Note: The following are excerpts from The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential by Wim Hof. Passages marked 'MV' are my comments for context, clarity, or readability.
There are approximately sixty-two thousand miles of veins, arteries, and capillaries in each and every one of us. The vascular system is constructed, after millions of years of evolution, with millions of little muscles that contract and open the veins and the vascular channels in reaction to the weather. Regardless of if it is warm or hot, our core body temperature has to remain 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If your core temperature dips only 2 or 3 degrees below that, you go into hypothermia, a hypothermic state. If it dips 3 degrees or more than that, it’s irreversible; your core body temperature spirals down, and your body is no longer able to heat up. So, we have this vascular system that opens and closes to protect ourselves from the cold and heat, to remain within the range of normal body temperatures. It’s a very delicate system.
When these little vascular muscles are not tuned up, not working at an optimized condition, our heart is forced to pump much more, deeper and stronger, to get the blood flow through. This puts undue stress on our heart on a chronic basis. That’s one of the primary reasons, together with diet and exercise, why cardiovascular-related diseases are the number-one killer in our society.
When you take a cold shower, all of those little muscles in your vascular system — millions of them — are activated and exercised. Within ten days of taking these showers, you will notice that your heart rate has decreased significantly, as much as fifteen to thirty beats per minute, and that it remains that way twenty-four hours a day. That translates to a lot less stress. It’s important to understand that your heart rate increases whenever your body experiences stress. That sends a primordial signal to the body to activate adrenaline and cortisol, which sets off a series of biochemical processes that exhaust your adrenal axis, your energy, because you’re in poor vascular condition. Your heart needs to pump more, work harder.
Now, if you go and exercise your vascular system — I call it “vascular fitness” nowadays — you can effectively counteract this stress. Once you have trained yourself with exposure to cold, you can do “snowga,” which is, like it sounds, yoga in the snow. You can go and do exercises outdoors in the cold while bare-chested and barefoot, just in shorts. Within fifteen minutes, you won’t feel the cold, which is an indication that your vascular system has adapted. That’s innate. It was always there, but by constantly seeking comfort, we have become strangers to our natural, optimized vascular condition. This is unfortunate because it’s our vascular system that delivers blood to the cells and with it, all the nutrients, oxygen, and vitamins our bodies need to thrive. And if your vascular system is exercised and adapted, your heart rate will decrease in turn. It’s the antidote to stress, and it all starts with cold showers.
What happens inside your body when you shift the temperature from warm to cold is that all the little muscles in your vascular system begin to awaken. They close up and then open, close up and open, and this repetitive process establishes the vascular muscle tone that, with repeated exposure, develops into its optimal condition. Start slowly at the beginning, with just fifteen seconds at the end of your shower every day. In a week, you will feel able to endure thirty seconds, or more. This is because the tone of your vascular muscles is improving, developing. Your core body temperature remains just fine. And the result is that you experience better blood flow throughout the day, which gives you a lot more energy. Once you are able to go longer than thirty seconds, you begin to develop an ability to consciously resist the shock of the cold water. You suppress the shiver response, the gasp. Suddenly, the water’s not cold anymore. Instead, it’s a force, and you, standing there, are a counterforce. You’re in control. You’re awakening to the physiological power and the neural activity of your own body.
WEEK 1: Thirty seconds of cold water at the end of a warm shower
WEEK 2: One minute of cold water at the end of a warm shower
WEEK 3: A minute and a half of cold water at the end of a warm shower
WEEK 4: Two minutes of cold water at the end of a warm shower
Do this gradually and work your way up, at least five days a week. Follow the feeling. Don’t force anything. It’s also fine to start with fifteen seconds and build up more slowly, as we do in our 20-Day Cold Shower Challenge.
Some benefits of cold exposure begin at 60° Fahrenheit, so most tap water is cold enough to make a difference. As your vascular muscle tone develops, it will absorb more and more of the shock until it’s hardly a shock at all. Your vascular system constricts on demand to protect your vital parts. And what you will see is that your heart rate goes down during the day, reducing your stress level. You feel more energized. The improved blood flow delivers better nutrition to your cells. You find that you don’t get sick anymore because your body is no longer vulnerable. Instead, you feel strong.
When you breathe in deeply, your diaphragm moves, and that massages your intestines. That’s the natural way, though most of us breathe only with our chests and never massage our intestines in that way. But the belly goes up when the diaphragm moves — when the lungs expand — and that’s why we call it “belly breathing.” Only it’s not really the belly; it’s the lungs being filled to their utmost capacity. The belly goes up because it needs to make space. Then the upper parts of the lungs get filled up.
The breathing protocol, which is composed of three to four rounds, takes about twenty minutes to complete. The best time to do these breathing exercises is before breakfast because when your stomach is full, all the metabolic activity and all the oxygen are directed to the stomach and block the way. This is logical because digestion is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, and with the breathing, we are activating our sympathetic nervous system. The breathing ignites the body into an alert state, awakening the nervous system and preparing the body for performance. Eating beforehand can inhibit this physiological reaction.
STEP 1: Sit in a meditation posture, lying down, or whichever way is most comfortable for you, in a quiet and safe environment. Make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction.
STEP 2: Close your eyes and try to clear your mind. Be conscious about your breath and try to fully connect with it. Take thirty to forty deep breaths in through the nose or mouth. Fill up your belly, your chest, all the way up to your head. Don’t force the exhale. Just relax and let the air out. Fully in, letting go.”
STEP 3: At the end of the last breath, draw the breath in once more and fill the lungs to maximum capacity without using any force. Then relax to let the air out. Hold the breath until you feel the urge to breathe again. This is called the retention phase.
STEP 4: When you feel the urge to breathe, take one deep breath in and hold it for ten to fifteen seconds. This is called the recovery breath.
STEP 5: Let your breath go and start with a new round. Fully in, letting go. Repeat the full cycle three to four times.
MV: Disclaimer: This breathing method is not dangerous, but has been reported to cause lightheadedness. Only practice this breathing method in a safe environment.
Beginners often make the following mistakes:
- Breathing from your chest instead of your belly
- Breathing at a different rate than shown in the video (unless you're experienced or wish to breathe more slowly)
- Not following Wim Hof's advice from the book:
I advise you to breathe through the nose, as it will give you more control over your body and mind. With more experience, you can breathe in through your mouth or through your nose. It doesn’t matter. Don’t think too much about it, just bring it in. I prefer to breathe through my mouth, but you should do whatever feels the most comfortable for you.