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Wim Hof: 'I've been called a madman for 40 years'

“Brilliant! Alright! Here we are!” An excitable Wim Hof settles down in his kitchen to talk ice baths, healthcare and whether or not he actually holds 26 world records. (Many beg to differ, but here we are.) Ironically, it is the record button on my screen that has caught his eye. “Great!” he cries out again, as the little red dot appears. I enter a quiet panic: he has done this before, hasn’t he? I take a deep breath as he nods in approval: in some ways this is the perfect introduction. Putting fear to rest through cool, collected breathwork is, in fact, the very premise of the Wim Hof Method.

Since it was formalised about 15 years ago, the Wim Hof Method has won plaudits amid some fierce criticism. Built on the three pillars of breathing, cold therapy, and commitment, it is rooted in the concept of free, holistic healing: an attractive idea which – double whammy – also alleviates the burden on public health services. It has earned its creator millions and tons of celebrity fans, from Sacha Baron Cohen to Oprah Winfrey while also landing him in the occasional hot water. A $67 million lawsuit blames him and his company Innerfire for the wrongful death of 17-year-old Madelyn Rose Metzger, who died while allegedly practicing the athlete’s breathing exercises in her pool. Though one should note, for legal reasons, that Hof and Innerfire say one should practise the breathing exercises only in a safe environment, and explicitly warn “never [to] practice the breathing exercises in or nearby bodies of water”. While we're at it, one shouldn't do it “while piloting a vehicle” either, or indeed any situation “where losing consciousness could cause harm”.

The second pillar of the Wim Hof Method – cold therapy – has fascinated people for decades, and turned its creator into a celebrity in his own right. With the rise of cold therapy, Hof has in recent years cut a fashionable figure, and today counts a whopping 3.5 million followers on Instagram.

He once held the Guinness World Record for the longest full-body contact with the ice (44 minutes in 2010, a figure he’s improved several times since, but others have bested). He also set the record for the furthest swim under ice (reaching 57.5 metres on only his second attempt) and still holds that for the fastest half-marathon run barefoot on ice or snow (2 hours, 16 minutes and 34 seconds, in 2007). But it is the messiah within, more so than the athlete, who I find myself quietly entranced by today.

When people come to me for self-improvement, even at the summit of their performance, I am still able to make them better

“When people tell me: ‘Wim, you have saved my life,’ that motivates me to keep going and spread the message to even more people,” Hof says. His message? That ice baths are the gateway to biochemical self-regulation, and thus to holistic health. “When people come to me for self-improvement,” he says, “even those at the summit at their performance, I am still able to make them better: by teaching them how to control their biochemistry. And for that, we have to go into the cold.”

Hof lost his wife Olaya to suicide in 1995: with cold therapy, he says, he has “found a way past our fear of death.” But he’s been taking ice baths for longer than that: the electrifying jolt of cold water immersion was something he first experienced when he was 17, and jumped into the Beatrixpark canal in Amsterdam. “People have been calling me a madman for 40 years!” he laughs.

Hof, now 64, is a cynosure and freewheeling speaker. About half-an-hour into our chat, he asks what my name is. Never one to miss a good pun, he goes on: “Ha! That’s just what we need ­– the Will to learn!” He delivers his sermons in a thick Dutch accent. At one point he even bursts into song: “Lurve is the greatest powerrr…”

Hof believes the epidemic of illness in modern society – depression, chronic pain and autoimmune disease – shows we have become overly reliant on a capitalist healthcare system run by doctors / pharmacists / hospitals. He flirts with leftist terminology, talking of malign industrial forces and telling me we have become “alienated”. Yet he speaks with zeal about his own success: “My method is spreading like positive wildfire all over the world!” he says. “People want autonomy. They want to be independent.”

Hof is a “man on a mission” to show how we can cure ourselves through pure will and discipline – and defy biological odds. He once ran a marathon in the desert without drinking water ­and says he survived simply by regulating his body temperature. The idea of self-led, holistic healing is gaining traction, and has been broached by several guests on the Standard’s Brave New World podcast, which examines some of the radical solutions (psychedelics, anti-ageing…) designed to tackle the current health crisis.

Hof’s solution relies on consistent and deliberate breathwork. It is how he begins each day without fail. “When you are holding your breath for, say, four, five minutes,” he says, “you are activating the deepest part of the brain: the one concerned with danger and with pain modulation.” We need a “little bit of stress and stimulation” if we are to thrive, he says. Modern life, with all its easy comforts, has deprived us of this.

The Iceman claims that breathwork influences the body’s alkalinity. Our oxygen intake determines our body’s pH levels, and the more alkaline we are, the better we perform. Conversely, acidity in the body leads to inflammation and higher risk of disease. “Everything I’m saying here has been proven by science,” Hof insists. Processed foods “mess with our life tools” because they make the body more acidic, while “gaming, computers and phones” render us weak and inert and prone to overthinking. The best thing about the ice bath, he says, is that it acts as a “shut up moment”.

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

Several are the critics who would like Hof himself to shut up. He knows he is unpopular among more conservative scientists and cynical commentators and can tell even I am not 100 percent behind him. While talking about alkalinity, he reprimands me for raising an eyebrow. “There is nothing to speculate on here,” he deadpans. “It’s real. There is all this scientific, rigid, cold data showing it.” A study at Radboud University in 2012 showed that pH levels in Hof’s body reached 7.8 during his breathing sessions. In 2014, Radbound also found that practicing the Wim Hof Method could influence both our autonomic nervous system and our immune system.

Despite this vote of confidence, Hof still has an irascible manner about him. “A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away. Because it works!” he booms. “I’m on a mission to prove to society and to science that this madman [he gestures to himself] is actually right!” He pauses, then belts again: “Prove me wrong guys!” The truth is most scientists are, in fact, encouraging of the Wim Hof Method. What they have little truck with is his language. The Dutch scientist Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, for instance, once described Hof’s rhetoric as galimatias and said that he presented “scientific terms” as “irrefutable evidence”.

When it comes to cold water immersion, the evidence in Hof’s favour is indeed irrefutable. It has been shown to boost endorphins up to 250 percent, while an ice plunge or cold shower after a workout has been shown to relieve burning muscles and reduce inflammation. Still, I note, sudden cold exposure can trigger a risk of hypothermia or cardiac arrest. Not if you breathe properly, Hof has argued. If you control your mind and body through the breath (“the life force”, as he calls it) your body can resist what it normally would not. It goes into “survival mode”.

If Hof rails against the scientific establishment, it is because he is impatient to see people heal – and science tends to move painfully slowly (though often for good reason). We cannot wait for that: we need to take charge now, he believes. We must control and understand our minds deeply, personally, and wilfully. “We can have real control over 100 percent of our brain,” the Iceman says. “Whoever was the idiot who came up with the idea that we can only control 16?” It was, in fact, only 10, and the culprit was Lowell Thomas, who parroted the myth from Harvard’s William James in the foreword to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book, How To Win Friends and Influence People. “That is stupid!” Hof bellows. “It’s like saying you are born to be impaired!”

A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away. I am on a mission to prove this right to science and to society

The story of how Wim Hof came to win friends and influence people is being adapted for the silver screen. “They’re making a Hollywood movie about my life,” he declares proudly. Ultimately, though, it is the approval of science, not Tinseltown, that Hof so desperately craves – and which he believes society so desperately needs.

To hear Wim Hof speaking to Evgeny Lebedev on the Standard’s Brave New World podcast head here

For more information on Wim Hof and the Wim Hof Method, go to: wimhofmethod.com