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On a chilly April afternoon a dozen men and three women all in swimwear surround a kiddie pool in an outdoor space in Hamilton. Exotic fish decals decorate the bottom of the crystal blue pool, but the water at 40 F (4 C) is less than tropical.
Psyching themselves up, they crouch in wide stances and grunt “hoo, ha!” — one man is overheard chanting “I am heat, I am sun,” and then one at a time they step into the pool of icy water and submerge themselves — a baptism of sorts into the Wim Hof Method.
“You put someone in an ice bath and they’re a different person,” says workshop leader Giovanni Bartolomeo. Their self-confidence gets a boost and they realize a lot of the fears they had were just in their head, he says. “(The Wim Hof Method) really inspired me to see what the true potential was of human beings.”
The Wim Hof Method is mindfulness as an extreme sport.
Its founder Wim Hof is a 58-year-old Dutchman who is famous for his ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures for long periods of time.
After the death of his wife by suicide in 1995, Hof began soul searching, plunging into frozen ponds to numb the emotional pain and push his body beyond its limits. Hof, who once said “cold is the absolute doorway to the soul,” discovered he could withstand freezing water and extreme altitude with the proper regimen of mental focus and breath work.
Bartolomeo heard about Hof through the popular 2015 VICE documentary called Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman about the daredevil and thought climbing a mountain in shorts seemed like an ideal item for a “macho” bucket list.
As Bartolomeo began studying the Method, culminating last November at advanced instructor training in Colorado, it became more than a box to tick, but a lifestyle transformation. He quickly doubled the number of push-ups he could do from around 25 to 50 and has endured hours in below freezing temperatures wearing little more than shorts.
“I’ve done a lot of soul searching,” he says. Through the Hof Method, Bartolomeo built up the courage to endure other challenges, such as completing a 55-day fast during which he only drank juice and lost 40 pounds, and travelling to South America to drink the spiritual brew ayahuasca, a powerful substance that makes some vomit and hallucinate.
Bartolomeo was the first in Canada certified as an instructor in the self-improvement lifestyle championed by Hof that makes mindfulness an extreme sport and mystifies many in the global scientific community.
The goal of this Method is to control the autonomic nervous system and achieve improved strength, health and happiness. Hof’s record-setting cold immersion ability baffled scientists. They put him under the microscope so to speak, to learn how he can withstand so much.
Many scientists and Hof followers believe that through a rigorous daily routine of mental focus, cold immersion and meditative breathwork, the human body can exploit a deeper strength to lose weight, boost physical performance and even combat and prevent illness.
“It’s largely unproven but that doesn’t mean it is right or wrong,” says Greg Wells, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, who has studied hyperventilation and cold immersion — two pillars of Hof’s Method — and tried the technique a few times at the Zurich Titan Summit in December. “This is an example of a practitioner pushing the limits of what humans are capable of and science is being forced to catch up.”
During one of the major studies on the Method in 2011, scientists at the Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands compared the immune response of a Hof-trained group to an untrained group by administering E. coli bacteria that should make them sick. The Hof-trained group was fine, while the untrained group was sick and shaking for hours.
The Method has three pillars: cold therapy, breathing, and mental focus. The latter is what wimhofmethod.com describes as “commitment,” the foundation of the first two pillars. Cold immersion and breathwork “require patience and dedication in order to be fully mastered,” the site reads.
During the daily breathing regimen, which is outlined in Method workshops, Hof followers complete 30 deep hyperventilation-style breaths and hold the final exhale for as long as they can, usually a couple minutes. This process of increased respiration expels carbon dioxide, lowering the acidity and increasing the alkaline levels in the bloodstream, according to research published in the scientific journal PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This effect not only raises the oxygen levels in the blood but turns off pain receptors in the body to enhance the ability to withstand cold for longer.
All of this should be done under supervision, advises Wells, as there is a risk of fainting from the hyperventilation and a risk of “afterdrop” following cold immersion when cold blood circulates to the core and drops the body’s core temperature.
Performing the Method is like hacking the body’s true potential, many practitioners say, which is why some of Hof and Bartolomeo’s peers consider themselves “bio-hackers.”
At the Hamilton workshop, 16 people lay on yoga mats hyperventilating, psyching themselves up for the ice bath. Among them is 28-year-old architectural designer Jeff McGlynn, a former bartender and self-proclaimed partier who turned his life around when he began to focus on nutrition, meditation and other mindfulness regimens including the Wim Hof Method.
“It’s medicine, man,” he says. “Generally, we sit in a conscious state that’s way too high with all the stimulation we have around us.”
McGlynn now considers himself a “mindfulness hobbyist” who practises Kundalini yoga, a form of meditative yoga focused on releasing a primal energy at the base of the spine — and now the Wim Hof Method of breathing, cold immersion and mental focus. McGlynn was able to stay in the icy kiddie pool for two minutes. He says cold immersion has helped him overcome hip pain, too.
Some in the workshop say they “felt an energy” after the breathing routine. It’s not uncommon to laugh or cry during Wim Hof workshops, says Bartolomeo. He shares the story of one workshop participant who went through a “portal” and became an eagle in his mind during the breathing regimen.
Before Bartolomeo started plunging in ice baths, he was a business school grad making good money, but felt unfulfilled. “Something was really lacking in my life, a sense of purpose or passion, and I didn’t know how to fill it,” he says.
“Once I started doing the Wim Hof stuff I started breaking down these mental barriers,” he says. “A couple years ago I’d think it was absolutely insane to go into the freezing cold, -10 C in your shorts for two or three hours,” says Bartolomeo.
But now he has no problem.
“It really opens up your mind to what else is really possible.”