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.
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.