolism, improve sleep quality, sharpen mental clarity and focus, as well as boost the function of the immune system. Some other purported benefits include: better emotional regulation and overall decreased stress levels.
Of course it should be noted, that while there is academic and scientific evidence of the Wim Hof Method's benefits, anyone who undertakes the breathing method and cold exposure should first consult a physician. Additionally, mastery of the breathing technique is essential prior to cold exposure, as low temperatures can pose significant health risks—and even death in extreme cases—if executed improperly.
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