A picture of a woman sat in an ice bath, with a Wim Hof breathing instructor sat in front of her guiding her through the process
Image credit: Tom Davis

The Wim Hof breathing method

Plunge explores how the popular breathing method can enhance your cold-water therapy sessions

Morning routines have changed for the better for Damon Bowen Ashwin since he started implementing the Wim Hof breathing method in 2021. 

The first step for him after waking up is to connect with nature, opening the windows to let the air in and listening to the birds chirping. He then practises the Wim Hof method (WHM): a combination of breathing techniques and a cold plunge promising a host of physical and mental benefits. “It’s amazing what our bodies can do when we can create the right conditions”, he says. 

Damon now embraces life and its many possibilities, thanks to Wim Hof, the Dutch extreme athlete popularly known as the ‘Ice Man’ who developed the method. 

How the Wim Hof method changed Damon’s life

It all started in 2019 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Five months after the surgery in July 2020, Damon’s mother was listening to a radio programme where Marvel actor Chris Evans was talking about the book ‘The Breath’ which mentioned Wim Hof and his method. Curious by what his mother said about the method, Damon tried out the breathing technique mentioned in the book, only to lose interest halfway. 

Fast forward to 2021, the residual mass of the tumour was found to be growing. Amid discussions surrounding treatment, Damon was desperate to find resources to help him stay positive and stumbled upon the Wim Hof method again. “I like to believe everything happens at a time when it is meant to happen,” he says.

It shifted my mindset from a place of fear to taking control of my body

Damon Bowen Ashwin

He then downloaded the Wim Hof app, watched the videos and started practising the method as per the instructions. Throughout his one-year treatment which involved six weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, he kept up his Wim Hof method training. In January 2023, he received the news that the mass was shrinking. He is not sure if the training contributed to this in any way or if it was a placebo effect but keeping at it daily made him feel as though he was resetting his body. “It shifted my mindset from a place of fear to taking control of my body,” says Damon.

These days he is a certified Wim Hof instructor, happily sharing with others what he has learned and experienced. 

After the Wim Hof method changed his life, Damon (left) trained to become a licensed instructor. Image credit: Damon Bowen Ashwin

Benefits of the Wim Hof method

The Wim Hof Method is based on three pillars: breathing, cold exposure and mindset. The first readies the body to cope with the exposure to the cold, while the right mindset is crucial since the practice requires patience and dedication. 

According to Hof, there are two ways in which breathing techniques help the body gain maximum benefits from cold exposure. Firstly, it activates the hormonal system increasing the rate of adrenaline. Secondly, the body’s PH level goes up, thereby improving the neural activity, letting the body adapt faster to a stressful situation, in this case, the cold. 

Tom explains the science behind this process. “Our nose is the dominant breathing tool which filters the air we inhale and warms it up to the right body temperature. It engages the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for rest” he says. Wim Hof system involves voluntarily introducing a little bit of stress in the form of mouth-breathing. This is to deliberately stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which the body reacts to positively, supposedly reducing stress levels and aiding in better handling of the cold. 

How to do it

A picture of a woman sat in an ice bath, with a Wim Hof breathing instructor sat in front of her guiding her through the process
Tom Davis (left) says it’s important to take your time with the Wim Hof method for safety and to fully experience the benefits. Image credit: Tom Davis

According to the official Wim Hof website, there are 4 simple steps to practise the technique:

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting in a meditative pose or lying down.
  2. Take 30 deep breaths by inhaling through your nose or mouth while pushing your stomach outward and then exhaling through your mouth. 
  3. Hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe again.
  4. Take a giant breath, hold it in for 15 seconds and exhale. This completes one cycle. Repeat the cycle three to four times. 

Wearing loose-fitting clothes that allow belly expansion is advisable. Tom Davis, a Cardiff-based Wim Hof instructor, reiterates the fact that the breathing technique should not be practised in a rush.

“The most important thing is to make sure you’re lying down somewhere comfortable, preferably away from water bodies,” he says.  Tom suggests beginning in a workshop with an experienced trainer and states that people concerned about specific health issues can consult their doctor to ensure practising WHM is safe for them.