Once, when Wim Hof was still a young man, visitors to Amsterdam’s Beatrixpark took him for dead. One winter morning, the 20-year-old swam out to the middle of the pond and disappeared. A minute passed. Then another. Someone called the police.
“They thought they were going to have to recover a body,” Hof says. “But I was fine. I was sitting at the bottom of the pond meditating.”
Hof sits in his Amsterdam apartment sipping tea. He is now 52 and bearded. His muscular pecs are bursting out of his T-shirt. Newspapers call Hof the Iceman. He has already set 20 cold-related world records. He has climbed Kilimanjaro bare-chested, jumped into frozen lakes without a diving suit, and run several marathons barefoot at temperatures of -4 F.
Hof sits and pours sugar into his tea. “Everyone can learn to do what I do,” he says.
FIRE FROM WITHIN
Hof explains that his anti-freeze method is a combination of breathing technique, meditation, and decades of training under extreme conditions.
Normally, if a person’s temperature falls below zero, the body draws blood from the limbs and pumps it toward the heart. The risk of frostbite is high, and continued exposure can lead to death. But not for Hof. The Dutchman believes that by meditating, he can influence his autonomic nervous system and blood circulation and thus maintain a constant body temperature, even in subzero temperatures or icy water. He calls it “turning up his internal thermostat.”
The Iceman showed the world how it works last November in New York.
To break his 20th world record, Hof clambered into a Plexiglas box and was packed in up to his neck in 1,500 pounds of crushed ice. He wore no protective clothing; the coat of ice enveloped his bare skin.
He meditated, his gaze trained straight ahead. He breathed in and out steadily. Passersby stopped and watched. He remained in the box for one hour, 52 minutes and 42 seconds -- longer than anyone else had ever managed before him. Then the assistants broke the Plexiglas and Hof stepped out of the ice.
“When I’m freezing, I visualize heat in my body,” he says. “I imagine it increasing with every breath, like a fire spreading inside me. It is a show of strength, it is ongoing communication between body and mind.”
Do you feel cold in the ice?
“No. The only danger would be if something distracted me and my concentration lapsed. Then I’d be cold straight away.”
What would you do then?
“I’d pump heat into the relevant body part!”
Hof knows that some of the things he says sound crazy: a “thermostat in his head,” “fire from within.” And though he’s been exposing himself to extreme cold for 30 years, people’s lack of faith still works him up. “I’ve been called crazy, a liar. You can’t imagine how much resentment I’ve come up against.”
Hof must have genetic advantages, his critics claim. “Influencing the autonomic nervous system? Generating heat from his thoughts? No way.” Hof had to prove them wrong.
THE ICEMAN EXPERIMENT
Dr. Peter Pickkers is a thin man in his mid-40s with closely-cropped hair and a pleasant voice. He does research at the St. Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. On April 18 of last year, Pickkers appeared on Dutch TV. “We have extraordinary news,” he told reporters.
He was talking about the Iceman.
Pickkers and his team tested Hof’s resistance to the cold during an 80-minute ice bath. The astounding thing was that while Hof’s skin temperature dropped from 82.4 F to 41 F, the change in his inner body temperature was minimal, from 100 F to 99 F. Their findings also showed that Hof’s oxygen intake doubled while he was in the ice bath. Hof was sitting still, but his blood was pumping like he was running a marathon.
In another experiment, the scientists investigated whether Hof really could influence his autonomic nervous system. Doctors injected him with a biochemical endotoxin that brings about short-term flu symptoms in humans. The Iceman planned to fight them off through meditation.
The TV report shows Hof lying in bed two hours after the injection with sensors attached all over his body. He tells the doctor he feels nothing more than a light headache. But the real sensation came out later in the lab. Hof had managed to fight off the endotoxin attack by producing large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol -- something people cannot normally actively control.
Cortisol is released by the body in extreme situations, like if you’re suddenly involved in a street fight. Doctors believe Hof’s breathing technique -- hyperventilation followed by holding his breath -- could be responsible for the discharge.
Pickkers is smiling in the TV report. Hof, by contrast, is seen crying. He can now explain that “those tests mean more to me than the records I’ve broken. They show that what I do isn’t hocus-pocus.”
MERCILESS AND FAIR
An icy wind is whistling through the broadleaf trees in Flevopark in Amsterdam. Hof wants to show us his new bathing area. It is a murky pool, surrounded by jogging paths and hedges, a little over a mile east of downtown. Hof says the water temperature is 37 F and that he’d like to swim a lap after jumping in.
Nobody should leap into icy water without preparation -- that would be stupid. But Hof insists that anyone can eventually learn to do what he does. As with all things, you just have to start small. “A cold shower every morning,” Hof explains. Five seconds is fine; you can increase the length of the shower as time goes on.
Hof has begun teaching his methods -- effective breathing, deep concentration, walking barefoot in the snow -- in workshops that attract people from all over the world, from normal folks to serious athletes, like Olympian Elisabeth Willeboordse, a Dutch judo bronze medalist, and kickboxing champion Gökhan Saki, also from the Netherlands.
“Our bodies can deal with much more than we think,” Hof says. “Cold is the best tool to help you train your physique and your concentration. It is merciless but fair.”
When asked what his own first experience of the cold was, the Iceman tells the following story: “My mother was pregnant with twins but had no idea there were two babies, as she had no ultrasound examination.” Hof’s brother, Andre, was the first to be born that day, April 20, 1959. A few minutes later, his mother began to scream for a second time; Wim was coming, and no one was expecting him.
“I was born in an unheated corridor between the recovery area and the delivery room,” Hof says. Then he pauses.
“The ironic thing is, doctors have told me since that I must have almost frozen to death there.”
Check out the May 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 10) for more features and articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.