Is Wim Hof, who is also known as “The Iceman", teaching a dangerous method of breathing?

The Popularity of Wim Hof’s Method  

Dutchman Wim Hof is also known as “The Iceman” for his incredible feats of endurance in the cold. He’s climbed Mt. Everest in shorts and been immersed in freezing water for up to an hour and a half with no ill effects and without his body temperature dropping. Wim Hof asserts that his breathing technique, which is based on the yogic practice of tummo, is one key to allowing him to build up cold tolerance. He also explains that correct mental attitude, especially visualization, is an important element of his extraordinary powers.

Wim Hof is wildly successful these days as social media has spread the news of breathing for health. He has appeared in a documentary from Vice News and has, with the help of his son, developed a website to promote his teachings. In the bestseller, “Breath” by James Nestor, the author practices this method himself.

In a 2017 interview for Discover Magazine, Wim Hof described why his method can work wonders:

“If you oxygenize the body [using my method], the oxygen gets into the tissue. [Normal] breathing doesn’t do that,” he says. “What happens [is]… the brain says, ‘There is no oxygen anymore.’ Then it triggers adrenaline to shoot out throughout the body. Adrenaline is for survival, but this time it is completely controlled … the adrenaline shoots out throughout the body and resets it to the best functionality.”

But Wim Hof’s method does not work for everyone. The Buteyko method, which advises breathing less, has the same aim (oxygenizing the tissues), yet it teaches a gentler approach to the same goal. Dr. Konstantin Buteyko advised a gradual approach to oxygenize the body because he warned that the power of breathing can be compared to radiation: it can boost your health quickly but applied incorrectly it can injure health just as fast.

 

Wim Hof (Iceman) with his students

Wim Hof (Iceman) pictured here with his students.

What is Wim Hof’s method and how is it practiced?

The Wim Hof method is not just a breathing technique. It has three components: first, breathing rapidly and through the mouth; second, exposure to cold; and third, correct mental attitude.

Wim Hof teachings are based on an ancient type of Tibetan yogic breathing called tummo. The purpose of tummo breathing is to create heat, which helps Tibetan monks live more comfortably in cold, mountain monasteries. The Tummo method has two components: breathing and visualization. The breathing technique is accompanied by visualizing flames rising up along the spinal column. The word Tummo literally means “inner fire” in Tibetan.

The Wim Hof method teaches practitioners to find a comfortable place, and while either sitting or lying down take 30 quick, deep breaths—inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. After this, inhale deeply and exhale, postponing the need to inhale. Finally, inhale again, very deeply (as deeply as possible) and hold the breath for 10 seconds. This can be repeated as many times as desired.

Tibetan monks who’ve mastered Tummo have been documented raising their body temperatures as much as 15 degrees in fingers and toes. This allows monks to sit motionless in cold temperatures for many hours and remain comfortable. Tummo breathing is also said to improve health. Dr. Herbert Benson, professor of medicine at Harvard University and the president of Boston’s Mind/Body Institute, has been studying Tummo for two decades. He’s concluded that the practice is a significant de-stressor and could help treat many western diseases that are stress-related.

From the Buteyko perspective, does Wim Hof’s method work? 

The Wim Hof method can produce many of the same results as the Buteyko Method, including stress reduction and health improvement. Yet, the two methods are nearly diametrically opposed in how they achieve these goals. How is it possible to resolve this paradox?

Wim Hof explains that by teaching the body to tolerate stress and adversity (for example, immersion in cold water), the body strengthens. By confronting stress, with the correct mental attitude, you are able to improve your tolerance of it. This theory is often expressed by his followers with the words of the German philosopher Frederic Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

The correct mental attitude means purposefully and consciously practicing hyperventilation, rather than doing so mindlessly and without awareness, as many people do.

The Buteyko method also promotes Russian tempering, or exposure to the elements of cold, dirt, air, and water. Buteyko has a strong spiritual component and teaches students to use imagination and visualization.

But for Buteyko practitioners, the route to improved breathing is quite cautious and gradual. Practitioners learn to gradually strengthen the body through correcting the habit of chronic over-breathing. In addition, tempering is introduced as a means to slowly build up a tolerance to the outdoors, including cold and heat.

From the perspective of the gentle approach of Buteyko (breathe less, practice progressive relaxation, slowly add tempering), Wim Hof’s method has some concerning problems.

Can Wim Hof method injure your breathing and health? 

The answer to this simple question is not an attack on Wim Hof’s method, which is quite powerful and effective. But it is clear that the practice of deliberately over-breathing is detrimental for some people. Success with creating “inner fire” depends, to some extent, on applying Wim Hof’s method correctly—yet perhaps more importantly, the safety and effectiveness of Wim Hof’s method is related to the practitioner’s current state of health.

Wim Hof’s approach can be valuable and beneficial for people whose breathing is already strong. According to the Buteyko Method, strong breathing means having a Positive Maximum Pause (PMP) of 40 seconds or higher in the morning.

As with many advanced yogic breathing practices, the Wim Hof method can make strong and healthy breathing even stronger and healthier. If your breathing is weak, however, this method can weaken it further. By the time you become aware that it isn’t working, you have damaged your health.

If you google, “Can tummo breathing by harmful?” you will find many articles explaining the benefits rather than the risks of yogic breathing.

However, it is important to know that in Tibet the tummo method was traditionally taught only to students with years of serious practice under their belts. To be instructed in tummo required a personal recommendation from a well-recognized teacher. The reason for this is because the method was considered dangerous. 

How will you know if Wim Hof’s Method isn’t working?

As with any breathing method, you should learn from a certified professional—especially if you have significant health challenges. Attempting to self-teach with something as powerful as breathing can quickly lead to problems. It is best to study in a small group course or one-on-one to ensure you are practicing correctly.

Some Wim Hof practitioners report adverse symptoms:

  • The need to breathe from the mouth
  • Feeling hungry for air most of the time
  • A decline in cognitive ability, such as loss of focus and/or and hyperactivity
  • Becoming winded with sudden exertion, like walking up a flight of stairs or housecleaning.
  • Inhalation problems when falling asleep
  • A racing heart most of the time

Before you begin: How to determine if Wim Hof’s method is right for you

Do you have chronic health challenges? Correct breathing can help you, and it can do so quickly and significantly. But just as proper breathing can transform health for the better, breathing exercises which are incorrect for your specific condition can be damaging. It is crucial to be careful when applying any advanced breathing techniques, such as tummo yoga or Wim Hof.

Consider, first, your morning Positive Maximum Pause. Is it below 40 seconds? Then work to achieve a PMP above 40 before you begin using the Wim Hof Method.

Any breathing technique that does not increase your morning Positive Maximum Pause is ill-advised. The PMP is a measure of C02 concentration in the lungs, or in the language of yoga, it measures the vital energy or prana in your body.

This can take months using the Buteyko Method, but you are strengthening your health along the way. If your PMP is below 40 seconds in the morning, it is risky to attempt learning Tummo or Wim Hof, no matter how high the quality of instruction.

To begin studying the Buteyko Method, start here. We will guide you on your personal health journey.

References

https://www.breathingcenter.com/buteyko-breathing-blog/wim-hof-method-detrimental-breathing-health

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tummo

https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/can-breathing-like-wim-hof-make-us-superhuman

https://www.wimhofmethod.com