**Enjoy the story, stay for the video at the end. It’s my favorite part, but it’s best viewed AFTER having read my personal account below.** –DS
I started my yoga journey (seriously, at least) close to three years ago and while that’s a different story, entirely, it sets the tone for the story I’m about to tell you now. As you likely know, and as I have learned, yoga is about breathing and you’ve, also likely, heard the saying that yoga without breath is just exercise, and I couldn’t agree more.
After three years of a relatively committed practice, I’d like to think that I’ve learned to control and embrace my breath. I’m proud of my pranayama and I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my practice. It’s done wonders for me physically, and mentally and so going into my 2nd Wim Hof Method teacher-led experience, I was feeling fairly confident. Let’s, however, rewind just a bit…
Perhaps a year ago, Troy (my business partner in Kozm) introduced me to the Wim Hof Method. He was going to a private session with Brian Mackenzie and he invited me to go. I knew almost nothing about it, but Troy described the intensity of it, the benefits, the celebrity appeal (all the boys on the North Shore were doing it) and ultimately, he noted, that this was a fast-track to a meditative state and an immune system booster. Plus, it was with Brian Mackenzie, who was training and working with an A-list of athletes in multiple disciplines – it was an experience not to me missed.
So, we met early one morning at a low-key training gym in Orange County, and walked through the details. The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is built on the foundational teachings of Wim Hof, a Dutch inspiration who has pushed the limits of being human (he holds 21 World Records) through the power of breathing. His approach is based on controlling your inner nature, and his message: “What I am capable of, everybody can learn.” Bottom line: your goal is to get the CO2 out, so you can maximize the O2 in – fully oxygenate your body and it can take on more than we give it credit for. While the long term affects are something I fully believe in, there are of course, short term benefits as well: heightened levels of sensation, mind trips, and inner connectivity that I’ve only reached in a similar way from a deep, exhausting yoga practice or great sex (really). After learning the basics that day, it was something that I routinely worked into my schedule. I watched Wim’s documentary on Vice, read some more, and was hooked…
Fast forward now, a good seven, or so, months. While I had done the WHM on and off through the months, I’ll admit, I had fallen off the wagon and was only practicing very sporadically. I had not, however, wavered in my steady yoga practice, and nearly every day I do multiple rounds of alternative nostril breathing…so – I was feeling pretty sure-footed and strong when I rolled up to the MMA gym in San Diego for an impromptu workshop with Kasper van der Meulen, a WHM Science Teacher, author and more. Now, in my defense, there were some prep materials that Troy had sent to me the day before, but I had missed the memo, and didn’t prep. Prepping was to sleep well, eat light, and ease into a cold shower for a bit after your normal warm shower. Do this the night before, day of – just to sort of prep your body…Not sure if that made or broke my experience, but spoiler alert, I didn’t cold shower prep.
Now, if you’ve never tried the WHM, I would suggest (correction, highly suggest) that you do. The concept of taking your health, wellness and immune system strength into your own hands is so appealing to me. Between your breath and your body – it’s all we have and combining yoga with strong pranayama practice, or the likes of a Wim Hof Method, is an amazing concept to me. No gadgets, no props, no supplements, just you.
Kasper is an intense – friendly intense – character. His charisma is contagious and you’re drawn into his audience immediately. We spent a good three hours discussing the science behind and the benefits of inner heat breathing, with testimonials from some of the 20 or so men that were there (no women enrolled in this particular class, but this is not a men’s only thing). We did multiple rounds of different styles of WHM, but in general (you can learn more at Kasper’s site, or Wim’s site) you do 3-4 rounds of a cycle that goes like this: 30 deep power breaths – inhale, exhale, after 30, release everything on an exhale and hold. This is the retention part – you hold as long as you can, without forcing it. Inhale fully, hold for 10 seconds. To learn more about the details, and the precautions, be sure to work with a facilitator, or review Wim’s site thoroughly, but trust me – you’ll feel it. It can be amazing and that day, I had a great experience. It’s called getting “deep” when you’re breathing is strong, rhythmic and you’re completely focused, you can reach some very interesting headspace and that afternoon, I certainly did.
