A journal of my journey with the “Iceman” Wim Hof: Just Breathe!

INTRODUCTION:

Hello all,

My journal is finally here!  I am sharing this experience because it was too amazing and enriching not to share. For those of you who were not aware, I recently took a trip to Poland for an intensive week of meditation study with Wim Hof. He is known as the “Iceman” for having broken many Guinness World records for braving and enduring the cold in many different scenarios. What makes Wim unique is the fact that he is not a circus freak. He teaches the concepts behind everything that he does and he has changed many lives as a result. People with MS, cancer and even various auto-immune diseases have been healing themselves with his methods. He is not a guru and he does not claim ownership for his teachings. Wim has been the topic of international scientific research and the findings have been astounding. Many scientists are now in the process of re-writing and editing actual textbooks due to the research that has been done on his practices. To summarize, it is largely a practice built on breathing and mental acceptance of “what is,” and then capturing the power to completely control your body and mind while gaining a better understanding of your spirit in the process. For many, using the word “spirit” often evokes the foul smell of pseudo-science. That said, if you have ever done any meditation exercises you will note that as you quiet your mind you are able to observe your mind thinking independently. The simple fact that “you” are something other than just your mind suggests that there is a consciousness outside of your thinking brain. Just to be clear, when I use the word “spirit,” I am referring to that consciousness without any connection to any religious dogma.

Disclaimer:

I will preface by saying that this is not a literary masterpiece by any stretch so please excuse any grammatical errors, tense changes, run on sentences and disjointed thoughts and ideas. My aim is to give you a snapshot of one of the most transformative experiences of my life in its most raw and pure form. While on my adventure with Wim in Poland I kept my notes on my iPhone and I recently dumped them into a word document and I have been doing some minor edits but again I wanted to keep the text in the rawest format possible in order to most effectively share the experience that I had with you all. I will make best efforts to finish editing all 6 days as soon as possible but for now here is Day 1. I will try follow up with Day 2 as soon as I can (hopefully tomorrow or the next day). Day 1 is by far the longest because of the initial shock of what I got myself into upon arrival gave me a lot to write about.

Backdrop:

A friend of mine from TrueLine, Lance Pelletier, told me about Wim and how he was able to do the most incredible things. He sounded like a man who had some special powers which is always intriguing. He then sent me the following links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wim_Hof
http://www.redbull.com/cs/Satellite/en_US/Article/Thinking-Warm-Thoughts-021243183353583
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/22/wim-hof-dutch-iceman-cont_n_865203.html

After reading them all I went to his website:

http://www.icemanwimhof.com/en-home

After checking out his site I noticed that he had a retreat that you could attend to actually live with Wim for a week and learn these practices regardless what level you were at in the training. I immediately booked the online class and also signed up to fly to Poland to do it. I cannot describe this decision in any other terms than it just felt right. I believe in surrounding yourself by amazing people. When you do this, you learn from what they have to offer which in turn bolsters your personal growth curve. It’s no coincidence that Lance turned me onto him because at TrueLine Publishing we tend to attract open minded and awesome folk who are excited about life and living. That said, thanks Lance, I appreciate it!

I flew to Poland with no itinerary and no clue what to expect and what I found exceeded all potential expectations. I left Poland with a new sense of physical, mental and spiritual agency. Wim is now a true friend and inspiring teacher in my life. I also formed bonds with everyone in the group. There were 25 people (I was the only American) all of which were on a similar journey in life and the friendships that I forged will be long lasting. I am writing in hopes that this journal inspires you to take action in your life and claim you true inner power: the power to create your own reality.

Day 6: (final day)

Today, day six, marked the completion of my transformation and also the beginning of a long road ahead. Last night I went to bed early big only slept 3 hours. I woke up to an emotional dream and then lay in bed awake in bed for 30 minutes anxious to get back to sleep to prepare for the big day ahead. I could not sleep so I trusted myself and went downstairs and allowed myself the space to process.  All kinds of emotions and memories were pouring out of me. I looked in the mirror and cried harder than I’ve cried in a long time. I felt the pain of loved ones lost, self-doubt, and self-destructiveness.  I then wrote down my feelings and after 3 hours of writing I finally went to bed. I didn’t sleep but I just lay there listening to the snoring of my 5 roommates and then tuned them out with earbuds.

I was supposed to wake up at 7:30 and join a small group to go back to the waterfall and submerge to start the day but I was so tired and anxious about the day ahead that I skipped it. I was afraid that it would take up too much energy for the big hike.. I regretted this all day. I wanted to go back to the water with only shorts on and submerge myself again and relax and enjoy it free from the anxiety of having to do so, and I wanted to walk back with no clothes on to truly deal with the cold and own my own feelings and truly master my fears. But sadly I did not, I decided that everything happens for a reason and I would just have to continue my training back home in the US where the struggles of daily life make it hard to do so. I let go of the guilt for not going and prepared for what was to come.

Now for the main event! The grand finale in classic Wim Hof form.  The final challenge was to hike the highest and steepest mountain in Poland with nothing but shorts on just like before.  The challenge was that this hike was a lot steeper and colder.  This was only 10km as opposed to the 13km hike earlier in the week but this trail was VERY vertical and had no actual walking path.  We would have to trudge through the snow and make our own path.  When we got there it turned out to be a ski mountain and we started off at the base lodge by the bunny slope with gawking families and children taking pictures of us as we began our ascent with practically no clothes on.

It was about 20 degrees out and cold as hell.  As we got into the vertical slopes Wim was surprised that the mountain had just been pounded with a ton of snow the night before so every step people were falling and sinking into the ground up to waist deep in snow. It was far more intense than even he anticipated and he kept checking in with the group to see if we were all ok.  We were all transformed and ready to face our fears and we all cheered out positively to move forward with every check in. We trudged step by step up the mountain and it was amazing! My hands were not cold (relatively speaking of course, at least I could move them this time), and I was completely in my meditative breathing state for at least half of the hike which was a huge improvement from the last hike.  Its difficult to sustain complete mental focus but I am learning and making steady progress.

