The Iceman Cometh to the Cotswolds
- Credit: Wim Hof Academy
As the craze for the Wim Hof Method sweeps the nation, Emma Mercer braves the ice to see if it does anything for her own wellbeing at a Wim Hof Method workshop in the Cotswolds…
Two minutes. It’s a phrase we bandy around all the time – ‘just give me two minutes’ – but how many times have you actually sat still and counted 120 seconds – you know, the proper ‘one elephant, two elephants…’ type of counting rather than rushing through as fast as you can? Well, let me tell you – two properly-timed minutes sitting outdoors in a metal container full of hunks of ice on a cold and breezy day in April in nothing but a swimming costume – it feels like a lifetime.
Before you think I’m completely crazy, let me explain that I don’t usually sit in huge containers of ice for fun. I was taking part in a Wim Hof Method workshop in the Cotswolds, partly to try to cure my over-riding fear of the cold, and partly out of curiosity to see if this combination of breathwork and cold water therapy can really be as life-changing as people say it is.
If you’re into popular culture and wellbeing, you’ve probably heard of the charismatic Dutchman Wim Hof and the extraordinary cold temperature feats he has put his body through – whether that’s climbing Kilimanjaro in nothing but shorts or running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot. As I write, the first episode of a new TV show, Freeze the Fear, has just aired on BBC 1, where celebrities join the Iceman himself by taking on increasingly difficult extreme cold challenges. But this isn’t just tough guy stuff, it’s also about tapping into your inner strength to overcome mental, emotional and psychological blocks.
Back in the village hall in Dumbleton, near Evesham, where I and seven other students were gathered – with trepidation – for a taste of the Wim Hof Method in the Cotswolds. Led by the lovely and encouraging instructor Sara Dance, we took it in turns to introduce ourselves and our various reasons for attending. Just like our celebrity counterparts, the reasons people come to Wim Hof are many and varied – there are those who come to the practice looking to heal from a past trauma, as a way of managing depression, boosting positivity or unleashing their human potential.
But, if stories about why people want to try the method are interesting, then even more interesting are the stories from those who have found the experience to be genuinely life-changing. Two of our group, Kathy and Phil, became Wim Hof Method instructors after attending a previous workshop and it was easy to be swept along in their enthusiasm for the technique. Phil, arguably as charismatic and evangelical as Wim himself, attributes the breathing and cold water therapy to healing him of an incurable blood disease (see Tribal Breath panel).
‘It’s very powerful, it takes you to place you never thought possible,’ says Phil on why he is such a devotee. This is a view shared by the scientific community who have been monitoring Wim over the last 40 years. After countless scientific tests and research, it seems that Wim has achieved what was previously thought scientifically impossible – the ability to influence the autonomic nervous system. It is these discoveries, backed up by science, as well as the countless anecdotal stories, that make what Wim Hof is doing, so powerful. As Wim himself says, there’s a lot of unnecessary suffering going on in the world, manifesting in depression, fear, anxiety and pain, but standard medication is not working. He is proving that it is possible to heal from the inside.
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The Wim Hof Method is based upon three pillars – breathwork, cold water immersion and mindset. All of this is underpinned by a deep-rooted call to live a more natural life, one that connects us to nature and encourages us be free from the artificial comforts that we have created for ourselves.
To put this into practice, our group was invited to take a short walk to an outdoor lake down the road and immerse our feet in the freezing water. If this was meant to calm the nerves before our full ice bath immersion later in the day, I’m afraid it didn’t work. But the sensation of walking back barefoot, feeling the grass beneath our feet was enjoyable, and a good ice breaker – pardon the pun!
Back at the hall, we were led through a short yoga sequence before settling down to begin the first pillar in Wim Hof’s method – breathwork. Wim practises a particular type of breathing that is designed to flood the body with oxygen. This ‘power breathing’ has been attributed to several health benefits such as increasing energy, reducing stress and even reducing symptoms of many autoimmune diseases. Or, as Sara says, ‘it’s like two years of therapy without saying a word.’
Using a stopwatch, Sara guided us through four rounds of breathing – breathing in through belly, chest and head before an unforced exhale. We were then invited to linger in our transformative state during a blissful guided meditation led by Phil. Although I found the breathing tricky to get the hang of, there was no doubt that my mind floated off on its own little journey, creating vivid daydreams and an overall sense of deep calm. An element of the breathing technique is breath holding on the exhale and when someone asked afterwards how long we’d been holding our breath for, I was shocked that we’d been pausing our breath for two minutes. This definitely felt like a very different two minutes to those spent in the ice bath later in the day!
After a vegan lunch of butternut squash soup and sourdough, it was time for the challenge that let’s face it, had been on everyone’s minds from the beginning. Cold water immersion is the second pillar of the Wim Hof Method and possibly the thing Wim is most well-known for. The theory is that exposure to cold water brings a number of health benefits including balanced hormone levels, improved sleep, reduced inflammation and the production of endorphins. Not only that, but as Wim says, ‘just one minute spent under cold water gives you a jolt of energy that makes you feel like the Hulk for the rest of the day’.
To get us warmed up for the challenge, Phil took us through his version of the ‘Wim haka’ or the horse dance – a way to get the body warmed up internally using breath and movement. The science suggests that when you breathe like this the body becomes more alkaline which lowers the pain receptors in the body, all good news when you’re about to plunge into a tub of water that’s almost at freezing point!
