It’s not every day you get to meet your hero.
Last Sunday I went for my usual swim down at the Highgate Men’s Pond. The water temperature was 7C and due to my six week break from cold water swimming, I could only manage about 3 minutes in the water. It was a gloriously sunny day, and as I was changing, standing there in my towel, basking in the unusual February sun, I heard a familiar voice. It didn’t register at first, and so I let it pass by, I was enjoying the feeling of the sun drying my skin.
As I got dressed, I continued to hear the voice, from somewhere near the waters edge. I poured myself a green tea (over-brewed with a generous splash of maple syrup, strange I know but it really warms me up after a cold swim!) and went to investigate.
"Oh shit, that’s Wim Hof.”
I first learned about Wim a few years ago, from watching the BBC
Inside the Human Body. A scene from the show that really
stuck with me is this one.
As I learned more about Wim, from videos and interviews, I learned that his methods allowed him to not only perform super human physical feats, but also to cope with some of intense mental trauma. He is very open in speaking about his wife’s suicide, an enormous tragedy that left Wim to raise four young children. I can’t even begin to imagine the strength it takes to even face the world in the wake of such an event. And so my research into his methods and practices began.
It starts off very simply. You perform a breathing exercise, and submit yourself to cold showers.
Now the breathing exercise is something where results
can be seen immediately, and as a consequence becomes very addictive! It is referred to
as a meditation practice, but its not unlike any meditation I have experienced before.
I had been exposed to a mindfulness style of meditation at makers academy,
I did find some utility in it, but it is difficult to keep up the motivation to
make it a daily practice. I think it is actually harder to keep up because
it is all about maintaining a constant state. One of observing and not judging,
using the breath to focus on… nothing. With Wim’s breathing method, the
meditation practise has phases. There is the famous
FULLY IN... & LET IT GO...
phase, where it feels like you are getting slightly drunk on just pure air. And
then there is the hold phase, where you exhale every ounce of air from your lungs
and sit, quietly, holding your breath until you feel the reflex to breathe again.
For me, this is the most impact full part of the practise, and is a similar experience to cold water exposure. During this phase, if you are in a quite room, the only noise is your own heartbeat. Everything is still. The mind is not even distracted with breathing. I want this phase to last for hours, and therein lies the addictive nature of this practise that allows me to come back again and again. During this phase I feel a real sense calm, and still. I’m not thinking about anything. All I can feel is my heart beating.
The experience is similar to cold water swimming. As I descend into icy cold water, there is no time or place to be thinking about material things, work, or any trivial matters. If you are not focused on the practise of cold water swimming, and survival, you are exposing yourself to certain death. Again, my mind during this is focused only on survival. Initially my surroundings blur, the everyday stresses and worries fade away. As I push on into the swim, everything comes back into focus, and I have a great appreciation for everything around me, the water, the sky, the ducks. I think less about survival, and come to a place where my mind is still.
I had a wonderful conversation with Wim and his son that day. I told him about how much his methods have helped my to prioritize things in my life, and to deal with doubt and indecision. There are times where I can get caught up with daily life, to a point where it all feels a little overwhelming. I think his methods help me to keep my feet on the ground, and keep me moving forward. He seemed thrilled to hear my story, and before we parted ways, we hugged and snapped a selfie together. I left him to enjoy the water at my swim spot on Hampstead Heath.