I knew I was controlling by blood flow because I could feel my fingers and it was way colder out than the first hike.  I was focused.  When we finally reached the summit, the last 200 meters had a wind blowing so hard that Wim decided to stop us. He said that the risk for hypothermia was too high so we turned around. Normally we would put our clothes on to hike down but since we missed the summit by just 200 meters we were all so fired up that we kept our clothes off and literally ran down. Dennis started the trend and we all followed like a heard of angry elephants. He was literally rolling and sliding down the face of an un-groomed slope with drifts of snow that were upwards of 5-6 feet deep.  He blasted through the snow in a fit of fury covered in snow and ice and laughing and euphoric, it was an amazing sight!

Dennis is one of my closest compadres here and he is very strong and motivated. His words kept me going a few times over the course of the trip and this reckless display of pure disregard for the cold was so bad ass and inspiring that I too started running down and literally skiing down the mountain with my hiking boots!  I was jumping through several feet of snow at a gnarly vertical on a European double black diamond slope in my board shorts, my feet were wet and it was painful as all hell but I knew I would be fine, we were all laughing and screaming and completely free and fully present in the moment.

It was in this moment that something triggered in me and I knew that I had overcome so much of my fear about constrictions and frostbite, on the run down Dennis pointed at my legs and said “Haj, you were so worried about your toes now look at your legs, they’re completely yellow! Sure enough when I looked down they were. Under normal circumstances this would make me scared and freak out but instead I started laughing hysterically.  Why?  Because fuck you that’s why!  I was I control and I could feel it! (“Fuck you” is not directed to “you” as the reader, it is rather a crass snapshot of how I felt about all restrictions in that moment) I was pushing the physical limits of my body and it was beautiful. Some people were bright red, others literally had purple limbs and others also yellow…

It reminded me of Wim’s commend about the orchestra of colors and how we make music with it and it made me laugh because I finally got it. This was human evolution; we were waking up out evolutionary genetic consciousness that has kept our race alive long before North Face jackets were ever invented.  When we made it to the bottom the “after drop” kicked in and we were all shivering like babies waiting for the bus but morale was still high.  (After drop is when your body responds to extreme cold after the stimulus of the cold itself) Once we all got on the bus back home, Wim started gesturing like a conductor and mocking the sounds of the shivers orchestrating our symphony of chattering teeth and we all laughed out loud, it was amazing. The sun was now shining and then he announced that Yaap had proposed to Elsa (The gal who puked her guts out and nearly quit on day 1) and she accepted. We all reveled in the love of such a beautiful partnership. Life was good :)

Wim invited us to come to hike Kilimanjaro with him in September.  He and a group of trainees just broke the world record for the hike in just 31 hours for a group (they did it in shorts of course which had nothing to do with the record) and their bodies were tracked by a bunch of scientists trying to understand how they were all able of increasing their red blood cell count just by focused breathing.  Wim is able to teach in days what I believe will ultimately change the world. I want to go to hike Kilimanjaro in September and break the old record! A few compadres from the group all want to do the same and the cool thing is that these are not a bunch of young extremists looking for a thrill, rather most are 40 somethings who are all professionals and leaders in their communities and most also have multiple children.  Don’t get me wrong there were some younger people too but the makeup of the group regardless of age generally consisted of motivated people excited about life.  Wim helps to foster and stoke the fire of that excitement.

When we got back, one of my yoga instructor friend Elanor from the UK showed me a bunch of great poses and as my “main man” (as he calls me) Leon from Holland and I were waiting for Wim’s son Ehnam to start the fire downstairs to heat up the water tank for a hot shower to warm up. After some yoga I wanted to warm up the rest of my body while waiting for the shower so I suggested that we do a workout. Dennis walked in the room and said, “ok Haj I make a deal with you. You come to the waterfall with me and we walk there with no clothes and I come workout after with you to warm-up.” I laughed and said that I was still freezing from the hike.  He then said “stop thinking and let’s go!” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Here was my chance for redemption. Not for the redemption of my ego, but rather of my spirit’s desire to master my fears. The last thing in the world that I wanted to do in that moment was follow the most hardcore extreme guy in the group back to the waterfall… I was the American with the yellow toes, how the hell could I? But of course I said “lets do it!” and went.

As we walked the path to get there I was already shivering. Wim even said that once you start shivering it’s really difficult to stop so you have to breath and use the technique prior to the shiver setting in.  I mentioned to Dennis that I was  shivering and he said “then breath more” and laughed. So I did, I breathed and focused and I could feel the blood circulating to the extremities that needed it, it could literally channel my blood flow just by breathing and thinking it. My shivering slowed and then I relaxed my shoulders and let the cold in and practiced a moment of acceptance and then it was all good. I was still nervous while walking into the water but I did so anyway while noting that my feet were not nearly as cold as normal.   When my feet and legs went into the water it didn’t feel that bad, which of course made me feel sooooo good!

I walked into the deepest part of the pond and stood there and just practiced my breathing. Then I did 20 power breathes and just submerged myself again completely underwater and just enjoyed it. When I came out of the water I had a huge grin on my face because I had just found was I was looking for. I had mastered my fears and I successfully practiced acceptance and also controlled my body from the inside. Dennis was of course practically doing laps in the pond. He took a while to get out and suggested I leave without him to walk back as the journey back is the worst part because you’re freezing cold and wet.  Unlike two days ago we had no dry clothes this time around.  But I said no way, I patiently waited for him, simply said “no worries bro, I’ll live.” And I continued breathing. I have him a huge hug and expressed my gratitude that he pushed me to do this.

We jogged back to the house and then went into the attic to workout. Normally only a hot shower can get rid of my yellow feet from constructed veins but after all the training I was getting better and I was able to power through it! We did a kick ass workout and felt amazing. I then took a hot shower (being with a cold one of course) and then went into the sauna and had to finish with a complete cold shower just for good measure. (Cold showers here are literally ice cold). The big bells were now ringing which meant it was time for meditation and I went upstairs a changed man forever!

