Mind over Matter

Wim Hof Method Advanced Course Day 1.

It was the long-awaited weekend of the 25th and 26th of May. I had flown to the Netherlands to participate in the Wim Hof Course led by the star instructors Bart Biermans and Domique Stuhlen. I had already watched Wim’s videos on the breathing technique and had been practicing for several months before the scheduled course.

It was a sunny 17c day on arrival to the Wim Hof Centre in Stroe. We were greeted warmly by Zsolt Varga, who worked tirelessly in the background to making sure everything ran smoothly. Then out of the woodwork came Wim Hof himself dressed in multi coloured clothes, the shirt not matching the pants, and full of energy.

At the beginning of the first day there were 26 eager participants from about 10 different countries. The instructors sat us in a big circle to play an introduction game. The first participant had to say both the instructors first names and then his or her name. Then the second participant had to say both instructors’ names, the first participants name then his or her name. Then it continued one by one around the group. By the time it was my turn I had 16 names to remember. The penalty for not remembering was the ice bath without any preparation. Fortunately for me, I remembered all 16. Phew!

After the game it was time for some theory. We were introduced to the scientific proof that the Wim Hof Method (WHM) works. We were shown all the results of the various scientific tests done not only on Wim Hof but also his instructors. The medical profession has always stated that the “Fight / Flight” response was automatically controlled by the nervous system and we had no conscious control of it. But the test results proved this very archaic theory wrong. We saw how the WHM practitioners were able to move from the “Fight / Flight” Sympathetic nervous system to the Parasympathetic nervous system using breath and thought only. We saw (with the use of brain scans) how Wim could switch off an area of his brain called the Insula, this area of the brain experiences and recognises bodily sensations such as pain, and Wim could switch on another area of his brain to calm the body. We saw how WHM practitioners were able to sit in ice cold water for over 60 minutes and maintain the body’s normal temperature. They were able to open up their veins, arteries and capillaries and pump warm blood to their extremities, overriding the bodies path of wanting to shutting down due to exposure to the cold. They did this through thought and breath alone.

Then it was time to start the training. Everybody lied on yoga mats in the training hall and following the instructor’s lead, started to breathe in a specific way, filling the lungs full to capacity, then letting the air fall out of the lungs, not pushing it out. We did 40 repetitions, exhaled, then held our breaths (retention). When we couldn’t hold our breath anymore, we breathed fully in, held the breath for 15 seconds, pushing our blood to our heads, exhaled, then started the next round of breathing. We did 3 rounds in total. From my understanding the objective of the breathing technique was 2-fold. The first was to pump the blood system full of oxygen, sending the body into an alkaline state. It also turns on the Sympathetic Nervous System (Flight/ Flight), the heart rate increases and there is a chemical release of cortisol and adrenaline. The second, during the retention stage was to deplete the body of oxygen, but remaining calm, not breathing, thus switching on the Parasympathetic nervous system.

Then it was time for the ice bath. Our man behind the scenes, Zsolt had already prepared the large tub with ice cubes which would sit 8 of us at a time. The water temperature was checked at 1c. Wonderful. I was so excited that I ran to the bath so I could be in the first group. Actually, I was the first person at the edge of the bath ready to go. Talk about enthusiasm. The instructor Bart took us through the process. As we submerged ourselves up to our necks in the ice, we were told to place our hands upon our chest covering the heart. My body went into shock. Signals were sent to my brain telling me to get out. It was freezing, I could feel various parts of my body stinging with pain. Bart talked to us in a calm, controlled reassuring voice. We focused on the breath, thinking relaxing calm thoughts. I kept saying to myself “Relaaaaaaaaax, and that the cold was my friend.” The 1st minute passed and my shivering stopped. I suddenly felt calmer and in control of my mind and body. I could feel heat generating in my body, instead of the bitter cold against my skin. My heart rate and breathing slowed and I slipped into a peaceful calm state, a place without time or fear. Initially my body went into the Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight/Flight), my blood stream pumped full of Adrenaline and Cortisol. Then I was able to turn on the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System and return to relax state. During the breathing technique one decreases the carbon dioxide levels in the body which in turn increases the blood PH due to the haemoglobin being able to pick up more oxygen.

