At first, it took my breath away as pain flooded my system.
Then, my breath was hectic and fast-paced. In and out. Fast. Flat. In. Out. Almost hyperventilating. My heart was racing. In. Out.
My entire body was surrounded by freezing cold water and ice. 2 degrees Celius. 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold was crippling my legs, my chest, my arms. I was trembling.
Cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline were taking over. A full-on stress response.
This was the opposite of what was meant to happen.
Understanding the Ice Bath Trend
It was the summer of 2017, and I had just climbed into an ice bath in the tropical paradise of Bali. The ice bath was part of a workshop that I was attending to learn and practice the Wim Hof Method.
In this article, I will attempt to decode the trend and the benefits associated with immersing yourself in cold water, so that you can choose if the practice is a viable option for you.
To start: Wim Hof is a Dutch man who — at the time — just started to become fairly known as the Iceman. He is a yogi who got famous for submerging in ice for 1 hours and 53 minutes or walking on Mount Everest in his shorts. (Source)
The Wim Hof Method is his practice. It’s a mix of cold therapy, breathing and meditation.
Wim Hof himself seems to be a bit of a character — a cursing yogi who started breaking world records after he lost his wife to suicide in 1995. He set 16 world records for the longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice (Source).
Since my workshop in 2017, Wim Hof has spoken at Tony Robbins events, appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, was covered in Tim Ferris’s book Tools of Titans, and got featured in the Goop Lab series on Netflix. (Source)
If you are into self development practices, practical spirituality or even biohacking, he might catch your attention with his bold claims for greater immune system and mental strength.
The global search interest for the Wim Hof Method has been on the rise the last five years. I can personally testify to this. My first workshop was held at The Practice, a hipster yoga studio in Canggu, Bali. It’s prestigious for those searching transformation and healing in Bali, but not exactly considered a mainstream phenomenon.
Later in 2018 and 2019, however, I jumped into several ice baths during marketing and entrepreneurship conferences with more than 500 attendees. The ice bath had moved from the yogi early adopters to the biohacker early mainstream.
And, for perspective, the Wim Hof Method (red) gets as much attention as the search term “biohacking” (blue). Today, globally, 68,000 people search for the technique every single month.
Decoding the Benefits of Ice Baths
Wim Hof has bold claims about the benefits of ice baths and the Wim Hof Method.
The benefits you can expect include:
- Increased energy
- Better sleep
- Reduced stress levels
- Heightened focus and determination
- Increased willpower
- Stronger immune system
He talks about regulating your nervous system to improve and heal auto-immunse diseases — and even cancer. Needless to say, there is a lot of scientific controversy around this.
But even my German grandma would tell me to take cold showers to “abhärten” myself. That is, to
“toughen up” my immune system, so I was happy to run with it because I was looking for something different…
My Mission: Mind Over Matter
To me, the benefits of the ice bath are meta-physical. What does it take to stay calm, composed and focused in the face of pain?
What inspired me to take the workshop was my search for altered states of consciousness and flow. It was a time in which I experimented with float tanks, meditation, yoga and free-diving.
I was searching for a mental state called equanimity.
Equanimity is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. (Source)
Equanimity allows you to deal with adversity more effectively, regulate your emotions and navigate uncertainty.
My first experience in the ice bath was the exact opposite of what I was searching for.
I was hurting. I could not relax for a second of the two minutes that I spent in the ice bath. All my muscles were tense, I clenched, I was breathing fast, and my heart and mind were racing. I was hyper-vigilant instead of calm and composed.
The cold was like needles stabbing my entire body.
But when the instructor told us to leave the ice bath, I was disappointed – not relieved.
This was it?
We were promised one ice bath as part of the workshop. 500kg of ice had been delivered and dumped into the small pool just an hour earlier during the theoretical part. It was the clear peak and climax of the entire workshop. I felt cheated.
I was hoping for an experience of strength and self-control but instead, I was on the verge of crying.
Sadness and frustration were my emotions at equal parts.
My Redemption: Breathe, Motherfucker.
My instructor at the time was one of the first people trained by Wim Hof to become a Wim Hof Method instructor. Today, there are 164 instructors listed for Europe and 108 for North America on their official website. Wim Hof now sells books, online courses and an app.
And I get it. The ice baths offer benefits to a variety of people:
- Those seeking relief from their auto-immune diseases after being disappointed by Western medicine
- Those athletes that are experimenting with active recovery techniques to perform at a higher level
- Those curious biohackers that use supplements and morning routines to improve their personal productivity
- And those who are looking to transcend their physical and mental limitations — like myself
After my first ice bath ever, our group was warming up using the horse stance (a common posture in martial arts that Wim Hof recommends). And, somehow, a conversation spun out about what would happen with the ice after the workshop.
As the others were joking around, and I was trying to hide the whirlwind of my emotions, the instructor offered a second round for those who wanted it. A group of alpha males sprung at the opportunity. And myself.
So, I set foot into the ice pool once again. I sat down, and I scooched down until the water was reaching my neck. My entire body was immersed in the ice cold water.
This time, I knew what to expect.
I had the capacity to listen to our instructor. He was reminding us to use long, slow out-breaths.
This made sense.
I knew from embodiment practices and free-diving that this would calm my nervous system and mind, and I started to breathe out longer and slowly. This long out-breath became my full focus, it consumed me.
My mind went quiet. I closed my eyes.
The pain had not changed. The cold was — once again — stabbing me.
But with every long out-breath, I could relax more. My muscles softened. I did not tell myself a story about my pain and suffering. I was just feeling the strange sensation of ice on my skin.
And whilst my body had curled into a clenched ball before, I now was stretching wide and open.
I was composed.
I was calm.
I was free.