 

(Dennis playfully doing squats with Wim’s old-school Navy diver’s helmet)

 

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In today’s meditation, Wim is now trying to show us how to break free of the neo-cortex and achieve the blissful state without breathing. He says it just takes practice. I started with power breathing because I knew I wasn’t there yet, and after two rounds of constricting the breath (starting with squeezing thence glutes, then contracting the stomach then ribs then throat then pushing through the crown of the head, holding, and then letting go). After the exhale I was able to immodestly go to the blissful space where my body was tingling and I could feel energy surging throughout my arms and legs. It felt blissful and good. After the meditation Wim have a speech and we all have hugs to every single person. I normally find these sorts of things silly but I felt so much love after my experience and after the meditation that it felt amazing. As opposed to oppressing my sadness for leaving tomorrow I embraced it.  I had many emotions flowing through me on this cathartic day and I did my best to just experience them with genuine internal honesty.  I was incredibly grateful for being able to experience this journey here.  I was proud of myself because rather than acting like the standard stoic Haj and blunting some of my own emotions I gave myself permission to feel it all openly and I gave lots of hugs and expressed how I felt deeply connected with everyone.  There was no awkwardness.  I did not judge myself.  It felt natural, relaxed and good.

We are now prepping for a huge BBQ party with music and drinks and while I know that I will come back a changed man, I also know that my next challenge is to practice the techniques and master them in the most difficult environment ever: home.

Day 5:

I woke up this morning on very little sleep after a long night of partying.. Last night we had an amazing fiesta. Our Irish amigo Dara played DJ and had us all grooving to Afro-Irish drumming and some good old classics from his motherland. Then we heard music from everyone’s favorite hit lists from all over the world ending with Nikki Manaj and Johnny cash. It was awesome, we drank, danced and sang and most importantly talked. I have bonded with some of the most amazing people ever in this trip, what an amazing group…

Wim was right in the middle of it, drinking wine and dancing and just being him. The man literally emanates love from the core of his being. To stand next to Wim and have him give you the deep gaze that only he is capable of when speaking is an experience difficult to put into words. Wim is like the father that most people wish they had. He is positive, strict, fun, leads by example, always smiling but also completely convicted in everything that he does. His steps and words are both carefree and methodical at the same time and you cannot help but seek his approval even as he reminds us that we don’t need it. He is truly a pioneer for the human spirit. He learned everything in “hard nature” as he calls it, completely on his own with no instruction manual and is now sharing his findings.  I believe this method can uplift the consciousness of all people spiritually and physically.

Today the meditations lasted 1.5 hours and we went really deep. I had some incredible experiences and some amazing afterthoughts. So many of the blockages I have been dealing with came to the surface after the meditation, it was like I understood myself and the significance of so many things in my life so much better and can now focus on letting it go.

Today’s big task was to practice out breathing in the freezing ice pond under the waterfall and as opposed to just stand there for a minute like in day 2, we were to stand in the water, do 20 meditative power breaths and then submerge our heads completely underwater for at least 30 seconds. The challenge here is that you have to completely suppress your mammalian instinct to breathe when your head goes under the freezing water. It’s very hard to do and it also needs to be done methodically and under complete control as after you submerge you need to hike back to the house while soaking wet. I wasn’t too worried about this other than my feet, I knew they would be in for a treat in the walk back but I managed to set aside the anxiety and relax.

One we got there we went in groups of five. Everyone tried to submerge but not all could last 30 seconds. The panic instinct is very strong. When it was my turn my toes were already frozen from waiting to go in but the moment I went in the water I reminded myself that it was all just temporary. When Dennis saw me jumping in place getting psyched up back at the house prior to leaving to the waterfall he said “Haj, relax man. It will be cold and it will hurt, and that’s all.” He smiled and put his arm on my shoulder and that really helped put things into perspective for me.  By the time I waked into the center of the pond and actually went underwater I was already in the water for over a minute. Running water that is freezing is harder to deal with than a stagnant pond because the small film of heat that envelops your body in a normal ice bath is washed away every second. This is why everyone here who had been training in ice baths and cold showers was still having trouble in the waterfall pond.

When I submerged I just relaxed completely and accepted the cold. Initially it ran through me and pierced like a thousand stinging needles penetrating the skin but then after 5 seconds it felt good. Hard to describe but it was invigorating despite the pain. I counted to 30 at a good pace and then waited five more seconds to account for a speed up in my counting due to the anxiety and cold. When I finally stood up I was the last one up from my group and I had done it! It literally felt like being reborn, I don’t know how else to describe it. I threw my arms in the air and let out a carnal yell of success. Dennis started laughing and said “you look like Rrrrambo man, so tough” in his awesome Dutch accent (making fun of me) which immediately made me laugh :)

As I walked by Wim put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and said “great job Haj, nice work.”  I know that I am not yet where I would like to be on my spiritual path because his words meant a lot more to me than they should have.  I should derive all of my pride and self-worth internally. But in that moment I felt like I had made it into an inner circle of sorts. Out of the 25 people here he knew my name and made it a point to congratulate me. I was stoked! (Despite how good it felt, in retrospect Wim found a way to do this to everyone in some way shape or form over the duration of the trip.   He has a way of making everyone feel special which is another thing that makes Wim so awesome)

Back at the house now after a sauna and hot shower (ended with cold water of course) and I feel amazing. I did not want to do anything in the cold yesterday and I had absolutely NO desire to immerse today. That’s said, I did it! Anything that comes my way whether I like it or not, painful, scary or not, I now face with a heightened degree of confidence.  To quote Wim “I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of not living.” I feel more alive now than ever. After the meditation I noticed how much I was in my body, I felt my feet on the floor, things looked brighter with more color, almost like a high resolution TV. After the water rebirth my senses are even more heightened and better yet I am more able to control them by acceptance of the world around me. I now really see how I can only really change one thing in life, myself.  I see that I can do this by simply altering how I perceive life.