After 2 minutes we were told to get out. My body was red all over where the ice was in contact with my skin. I felt supercharged like somebody had pumped me full of energy, so alive and in awe. “What an awesome experience” I thought to myself. Dominque then took us to a grassed area next to the pool and took us through certain strenuous exercises to get the blood flowing again. These different types of exercises lasted for about 10 minutes. There was a danger after the ice bath in that if the exercises were not conducted then the cold blood in the limbs would move back to the body and we may suffer from hyperthermia. So, the exercises were very important.

After a wonderful vegan lunch (I didn’t realise that vegan could taste so good) it was time to take our shoes off and walk bare foot up the road and into the forest. They instructed us not to talk and just simply be mindful of all. Feel the earth underfoot, the sun on our skin, hear and see the birds and trees, be aware of the movement of the body and of our breath. Once we were deep in the forest, we all sat and did 3 rounds of the breath technique in a seated position. Thereafter just sitting and observing the body and mind and feeling our environment.

On our return we continued with more theory and more breath exercises. This time we were doing 40 breaths for 6 rounds. This was done to solfeggio frequencies and the beating of drums keeping us all in time. The breath cycles became quicker, the breathing more intense and the Retention longer. Even though the instructors told us to hold the breath only from one and a half to a maximum of 2 minutes, I was out to go beyond myself and was holding my breath in excess of 3 minutes at times.

My body was a rush of sensations, I could feel tingling everywhere throughout the body. I was high on my own supply. At the end of the 6th round we all just lay there quietly experiencing the rush. My body and mind felt so relaxed. My breath was so slow, so calm, almost non-existent. I was in such a great place. I felt love and compassion, power and strength, as if I had become one with nature, one with all in the room. We were then asked to slowly get up in our own time. What transpired then was amazing, all 26 participants had a look of awe on their faces. Everybody started hugging each other (strangers so to speak), warmly embracing, smiling, and speaking about their experiences. It was like we had all just taken some euphoric drug but it was only oxygen. Some girls and guys were even crying, having miraculously released emotional blocks within themselves. “This is a once in a lifetime experience.” I thought to myself.

Then it was time to go back to the ice bath. This time we would submerge ourselves in the ice for 2 minutes, get out, do the exercises for 5 minutes, then get back in the ice for 2 minutes. We did this routine 6 times. Then we were all ushered from the bath and out to an area of a large circular room. By this time, we were all freezing cold. All 26 participants were shivering, some were delirious, not being able to string sentences together. I was shaking uncontrollably. My body had overpowered my mind. Bart and Dominque took us through many exercises including push ups to warm us up again. It was like the life had been drained out of me. I was physically and mentally exhausted, my body was aching with pain. I suddenly found the other side to the Wim Hof coin. It wasn’t all roses and sweet dreams. My body had won this time.

Then it was the end of the training for the day. We all hurriedly made our way to the hot sauna and or spa which were prepared for us. Oh, what a joy, the warmth, finally, to sit cramped in, practically on top of each other. Chatting about our experiences, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.

Wim Hof Method Advanced Course Day 2.

The day was overcast and about 5 degrees Celsius cooler as the day before. All 26 participants were still in the game. Nobody had quit and gone home. This was good for moral. I was feeling so fired up, so pumped about the whole experience. I couldn’t wait to go as hard as I could. We started with theory about the techniques, the reasoning behind what we are doing. We heard about how the cold therapy helped, even cured all sorts of medical ailments including inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis.