Here’s where things got interesting. All day long, the talk had been about the ice bath later in the day. We were working up to it. Some in the class had done it before, many had not. Some were eager, some nervous, some unsure. Me? I was matter-of-fact about it and looking forward to the challenge. I was, for sure, like I said, feeling confident.
After we broke for lunch, did another round of breathing and learned more from Kasper’s amazing knowledge and dedication to health, wellness, mindfulness, self-control/discipline and focus, and of course, WHM, we started to prepare for the ice bath. Five or so hours had passed since the workshop had started. Out in the parking lot, we gathered in somewhat nervous anticipation, mingling amongst each other, as the single-person metal tub was filled with ice, and more ice, and some water. Kasper guided us, prepped us, and continued to teach as he waited for the bath to get cold enough…and eventually, it was time.
An advanced student went first, as an example. The method is to not tiptoe into it. You step in, sit down, submerge just up to your shoulders, and then — breathe. He made it look so easy. Sure, you could tell there was a cold shock, if you will, but the breathing (that we’d been working on all day) immediately kicked in. Exhale deeply to relax, a strong, slow inhale through the nose, out through the mouth, eyes closed, relax into the zone. The other 20 guys were silent, I think out of respect, anticipation, eagerness, or other, but the intensity is tangible. We all watched as he flawlessly, controlled his breath, submerged in ice, breathing normally, for a good 2-3 minutes. Then, as it was suggested, he took one quick, full head dunk and exited. Everyone cheers, claps, and the student immediately goes into strong tai-chi style movements. Breathing slow and deep. See once you get out, Kasper instructs that you want to move slow and strong, flowing, warming up the body from the inside. The adrenaline kicks in and the shivers can be uncontrollable if you let them, but Kasper suggests that’s wasted energy and to try and channel that into a heating energy…easier said than done.
So that’s how it went, one-by-one each of us students got in. Some were impressively strong, calm and focused, some struggled a bit, but all settled in relatively quickly finding their “switch” as Kasper called it. This is the moment you go from discomfort, struggle for breath into a deep breathing zone. Totally relaxed in the moment, and in the state. Your mind is trying to remind you that you are freezing and ready to flee, but the breathing is regulating everything and focusing your intention, and it truly is a mind over matter thing. I could see it was intense, each student finishing in silence, and then into applause. Bodies stepping out of the tub red from the cold, muscles tense, and each student spending another 3-5 minutes in a personal space, outside the tub, stretching, breathing, moving, slowly recovering. As the numbers of those that had done it increased, the bond between us was intensifying. Lots of congratulatory hugs, pats on the back, conversations, etc. Descriptions of the experience…
I watched, and settled into line (even though Kasper said we didn’t have to “line up” it’s an inevitable trait we have, I think) and was probably about number 15. I watched each of the students that I had spent the day with step in, focus, breath and then “switch” …it was rhythmic – student after student. Sit – breathe – relax – focus – exit – cheer – recover. I got this, I thought. No worries (PS I’m shivering with cold adrenaline just writing this, honestly).
Troy went just before me. I knew he’d handle it well – he’s an experienced yogi, a fine athlete, and has been committed to the WHM for a while. It was his first ice bath too, though, so it was officially up in the air, how he’d do. He nailed it. I filmed, took some photos, cheered him on; great bonding exercise. Now, if I would have known the emotions (I later learned) he was dealing with on the inside, however, as opposed to what I witnessed on the outside (calm, steady, breathing, without seemingly missing a beat, graceful exit, etc.), I might have been able to more quickly put what happened next into context, but I think I’m glad I didn’t because it made for a better, internal conflict for me.
Here’s my experience: I didn’t hesitate one bit. I took my shirt off, casually folded it and set it on a massive tire that was in the parking lot for the strong-man workouts that might have taken place earlier in the day and I walked a few steps toward the tub. I had become very familiar with this aluminum tub that was now ice cold to the touch: About 30” deep, maybe about the same wide, and just long enough for you to sit, knees slightly bent. Even approaching it, no hesitation. The ice had melted a bit after 15 or so guys sitting in there for 3 minutes or so, but there was still no shortage of ice, and ice chunks. It was a freezing cold tub and I was a perfectly comfortable outside-in-shorts-and-a-tee human. I grabbed the sides, stepped in and sat, as best I could.