Robert and I had a discussion after the water exercise today where we both admitted that we did not fully understand the cold training until now. We thought a lot of it was for theatrics but we now realize that it is the ultimate test of self-discipline. If you can accept and manage the “fucking freezing cold” as Wim would say, you can manage anything in life. You have to apply the breathing techniques and mental detachment from your neo-cortex in order to fully thrive, not just survive, in the cold.

Some cultures like Russians and the Polish have a tradition of cold exposure and now I understand why. It’s not just that they’re crazy and hard core, it’s that these cultural traditions have an amazing impact on mental and physical health.  When your body has to deal with the freezing cold less a sweet polytech North face jacket, it creates more antibodies and you become literally stronger as a result. To learn to enjoy such activities creates intense levels of mental wellness as well. By adding in the breathing and conscious intention, which is what makes the Wim Hof method different, you can actually completely control your entire mental AND physical reality which is absolutely mind blowing but most importantly, empowering.

 

Waterfall

Looks beautiful from the outside but “cold as hell” (as Wim says) when you submerge…

Day 4:

My big goal on Day 4 was to really dig into the meditation breathing and get some breakthroughs, and that I did! I had a huge breakthrough this morning. I literally went into a blissful state and then started laughing uncontrollably followed by bursting into tears and balling (quietly of course).  I couldn’t explain why but the emotions just started pouring out just as Wim said they would. I was surprised, I’m not at all a crier… This is supposed to be the effect of the breathing activating and decalcifying my pituitary gland which helps to produce a signal to clear blockages (physical and emotional, all blockages usually surface in both forms). So again without spending years in therapy (which may still be useful) you can blast through the physical blockages with the breathing and free yourself off all the baggage from our psyches and feel and live more freely.

Wim says daily, we need to be three things on life: healthy happy and strong… Every prayer I say with all meals with my family happens to already include “please keep us healthy happy safe and strong” so needless to say I agree!  During the meditation many others said they quietly cried and experienced laughter as well. A couple of people were crying loudly and making crazy noises and I judged them which actually held me back in the first two days. After letting go of judgment about others I was free to experience what was there to be felt and it was amazing.

Wim said today would be a slower day of rest after the big climb and so we did a double meditation session and he gave a lecture in pain and controlling the auto versus parasympathetic nervous system with then mind.  This is the basis for why scientists are studying him and literally re-writing text books. This method allows you to restructure your DNA and beat all sorts of auto immune diseases. He has famous pianists with MS to famous scholars with cancer who practice the breathing techniques and have literally been cured in a very short period of time. It’s quite unbelievable actually. Half of the people here have really done more of the research and read the articles on him and its mind blowing how simple it is and how amazing the results can be.

This morning Wim’s son was questioned as to why he didn’t practice the method with us and he laughed and explained to us that he helped his dad to turn this from something that his father just did on his own into to a method that others can learn as well. He said that the snow and extreme cold training is just to wake your body up and get things moving but once you fully get the principles, you don’t need all of the theatrics. He then said (30 years old) “I haven’t been sick since I was 12. When a cold comes on I simply focus my intention on stopping it and it goes away.” He is in complete control of his body and can easily influence his immune system. Phenomenal.

After the morning meditation, on this “slow relaxing recovery day” we did 10 minutes of “snow-ga” followed by a fun outdoor snowball fight and then my toes turned yellow again… I am the only one with this problem, apparently I have constricted veins and Wim says I can overcome it by forcing blood flow as often as possible.  He prescribed a series of ice foot baths to help. Everyone here has already trained in the cold in outdoor water and other ways so in a lot of ways I’m playing catch up but that’s ok, I’m a pretty quick study ;).  I really wish my toes would stop giving me trouble though. We shall see, today seemed better than yesterday which is all that mattered.

After snow-ga we all hung out and started practicing yoga indoors and working out, it was awesome!  One yoga instructor for the UK showed us a ton of these poses and I got most of them!  Anything strength related I could handle, flexibly and binds were much harder for me but if I practice I think I could get really good at it.  After yoga, some of us went upstairs and did some pull ups, push ups etc, good stuff!  What a fun group, everyone is so motivated to work out and train at all times.  I’ve never been around so many focused humans.  I feel like we all must be related somehow.

The evening meditation was an exercise in trying to detach from the neo-cortex and get to the pituitary gland with just our minds and with less breathing. That was hard for everyone. He kept saying “like your energy, sit with it” and it made me realize that so many of my blockages (feet included) -emotional and experiential blockages usually surface in the body-come from a lack of love and acceptance of myself. I am a confident guy but true self love is different.  I need to up my self-love stock.  I need to work on that but I also need to focus on breathing and meditating more in order to blast through it. Forget about 20 years in therapy, I need to get to the source quicker and clean up shop with a greater degree of efficiency which this method will help me do!

After the meditation even though it was a relax recovery day after the big hike he still took us outside to lay in the snow instead of just stand in it.  Of course we wore only shorts but we stayed out for only 10 minutes. The goal was to practice the meditation in the snow and detach, relax despite the pain and breathe. Oddly enough although it was cold and painful I enjoyed it much more than standing in it as my toes are giving me most of the problems so this was actually a bit refreshing.

Off to dinner now!  Two more days of this to go… Man this is so not a vacation lol, this is hard work. I wake up anxious for what crazy things he is going to put us through next but I’m starting to trust myself and let go and know that I can handle whatever it is no matter how painful or uncomfortable and just enjoy every step of the way!

Ps: I really love the relationship Wim has with his son, so beautiful.

Wim Hof circle
(That’s me in the Hawaiian Style board shorts of course)

Day 3: 

On Day three I woke up and dug deeper into the meditation.  I experienced tingling and some stiffness but I’m still holding back a tad so tomorrow I plan to go deeper. We did “snow-ga,” today which is yoga in the snow.  My feet felt better until I came in.  After an hour, all of a sudden my toes started turning yellow and numb and tingly which someone said is apparently called after-drop.  Thankfully one of the gals was kind enough to give me an awesome foot massage which got the blood flowing and after 20 minutes I was ready just in time for the hike.

