Every day, the first thing I do after opening my eyes (and screaming inside about the state of the world that we are living in) is watch an orange dot get bigger and smaller on my phone screen. As it does I follow it with my breaths, breathing in and out, as deeply as I can, filling my body with air and then letting it go. In with peace and out with stress. I feel as though my chest is a giant elastic band and then, after 30 breaths, suddenly, I stop.
When do we ever get to stop breathing? Never, right?
Unless we are some sort of free-diver reaching for shiny oysters that are holding secret pearls inside their pursed ivory lips, or have to hold it whilst we make our escape from someone’s flatulent indiscretion. No, this is one and a half minutes of stopping something that we will do every day until we take our final, ultimate breath. If I can focus enough in those moments, I feel so at peace that it is as though I am levitating. Perhaps I do float a bit, an iota at least: no-one is around to tell me if I do or not; like the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear if it makes a sound (boom). It feels as though my brain reaches a state of complete clarity, and I wish it could go on for longer, but suddenly the urge to breathe returns with lightening speed and I have to take a deep breath in.
I go again for another 30 deep, circular breaths and then stop again. The calm voice on the video advises me to feel my heartbeat and slow it down and to “become aware of the blood running through your veins”. Trying to picture the inside of your body is difficult: all of those cells, organs and all that liquid floating and rushing around inside you. What does the inside of you feel like? I think I can feel it, but perhaps that’s just my overactive imagination at work. For some reason though, the idea of my insides bobbing around and doing their thing autonomously makes me feel happy, and free. I let go of trying to begin control and it’s as though nothing else really matters.
I’ve tried other types of meditation, noticing my breath for long periods of time, it’s a valid practice. But for me anyway, it does not compare to this. Perhaps it’s the stopping: testing yourself, your focus and your ability. Or perhaps it’s the high I feel from the intense oxygenation of my body: I do enjoy a high (you can actually do press-ups before and after, and feel an increase in your ability to do them). Or perhaps it’s the calm, reassuring voice that reminds you that your body is capable of doing this. That’s something that no-one has ever mentioned to me before, that I could stop and be still, just for a couple of minutes. Your body has that incredible ability. It can do this.
So, who the hell thought this weird shit up?
His name is Wim Hof: known to many as the Ice Man. Fun fact: he was meant to be bobbing around in a tank of ice cold water behind James Newman, performing a song called: “My Last Breath”, as part of the the UK’s Eurovision entry this year. He is a self-described “crazy Dutchman” who likes to chill in an ice-bath, practice Snowga (yoga in snow), climb large trees, balance things on his head and “Breathe MOTHERFUCKER!”. His wife tragically died when his 4 children were quite young and his techniques helped him to get through the pain and continue jumping into ice and breaking World Records as an extreme athlete.
I first tried his cold shower technique a couple of years ago, as I had heard that it helped with depression, and I was in quite a dark place at the time. Although it was difficult to force myself to stay in the cold shower at first, my muttering of: “it’s fucking freezing!” every morning soon subsided. I always take long breaths before I switch on the cold, to prepare, and I tell others who are interested in trying it, to just go as cold as you can for as long as you can: up to 2 minutes, or whenever you don’t feel the cold anymore. I found that forcing myself to stand in the cold water trained my brain to deal with the pain and discomfort of the cold and my life, until it just wasn’t there anymore. I think our bodies might need the cold as a sort of reset button for our brains. I pretty much do it every day now (although it is brutal on a hangover). Having done it for 2 years, I’m not really sure that humans are really meant to be hanging out in hot showers: it’s not often you find warm flowing water in nature. A cold dip in the English Channel is a pleasure for me now (apart from the giant shingles clashing with my sensitive feet).
I started the breathing in March, when I thought I had the dreaded COVID-19 (Boris’ lack of testing means that I can’t confirm). I suspect that it helped me to recover swiftly, but, as I’m not a scientist, I won’t officially make that claim. I do know that my IBS is almost totally gone, my hay-fever is under control and my skin problems have cleared up. All of that shizz may well be a co-incidence: the changes are subtle but still noticeable, a bit like when you stop smoking or start exercising and notice your health slowly improving day-by-day. It’s meant to help your immune system and I’ve also heard that makes your body more alkaline, which as some people claim means that your body is less susceptible to cancers. But, again, I have not performed that research and written those scientific papers, so I encourage you to go read up on those claims yourself (if you are interested). All I can share with confidence are my own experiences, which have been quite remarkable.
I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing smoke up Wim’s ass (not sure if he’s into that sort of thing), but he really has changed my life, and the lives of millions of others. Go to his comments and read people’s experiences and you will see how a man who was ridiculed by the Dutch press in the 90s, now helps people with his humble and humorous ways. His exercises are free, anyone can do them with no equipment, money or specialist knowledge. Just watch a dot, hold your breath, have a cold shower and you will probably feel a bit more like you can cope with this difficult and constantly changing world with a smile on your face and a spring in your step.