‘The ice bath smile is like nothing you’ve ever experienced,’ chirped Sara in a bid to rouse our enthusiasm. ‘This is going to help you remember what it is to be human!’ As we all lined up outside, wrapped in dry robes (sensible people) or shivering in flimsy towels (me), I’m not ashamed to admit that my former bravado ebbed away like the ice sheets of the Arctic circle. First in was Sue, a tiny, elegant lady, who was the picture of serenity as she lowered herself into the ice. Sitting there you’d have thought she was enjoying a spell in a hot tub, not an ice tub – I was even more shocked when she whispered, ‘I’m 74 tomorrow!’
One by one my fellow attendees braved the ice, each of them finding their own way to breathe through the cold. After gallantly allowing everyone else to go first, it was my turn. I did my best to worm my way out of it, but then I remembered the third pillar of the Wim Hof technique – commitment and focus – and besides, how else would I write this feature if I didn’t go through with it?
Convincing myself that I’d just dip a toe, I entered the ice water, supported all the time by Sara and the rest of the group. The stopwatch began and so too did the longest two minutes of my life. But then, once I’d committed mentally, about 40 seconds in, something magical began to happen. I relaxed into it and even got my shoulders under the ice. That’s when the ice bath smile appeared.
Back on dry land, there was more ‘Wim haka’ to warm the body up from the inside – an important part of the method. This isn’t about proving you can sit in ice for hours at a time – it’s about taking small, controlled steps to keeping your body and mind in an optimum state.
‘The colours are going to seem brighter,’ Phil assured me once I’d dried off and warmed up. After our final debrief (accompanied by gluten free chocolate brownies), we all said our goodbyes. Back home, despite it being a frosty night, I had to open the windows and shed a blanket – something previously unheard of for me. I woke early the next day with a renewed vigour – cheesy as it sounds, I have to say the world did seem more colourful, joyful even, and yes, I did feel like a superhero all day.
Two minutes. That’s all it takes to change your life. Literally.
Visit wimhofmethod.com for more information and to find out when the next Wim Hof Method in the Cotswolds is taking place.
More Wim Hof experiences in the Cotswolds: Tribal Breath Workshops
A magical mix of breathing, relaxation and cold water immersion
Phil Campbell and his partner Kathy are Wim Hof Certified Instructors and run a number of Wim Hof workshops in the Cotswolds. Phil came to the Wim Hof Method after training for the ice mile at Lake 32 at the Cotswold Water Park. Phil was struggling with the cold recovery and adopted Wim Hof breathing and horse stance to allow him to deal with the discomfort that can follow extended cold exposure. The practice became more essential after Phil was diagnosed with a blood cancer that required a therapeutic phlebotomy every two weeks. This was life-threatening and incurable and had a huge impact on Phil’s physical and mental health. To help with the healing process, Phil turned again to the Wim Hof Method, focussing on deep breathing and daily cold exposure. The effects were profound and immediate, so much so that Phil no longer requires medical treatment. Kathy has been supporting Phil in this life-enhancing adventure and has also found her own sense of personal healing by following the Wim Hof Method.
Wim Hof Method workshops follow a format but they are never exactly the same because, as Phil says, ‘openness to change is part of the adventure’. As in life, the programme is – ‘there is no programme!’ That’s certainly what you get at Phil and Kathy’s Tribal Breath workshops. To quote Wim, ‘feeling is understanding’, and at these workshops Phil and Kathy set the tone for a journey of safe, personal exploration. There is yoga, dance, sound bath and meditation as well as a guided breathing session and of course, the infamous ice bath, rounded off with delicious vegan food. Phil and Kathy lead the workshops in a sensitive manner but bring a whole lot of fun and joy to the experience.
‘Our experience is that it brings people to understand their own humanity and our place in nature,’ says Phil. ‘We begin to notice how our skin is sensitised to temperature and the airflow around it. We experience colours in sharp definition after an ice bath. Our sense of smell may become more defined through the process of deep breathing, our lung capacity increases and our cardiovascular system benefits from the synergy of breath and ice.
‘Emotional release, trauma and addiction may be soothed through this regular practice. There are many testimonies to this – give it a go and you may find something that resonates with your personal circumstances.’
Phil and Kathy work from a beautiful, dedicated space in their garden in Cheltenham which houses a large wooden ice bath and sauna, and they also hold workshops at Miserden Village Hall and the Old Convent in Stroud. Book online through the Wim Hof Platform at wimhofmethod.com
Tribal Breath Wim Hof Method Workshops in 2022
- August 21, 5-9.30pm, hosted by Sarah Barratt at the Dance Factory in Down Hatherley
- August 28, 12 noon-5pm, at 46 Bournside Road, Cheltenham, GL51 3AH
- August 29, taster session at The Rising Sun, Moseley Green, Park End, near Lydney, GL15 4HN
- September 17 & 18 (to be confirmed) at Daylesford, Moreton-in-Marsh, GL56 0YG: a taster session focusing on the breath, as part of their Harvest Festival
- September 30, 10am-3.30pm, at 46 Bournside Road, Cheltenham, GL51 3AH