The big outdoor cold challenge for today is an outdoor hike.  Of course this is no ordinary hike, instead we will be hiking t the Czech/Polish boarder up a large mountain with nothing but shorts and boots.  While this sounds gnarly, it’s sunny out and I could use some exercise so I’m not too stressed about it.  At least we get to wear boots!!!  I’ll check in after it’s over.

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Ok, I’m back and I must report that the hike was one of the most intense experiences of my life, hands down. The hike pushed the limits of fear and physical barriers in a way I had never experienced before. We hiked 13 kilometers up a mountain to the polish Czech boarder in the freezing cold with boots and shorts on, no shirts or hats or gloves.  Local Polish folks were hiking in full outdoor gear taking our pictures along the way because it was freezing, literally.  It was so cold that my camel-pac water bag and water line literally froze up and I couldn’t drink it at all.  I will admit that it first kicked off with an amazing start.

Beginning of the hike
Beginning of the hike (sun out and morale high)

The sun was peeking out and morale was high in the group.  All the while, Wim just kept his cool and maintained a steady breathing pattern the whole time. I felt he was being a wee bit dramatic because the sun was out and I felt awesome despite the cold!  That is, until the sun went down and road got steeper and far more wretched. We had to put spikes on our boots to make it up the mountain due to extreme conditions with snow and ice.  About two hours in, arms and hands stopped moving about freely and every step became a challenge.  I was so in my head and worried about frostbite that I almost gave myself a panic attack!

Everyone was bright red and some even purple and the use of the hands got to the point where it was nearly gone and so all we could do was focus on the breath to keep charging forward.  We all held our hands behind our backs to try and shield them from the wind which was slamming into our bodies and faces at a speed way faster than I was comfortable with.  My chest and face was so numb that the pain dulled down to a light sting and then went away almost completely.  That was when things got scary for me. Ironically when the pain went away I got scared.  I kept trying to move parts of my body to make sure they still worked and as my motor functions slowed down and gradually faded, so did my morale and even a part of my sanity.  Everything went from smiles and laughs to doom and gloom within what seemed like moments but in retrospect was over the course of hours.

In the midst of this moment of doubt, my buddy Leon who I was walking with started gushing blood out of his nose like a faucet…  He started stuffing snow up his nose to stop the bleeding and then got back on the path and continued hiking and didn’t seem to mind as all.  I think it was the altitude that started the bleeding and this did wonders to break down my confidence and morale even further.  I was walking next to a man covered in blood in the middle of nowhere with no clue when this “hike” was going to end.  What is up with these crazy Europeans?

I know that many of them have been training for this over the past 6 months and I am clearly unprepared.  I’m the only American here, perhaps for good reason, maybe all the other Americans were smart enough NOT to go on a Polish adventure in the freezing cold?  Most of my peers, along with myself at the moment, would rather spend a week off of work in sunny Jamaica at a nice all inclusive getting hammered while I was trudging up this godforsaken path that never seemed to end.

How was Leon so calm and collected after having his nose explode like a water balloon?  Also why the hell is he still walking and looking poised while I am now freaking out inside my own head?  At this point I had to talk myself forward for every additional step I took.  For a brief moment I even thought about bailing but then I realized I had no clue how to get back and we were hours into this hike so I really had no choice.  There’s nothing like having ZERO options to keep you motivated and moving forward.  Damn you Wim Hof!  Damn you Haj for trying to be a tough guy and coming on this ridiculous trip in the first place…  At this point needless to say I was not a happy hiker…   Then, at what appeared to be my darkest moment as of yet, my Irish friend Dara walked beside me with a big smile on his face and said “Haj, you’re not smiling, stay out of your head man.   Just breathe!  That’s all there’s room for up here, that’s the whole point man!”

I believe in God as an expression of the Universe, the Totality, all that is, and was, and ever will be, unrestricted by time and space.  I also believe that the expression I am referring to takes on a consciousness by way of the independent lives we live.  Almost as if each one of our lives has the same relationship to God’s consciousness as does a synapse in the human brain.  A synapse that transfers the electrical impulses that make up our thoughts and ideas to allow for conscious thinking as a human.  I believe that in certain moments, God, the Universe, perhaps my own highest consciousness, whatever force infinitely more wise and powerful than the “I” in my head in that moment, sent Dara to share that message with me because it was all that I needed.  All my fitness training meant nothing and every step felt like torture until I regained my sense of purpose and agency and I remembered the simple fact that I wanted to be here.  I reminded myself that I would rather die or lose a limb than to give up or act like a weak minded slug in this moment.  It was MY moment and I then knew I needed to own it and just breathe…

I immediately shut off my brain and started a slow and steady breath pattern and stopped paying attention to the worry of frostbite and the fears of the moment.  I felt powerful, it felt good.  No, it felt amazing!  After a while I could feel my ears thawing out a bit and my morale brightened up even more.  After what must have been another hour, Wim finally shouted “we are almost there!”  A small group of us started sprinting, and then after 20 steps of painful movement we slowed down and realized we were a bit over zealous and instead of sprinting, we methodically jogged to the summit!

The last 100 meters was brutal, there was no tree cover and we were all getting beaten down by fierce winds and brutal cold.  I have felt this kind of cold at the top of many mountains while skiing except in those scenarios I had on full ski gear with high end coats and gloves and in this moment I was dressed for a surf trip in Hawaiian style patterned board shorts…  We waited for the group and realized that perhaps running up was not such a great idea.   In any event we had reached the summit and we were all now allowed to put our coats on (which were  tucked in our backpacks) for the long descent.

By the time the others joined us at the summit,  literally not one of us could even put our hands in the sleeves to put coats on to walk back down.  It took a bunch of team work to slowly work our frozen limbs into our pants and jackets and gloves to start warming up.  David, my ex-private equity analyst turned Buddhist vegan friend, who was somewhat emaciated to begin with, was almost completely purple and started talking gibberish… Without even thinking, Dennis gave him his coat for extra warmth and continued down the mountain with no coat. A few of us jogged down the mountain with him to make sure he was alright. This experience was the definition of gnarly. This was not easy.  If you aren’t meditating and breathing, these extreme conditions will absolutely break you.  I think that was the point.