Then it was back into the practice. 6 rounds of breathing. I was right into the breathing rounds, listening to my new friend, Mark from Germany breath who was lying about 30cm from me. We were somehow motivating each other without words, only with the sound of our breathing in and out. My body was pumped full of oxygen, a mass of vibrations and sensations rushed through my system, my head was swimming, I was as high as a kite. Suddenly I felt a thump to my head, and then another. I opened my eyes to see Mark waving his arms around uncontrollably. I called out him but he didn’t hear me. He was there but not consciously there. I think he had stopped breathing altogether. The instructors rushed over to him, held him and calmly told Mark to breath slowly, to which he did. I returned to my breathing after I knew Mark was OK.

After the 6 rounds of breath we slowly sat up. I looked at Mark and ask if he was OK. I told him that he gave me a shock, but he looked at me puzzled. He had no recollection of what had just happened. I now realised the danger of pushing the breathing experience too far as Mark had done. Realised that we must be careful and slowly build on our practice, not pushing too far too soon.

Now it was back to the ice bath. This time we were going in for 5 minutes. I was motivated, but this time I waited for a group to go before me. As I submerged myself in the ice, I could feel a rush of adrenaline kick in. My body suddenly went into shock. Signals sped to the brain. “What the hell are you doing?” “Have you gone mad?” “Get your backside out of this ice.”

Even though the instructor Bart was talking, I could not hear him. I was totally focused on the fight raging within my body and mind. My heart rate and breathing which were at first extremely high began to slow. My body started to relax. My breathing slowed further. I started to feel warmth instead of the cold. I then started to use a mantra meditation technique which I teach to my own students. I began to say the word Ohm over and over. My fellow ice bath colleagues did the same. I came back to consciousness.

Wim Hof, who had come to the edge of the bath started to Ohm also. The noise became louder. Wim then started to sing and dance at the edge of the bath. Wim shouted: “Enjoy the experience” and then broke into the song “Who let the dogs out”. Everybody started to sing with enthusiasm. Other participants came to the edge of the bath and joined in with the party, louder and louder we sang. Wim’s dog joined in barking like crazy. The world had gone mad. Bart started the countdown from 10. We all screamed the number out down to zero. It was over. We hugged each other then got out of the bath. Wow. What a rush.

After our exercises it was back inside to get warm and bust out some yoga poses, more theory, more breathing, and more euphoria. After we had left the bath Wim slipped into the ice bath. Our last challenge was before us. While Wim sat in the ice bath (for over 60 minutes) we were to go and place only our hands in the ice up to our wrists for a maximum of 20 minutes. As per usual I was one of the first at the baths edge. As the time ticked by one by one participants removed their hands. Some placing their hands back into the ice but others did not. The numbers continued to dwindle but I pushed on. My hands and fingers were really starting to seriously hurt. The pain became worse. I was once again fighting against the body’s will to remove my hands. I persisted, I starting to feel nauseous, relax only 3 minutes to go. Finally, the 20-minute mark came. I removed my hands, started to walk over to the decking to do some exercises, and then became dizzy and had to lie down. My body had had enough. It had decided to shut me down. The instructor came to my aid and after a few minutes the colour returned to my face (so I was told). I had once again found the limit and gone past it.

In conclusion, this was the best experience ever. I have learnt that my mind is very strong, that I have the ability to push my body to extremes. But I have also gone beyond what my body was ready for and paid the price. I remember in one of the six breathing rounds, my body was shaking out of control and then I lost consciousness, returning later not knowing what had happened and how long I was under for. But this did not scare me, it motivated me instead.

It has now been 2 months since this monumental workshop in Stroe in the Netherlands. I have not missed a single day of my WHM breathing exercises, I have had a cold shower every day and an ice bath once a week. I am feeling incredible. I sleep soundly every night. I wake up refreshed every morning. My strength and endurance have increased. While many others around me are getting the flu, I remain strong in health. I have noticed certain ailments that I have had for such a long time diminishing in their abilities to affect my wellbeing. I have changed nothing else in my life except the introduction of the Wim Hof Method. I am totally convinced that this method works, and am committed to continue my daily practice. This experience has exceeded my expectations, and I reap the benefits every day. Life is good.

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