Text by Mandi Keighran / Photos: Henny Boogert
"The cold is merciless but righteous,” says Wim Hof. Although, looking at photos of the self-proclaimed Iceman practising yoga and meditation in sub-zero temperatures, relaxing in vats of ice, or conquering mountains in nothing but shorts and sandals, it is difficult to imagine the cold is anything but Hof’s friend.
The Dutchman’s fascination with the cold began at an early age, but his superhuman abilities weren’t immediately apparent. At seven, he recalls, he tried to build an igloo but instead fell asleep in the snow and ended up in hospital suffering hypothermia. Fast forward to the mid-1970s, however, when Hof was 17, and the story was entirely different.
“I had been discovering my mind and body already through esoteric disciplines – karate, yoga, and philosophy,” he says. “When I was 17, I came across some freezing cold water with a thin layer of ice and it attracted me. I undressed and got in. There was this feeling of igniting something within my physiology at a deep level. It felt so good, I came back again and again.”
For the next 20 years, Hof built himself into the Iceman – swimming in icy waters, running barefoot through the snow, and generally doing what would leave most of us in a state of severe hypothermia.
It was only a matter of time before the media became interested in the Dutch daredevil, and Guinness World Records soon followed.
To date, 54-year-old Hof has broken 21 world records. Among these, he holds the record for the longest time spent in direct, full-body contact with ice (1 hour 52 minutes 42 seconds); has run the fastest barefoot half marathon on ice (2 hours 16 minutes 34 seconds); has run a full marathon wearing only shorts above the polar circle in Finland in temperatures of -20°C; has organised the largest barefoot race on ice (361 participants); and reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro clad only in shorts and sandals in just two days. And, to prove it’s not just the cold he can endure, in 2011, he ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water.
The question is: how? Hof says it’s a simple matter of mind over matter. “I’m able to control my body through the power of my mind. We have perfect mechanisms in our bodies, but we intervened with nature when we started wearing clothes. We need to reawaken those mechanisms.” While most of us would shiver at even the thought of attempting an ice bath, Hof claims that with training anyone can become an iceman or woman.
He attributes much of his seemingly superhuman endurance to a special breathing technique he has developed based on Buddhist tummo meditation and yoga. The goal of tummo – the Tibetan word for “inner fire” – is to gain complete control over the body’s processes, and it has been proven that practitioners, like Hof, can significantly increase the temperature of their core and extremities (one experiment in 1982 showed three monks could increase the temperature of their fingers by more than 8°C during meditation).
In 2007, following an impressive run of record breaking, which led to performances around the world, a series of experiments was carried out in New York. Hof claims these proved he had control over his vagus nerve, a part of the automatic nervous system that, among other things, regulates the heart, controls muscle movement, and keeps the digestive tract and stomach in order. It is generally acknowledged that we can’t consciously control the vagus nerve.
If Hof could, as he claims, teach these abilities to others, the implications for healthcare would be significant, he says, given the automatic nervous system’s role in the immune system. There were plans to conduct further research to see if he could indeed teach his methods to others, yet this never happened – Hof blames pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in suppressing the results.
Nevertheless, in 2010, following a performance in Amsterdam, he was asked to take part in a research experiment at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, run by medical professor Dr Maria Hopman. Hopman set up an experiment in which Hof was exposed to extreme temperatures in an ice bath for 1 hour and 44 minutes. In a normal subject, this kind of extreme exposure would cause the body’s core temperature of 37 °C to drop significantly causing hypothermia, which kicks in at 35 °C (death occurs at 27 °C). Hof’s core body temperature, monitored by a small pill-shaped thermometer he swallowed, dropped from 37.7°C to just 37.4°C.
“It is absolutely not important,” says Hopman of the 0.3°C difference in temperature. “His skin temperatures dropped by 5oC to 10oC, which is very cold, whereas his core stays warm. That is very exceptional.”
In addition, Hof’s heart rate and blood pressure showed little change (a normal person’s would increase dramatically), and he sped up his metabolism to double the normal rate, using the energy to produce extra heat. Unsurprisingly, the results of these experiments posed more questions than they answered.
Hopman has three theories to explain why Hof can withstand freezing temperatures – the effects of tummo meditation, a gradual building of resistance over many years of training, or simply some kind of inherent genetic advantage – but still no answers. “We call this a mystery,” she says. “We need to do more research to see how Wim can control processes in his body we thought you were unable to control voluntarily.”
After suffering years of mockery and cynicism, further research is exactly what Hof wants. Ultimately, he wants his techniques to be widely adopted around the world and used to boost the immune system and treat disease. “My mission,” says Hof, “is to show that everybody can reach more depth in themselves. We all have healing powers – an inner doctor – but we have forgotten about this. By opening our minds, we can free that inner healing power and prevent disease.”
So, since 2010, Hof and his son have run Inner Fire workshops around the world, convincing regular, albeit adventurous, people to run barefoot through the snow and swim in freezing water – all in the name of boosting the immune system and treating diseases from rheumatism and cardiovascular problems to obesity.
He currently has a centre in Krkonoše, Poland, where he runs regular winter workshops, and there are plans to open a second centre in Spain in the coming years. As might be expected from the irrepressible Hof, he won’t stop at these two centres. For the past two years he has been training several students to become teachers of his method, with the intention of setting up a global network of Inner Fire centres. He’s even considering installing a cryochamber that reaches temperatures of -120°C (made famous by Welsh rugby player Sam Warburton, who used one in 2011 while training for the Rugby World Cup and dubbed it an “evil sauna”).
“I know how to be happy without money,” says Hof. “But, I do want to earn billions to create these centres because they are good for all humankind.”
It’s impossible not to be infected by the Iceman’s enthusiasm, and all of a sudden a barefoot run through the snow or a dip in icy waters doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Click onto the next page to discover what it takes to become an Iceman...