Wim is putting us in scenarios where he is forcing our hand into getting out of our neo-cortex and flipping the automatic switch into manual and literally taking the wheel of our “autonomic” nervous system and controlling our bodies every step of the way.  I stopped my focused breathing on the way down and started freezing even with a coat on!  This just goes to show how powerful the mind is. The Wim Hof method puts your body in literal hell (temporary hell) and forces your spirit to enable and facilitate survival. This was an epic experience in the truest sense of the word.

Btw David is totally fine and psyched!  This is not wreck-less abandonment of safety. Wim knows what he is doing.  He is simply showing us what humans are capable of.

While I am sort of looking forward to what tomorrow brings I hope we go a little easier as my body needs a day to recover…

 

***These pics are from the beginning of the hike, fingers didn’t work at the summit

 

Poland Hike
Poland Hike (still towards the beginning after the sun went down…) Would have taken pics at the summit but our fingers didn’t work up there.

Day 2:

Day 2 day started with breathing exercises and meditation in the am. After doing the deep breathing breath retention I still could not pass the 3 minute mark.  Afterwards we practiced the deep breathing meditation technique at which point I got my oxygen level so high that my hands and all the way up to my arm started cramping. I literally felt like I was paralyzed for 2 to 3 minutes. My hands were stuck and I looked like a crippled T-rex.  This was scary! In the midst of my mini-panic I sat up and asked Wim if this was normal and he nodded his head yes and said to just continue.  He said if I was uncomfortable I could always stop breathing so aggressively and allow the carbon dioxide come back in my blood stream and my hands would loosen up.  I was scared so I took a pause and within 2 minutes just as he said everything loosened up and I was back to normal.  After that, I kept going, admittedly tentatively but forward nonetheless.

I started feeling intense tremors going through my legs all the way down to my feet and then alternating back up to my arms and back through my legs. Afterwards we spoke about it and he said those are blockages. The more uncomfortable physical sensations you have the more blockages you have. Unlike many other types of spiritual cleansing where you have to dig in and understand where the blockages come from, this practice is a sort of a shortcut as he described it.

You open up parts of your brain and electrical currents cleanse all blockages regardless where they come from.  After you release them he says that the source will reveal itself but knowing the source before unblocking in unnecessary.  “Save money in therapy and just breathe” he said.  This way you can live free and clear if you do enough work. The next step is to unlock the deeper portions of the brain. He said we needed to shed the neo-cortex layer and go into the mammalian brain and then shed even that and dig into the last level getting to the pituitary gland and brain-stem which apparently you can literally see with your eyes closed if you really get deep enough. Not there yet but plugging along and apparently I have a ton of blockages to release but we’re getting there!  Strange, I thought I was perfect already, perhaps not lol? Hopefully today’s cold exercises go better than yesterday.

As a footnote I stayed up late drinking and snacking with Wim and a few other people into the wee hours of the night. I think it’s really cool that Wim is a normal guy who drinks beer and coffee but is also incredibly active and focused.  It just goes to show that it’s not all diet, our minds have much more power from a quantum perspective than I gave credit for.  So much of my research and belief in the power of quantum reality was more academic. Seeing it in practice with Wim has been really refreshing.   According to Wim, you can alkalize your body with your mind and breath as opposed to having to focus so much on an alkaline diet. That’s not to say that it’s not important to eat well, but again this just highlights the power of the mind and breath.

At breakfast we all shared experiences from the morning meditation and it turns out that many people I spoke with also felt the frozen paralysis in their hands and arms and a couple even experienced it up to their necks and even mouth and yet they continued to keep on going with it and digging deeper into the meditation.   A couple of people also reported seeing the pituitary light! After knowing that we are all going through the same thing I am much more confident to move forward and dig deeper into the meditation tomorrow.  I was afraid of going home looking like a T-rex for life but now that I am assured that it is all temporary and somewhat normal I plan to rally dig in harder.

Angelique told me that she held her breath during the retention exercise for 8 minutes.  She was completely surprised by this.  She was also so humble in demeanor that she did not even tell Wim or really even want anyone to know.  This underscores the general mentality here.  No one is competing; it’s all about personal growth relative to our own individual experiences.  While others serve as inspiration, there is no competition.  That said, 8 minutes is hard for me to even fathom as I’m stuck at just below 3 minutes. Perhaps if I relax and let go more I can and will go deeper… We shall see!

Today for our first cold exercise we did 25 minutes standing in the cold outside barefoot in horse stance.  Overall I felt better than yesterday, I think, except my pinky toe turned yellow for over 30 minutes and wouldn’t change back, I had to take a warm shower for 20 mins do change the color but now it’s back!!! It turned white during the outside exercise so I was worried about frostbite but I finished it and no frost bite :) Intense …

Our second cold exercise is a late night dip into the freezing cold moving water like yesterday, felt better this time!  We carried torches so we could see and the cameras were all running.  It was a bit less organized and somewhat theatrical with the torches and cameras but it was awesome nonetheless.  Upon thinking about it while I am happy for Wim that he and this method is getting the proper publicity I really don’t like the cameras.  I want to go inwards and not think about what others think and cameras are no good for that.  Perhaps I need to look at it as an even bigger challenge to do that despite the cameras.  Everything happens for a reason and I am right here where I need to be so I need to stop thinking and focus on just being, here, in the moment.

After coming in and warming up we did a breathing exercise to oxygenate the blood and then dove into a push-up test to see if we could do more push-ups that usual while oxygenated.  Although I’m not in Cross-Fit shape at the moment I keep myself relatively fit so I was able to do well over 50 push-ups without much of a struggle.  I ran out of breath before my muscles gave in which was pretty awesome because normally a set of 50 good perfect form push-ups is usually enough to really breakdown my chest but after that set I was totally fine and ready for more.  I am a bit out of shape relative to my normal fitness standards so I think I would normally have felt this way after only 30 or so.  I have been playing with the breathing and exercise for a while and I know that breathing really helps, this was a big re-affirmation which was awesome.