The shock, to me, was nothing short of unbearable. The pain was intense, I definitely couldn’t breathe, and everything in my body was saying, get the hell out…now.
I began gasping for air. My plan was to take my first deep breath through my nose, and then settle in. That plan flew out the window as my body realized what was happening. I immediately began searching desperately for my yoga breath, my Wim Hof breath, my regular breath…ANY air I could find, I was gasping for it. EVERY component in my body was on full overdrive. Conflicting emotions, conflicting signals, a battle was raging inside of me. My body was saying, “You can’t do this,” as it struggled to protect its organs. My mind was completely conflicted – I was going to be the first, of all these guys to not succeed. Who cares, forget ego, get out, get to warmth. And then, on the other hand: Fight. Fight like hell, and beat this. Find control, find your breath. Push through, persevere. Do NOT give up…
Meanwhile, underwater, you cannot tell where anything is. Were my knees above water? Where were my hands? My shoulders, I could tell – at least I thought I could – that my shoulders were still slightly above the water line, and my mind was letting me recall what Kasper had said, that leaving any part (besides your neck and head) above the water line was just asking your body to push for an escape. Fully submerge and surrender to it, otherwise you’re preparing for an early exit. I knew the top of my shoulders were exposed, but I was paralyzed, not in cold, but in desperation. Flee! Fight! Breathe! Relax! Need air! The pain, the inner turmoil, the uncontrollable gasping and the need to flee were almost too much to bear.
I could hear Kasper talking and coaching. I could hear the guys beginning to cheer me on, and coax me through it, but I was quite sure I was going to give up. And I was starting to come to terms with that. I was starting to formulate the conversations, the joking that I was the only guy who didn’t make it, and wow, wasn’t that funny, how my body just freaked out, and so on and so on…
I wanted to yell, actually. The feeling was so intense and the only respite I had was in my exhales, loud long, and extreme. I couldn’t get them to work, however, every inhale was too short and when I look back at my video, I see my body being relatively still, but can vividly recall the complete chaos that was going on inside of me. It was so intense.
Kasper’s coaching was amazing – he said, “Trust your body.” He was so calm, and supportive and kept offering praise, like, yeah, “that’s the stuff,” and “yeah, you’re getting there.” In my head though, I was thinking, am I really? He even joked that, “if you can’t make it fake it, act like you’re unimpressed.” That was not an option though, I was in complete awe of this coldness! At about my two-minute mark he said, “…it’s beautiful. With every breath there’s more control” and that was the reminder I needed. I HAD to stick with it, dig deep, focus and chase the control…do NOT give up, I told myself. There is NO GIVING UP.
There were a couple of exhales where Kasper thought I might have been getting there, and even watching my video you see that on the outside, I’m calming, but inside, it was not until that last moment, when my breathing fully “switches” that I found calm and in the video, it’s clearly evident.
At that “switch” moment, the chaos in my mind went away almost immediately. The loudness, and conflictions – they all went completely silent. I was immediately aware of my senses again and I settled into the water a bit more. I was at complete peace, and in a total zone. I was untouchable, and feeling stronger than ever having conquered those urges to flee. I was also fully aware, however, of how long it took me to get there and realized that at this point, my time in the tub might be getting a little obnoxious – looking back it wasn’t that long at all, but the whole 3-minute ordeal felt like a 30-minute boxing match. As comfortable as I was to now be at the summit, it was time to come down, time to do my casual exit from the tub.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to do that head dunk, the symbol of accomplishment. To hear the cheers and claps, the hoots of my fellow breathers was a celebratory relief. I had, for that moment, conquered my fears and had overcome what I didn’t think was physically possible. I had wrestled the bear, and won.
In that wash of adrenaline and victory, however, a rush of realization came over me. This microcosmic experience was just a metaphor for our existence itself, and all I could think of were all the other things in life that I don’t like to deal with…paddling out on big days, confrontations (social and/or professional), disagreements, and more. You know, all the human stuff. There was something, however, so refreshing about this baptism of sorts. To know that I could pull through, find stillness in the madness, and overcome what seemed like an insurmountable situation was more than energizing. I don’t think I’ve felt more alive.