Turns out I did the most push-ups of the group in the oxygen retention workout test which made me feel pretty good for a moment.  Later I reflected on this and realized that I need to let go of my ego more. I judge too much of life based on how I rank against others rather than being only focused on myself.  I felt like a failure because I was the only one with yellow toes and then like a hero for being the strongest with pushups when I need to feel good about myself despite my “rank” or what I am able to do or not do.  I still have a lot of internal work to do..  I will say that at least being conscious of these things will allow me to change it over time.  I need to stay mindful of being okay with who I am and what I do as long as I am putting forth my 110%.

Day 2 concluded with an amazing chat with Owen (the burly Welsh Doctor that looks like a hatchet wielding warrior from the movie “Brave Heart” and in many ways is, except for his kind spirit and brilliant mind) Dennis, (engineer from Belgium who is amazingly introspective and wise with a personality and sense of humor that instantly lights up a room) and my Irish friend Dara (incredibly well read and deeply informed on almost everything, spiritually grounded and meditates constantly) about relinquishing ego but using it as a tool that can help to motivate others.  We all went into our personal stories and my crazy story regarding family lineage and drama took the cake for most interesting and rare and made for a great conversation!  From bankers turned yoga teachers to ex-oil execs turned fitness experts, this group is nothing short of amazing!

Day 1:

Today is the first day here at Wim Hof’s house in Poland and it started with breathing exercises with a goal of achieving a minimum breath retention of 3 minutes.  He gave a lecture on oxygen in the blood, blood flow, and alkalinity.  Prior to this trip I have been focused on alkalizing my body through diet but he says that while that’s important, you can also alkalize with the breath.  He also spoke a lot about intention.  Interestingly enough Wim also referred to the Masaru Emoto water experiment and the presented the idea that prayer over food helps to alter the molecular makeup of the food which can aid in proper nourishment.  His main point was that with proper breathing practices you can completely cleanse the body despite what you eat.

I’ve been praying over my water and food with positive energy visualizations since middle school so this is another huge affirmation for me.  I absolutely love his scientific and spiritual outlook so far.  The fact that he addresses both is critical in my opinion.  One of my favorite Einstein quotes reminds us that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  (I interpret Einstein’s use of the word “religion” as spirituality minus the dogma)   At the end of the meditation we practiced stretching and yoga and he taught us how to do headstands from the crow pose and I was actually able to do it on my first try!!!

After meditation we went downstairs and ate a European style breakfast with fresh veggies, olive oil and salt with fresh bread and fruit.  There were also cheeses and meats along with a ton of peanut butter and Nutella. Everyone drank tea around the clock as well.  This was a great way to stay warm.  After breakfast, Wim took us out for our first cold exercise.   He made us all strip down into nothing but shorts and stand outside barefoot in the snow for 20 minutes.  The kicker was that we had to stand the entire time squatting in horse stance.   During this exercise we practiced our breathing technique and focused our intention on pushing blood into our extremities against the automatic response of our bodies to restrict the blood flow from the extremities and keep it circulating primarily to the core in order to protect the vital organs.  I was not very successful at this… Because it was the first day and we were thrust into this grueling exercise, he had us sing songs together to at the very least practice disassociating the feeling of pain.

As I looked around the circle, people’s ankles and calves were turning purple.  Then I made the mistake of looking down at my own ankles and they too were purple..  After a slight moment of panic I thought to myself that this is not Wim’s first rodeo and he knows what he is doing.  Despite the extreme pain and shock of what I was doing coupled with the rainbow of colors painted on the limbs of my frozen comrades by the cruel and unforgiving cold, I managed to stay put.  Besides, I’m way too pig-headed to quit.  In my mind I walked myself through a terrible mock-scenario where I lost toe or two and couldn’t even dance salsa anymore.  I resolved that either way I would not be the guy to head back in the house with my tail between my legs.  It was go-time and I was smack dab in the middle of it and there was no stopping..

When the exercise was over and we walked back into the house, I couldn’t move my toes and the bottoms of my feet felt completely numb.  When I say numb I mean that I literally could not feel my feet.  Most of us were stumbling in the house as it felt like we were walking on stilts with no foot base what-so-ever.   I have never felt pain from the cold like this before.  My feet felt like ice blocks.  To re-iterate, I have been numb from the cold before while skiing or hiking outdoors with the wrong gear, but never like this.  My heels and toes were a dull yellow color.  No Bueno.  We all trudged back in the house, a few of us slightly in fear of frostbite, but after some more breathing in the house along with some push-ups and jumping in place exercises we were all able to regain some mobility.

The process of thawing out was like a ceremony.  Despite the unavoidable feeling of uncertainty and pain we all danced in a circle following Wim’s lead and just kept moving.  Some people let out a few carnal yells and others sang some 80’s songs, Lionel Ritchie’s “Dancing on the ceiling” was a popular hit, I even jumped on that bandwagon.  All in all there was a certain group-think mentality that was forging and it was incredibly powerful.  We all believed in Wim and what he was trying to teach us and no one was going to fail.  We started a very useful habit in this impromptu ceremony.  We set the precedent that no matter what happened on this trip, and no matter what Wim put us through we would face it with positivity and faith in the process.

That all said, the pain that followed the blood flow back into the frozen limbs was excruciating! As Wim was giving us a lecture about how this exercise was strengthening the micro-muscles around the veins towards the end of our jumping and jogging in place ceremony to stimulate blood flow to our feet to regain the final bits of movement back into the toes, a sense of anxiety spread throughout in the room.  Then, in the background came the sound of someone power vomiting around the corner in the bathroom…  [Power vomiting can be easily distinguished from regular vomiting by nature of the intense heaving.]  To be even more clear, this was what I call “extreme power vomiting.”  Wim just said in a calm and fatherly voice “Yes, yes, get it all out.  The body does strange things sometimes, just let it happen and you’ll be fine.  You see, she is suffering from slight shock which happens and it will pass.  Nothing to worry about.”

Despite his positive resolve, the sound of power vomiting coupled with intense crying was not very encouraging to say the least… But, after a dramatic pause followed by everyone making a web of interconnected eye contact to get a sense of how the group was feeling as a whole, we all just burst out into laughter.  We weren’t laughing at our fallen comrade, rather the situation.  And besides, what else could you do in that moment but laugh right?  Within minutes the gal who was sick rejoined the group with a smile on her face.  The laughter seemed to make her feel more at ease about the whole situation and after that solid upchuck she was right back in the saddle.  Wim continued his lecture.

During this lecture I asked Wim about the fact that I noticed that some people ankles were turning purple and red while outside in the cold.   I asked if this level of abuse to the body was safe.  He responded by saying that the colors are beautiful and “we make music with the pretty purples and reds, just not the white.” (He was referring to frostbite) Then he went on to tell an incredible story about the time when he swam 50 meters under a frozen lake with a meter deep layer of ice above him.  As he told the story I felt like a two year old child complaining about standing in the snow for a few minutes while in the midst of a man who was breaking Guinness world records for doing ridiculously extreme feats in the bitter cold well into his 50’s…  Perhaps that was his point in sharing the anecdote.

By the way, this whole thing is apparently being covered by some European news source…  There are cameras and interviewers following us around.  Interesting.  Now we’re off to bathe in a freezing waterfall, awesome… I’ll check in later if I’m still alive.

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Just did the outdoor waterfall bath for a full minute and I literally could not move my hands and feet afterwards.  This next exercise was to walk into a pond under a waterfall which due to the moving water prevented the cold from freezing the pond which allowed us to stand in it.  Again, Wim made us squat in horse stance but this time in the water up to our necks but for just one minute, and it was not easy…  While in the water my body was in extreme pain, but only for the first 5 seconds.  I just focused on the breathing and did my best to disassociate myself from the pain.  Rather to disassociate my inner “Self” from my mind and body which I hoped would stop the experience of feeling the pain.  I cannot control blood flow yet but it turns out I can block out the pain pretty well.  As long as I know that I won’t lose a limb or die, I can and will deal with this.  I know damn well that I will not be the guy to quit!!!

After getting out of the waterfall, I couldn’t even tie my shoes let alone get my clothes back on.  My hands were so frozen I could not even push them through the arms of my shirt and my fingers literally would not move enough to tie my shoes.   I felt like I was crippled.  I walked back to the house with numb fingers seriously afraid that I had frostbite.  It was so hard to walk and carry the rest of my clothes.  While walking I just had to remind myself that everyone else is going through the same thing and I can do this.  No backing out, I’m here in the mountains of Poland in the middle of nowhere and although I am scared I will not quit!

Once we got back to the house I got I the sauna and felt 90% better. My toes fully warmed up unlike the first exercise where after standing outside they stayed slightly numb for hours. My finger tips are still numb 4 hours later as I’m writing this. I think the capillaries and veins had to “wake up and reboot” as Wim says.  So, I I’ll trust in Wim and the training and continue tomorrow! Tomorrow we do 30 minutes in the snow and more ice cold water bathing as well. Go-time!

I have to make a note that this group is amazing.  I have met some of the most insightful and coolest people I’ve ever encountered. There are a lot of amazing individuals here.  From cyclists, fitness instructors, doctors, scientists, engineers, yoga teachers to gardeners and handymen despite the array of professional careers everyone has such amazing perspectives on life.  I’ve never met so many people who were on a quest for how to live the most meaningful and happy life ever!  There is no TV here btw, and we had some really great discussions on identifying and releasing ego.  I love this retreat so far, it’s like college all over again.

On this first day I stayed up until 1:00am talking to Wim, a few others from the group along with the camera crew (off camera) about how this technique is a cure for disease and how he almost died in prep for the 50 meter record breaking swim under a meter thick sheet of ice in the freezing cold he mentioned earlier.  Apparently his eyes froze at 38 meters and he went off course and couldn’t find the hole to get back out of the lake.  He calmly swam 6 meters (one stroke was one meter as per his previous measurements for himself) in all four directions and then a diver waiting on the other side grabbed his ankle and pulled him up.  Had the diver not pulled him up he would not have made it.  He then decided that the next day when Guinness World Book of Records came to record the task on the record that he would use goggles so as to circumvent the frozen eyes and he would also have the diver actually put on a dry-suit and go under the ice with him to look after him in case something bad happened.

Although he narrowly escaped death in this scary scenario which gave me anxiety just thinking about it, when I asked him if he was scared in that moment he said that he was not. I did not get the sense that his answer was coming from a space of bravado at all.  He calmly said that in these scenarios you don’t have time to think, he was already in a meditative focused state.  Wim said that things just slowed down and although he could have died, he did not fear it, he just did what he could do to stay alive. He quoted a Native American proverb and spoke about how without the fear of death you become liberated.  He said that we made death dirty and ugly when in fact it’s just another transformation.  He recommended living without fear, (easier said than done), but conceptually I get it.

We then had a brief conversation about liminal experiences.  I always admired and appreciated how many of the indigenous cultures around the world practiced liminal experiences as a “rite of passage” into their communities or as a means to ascertain man or woman-hood.  These experiences, although usually dangerous or at the very least extremely difficult, parallel the danger and difficulties in life which help to create better, stronger and more capable members of society.  Our modern society is so focused on staying comfortable, (warm in the winter, AC in the summer, Advil for the slightest headache etc.) that we lost a part of what got our species to where we are today.

Confidence built from perseverance and overcoming adversity is how we build contributing members to a productive and positive society.  Without going into my thoughts on the many problems with the current Western society that controls and in many ways has crippled most of the world, I will say that we are just learning to pass the time with our iPhones, TV’s and various other comfort devices that serve as  distractions, and waiting for death, versus learning to fully live.  Wim says he is not afraid of death, rather he fears not fully living.  I am so on board.

That all said, today was burly.   Day 1, really???  I must admit I am a bit scared of what awaits tomorrow.