How Iceman Wim Hof Uncovered the Secrets to Our Health

In a world addicted to comfort, it isn’t easy to convince a vast audience that what they really need is to take teeth-chattering swims and ice baths—but Hof has managed to do this. These days he’s a widely admired counterculture hero. His message that most of our self-limiting beliefs are wrong, and that we’re capable of far more than we think, has resonated. He has more than a million Instagram followers, hosts sold-out seminars around the globe, and evangelizes nonstop, at top volume, about a new world of vigorous health and happiness in which we free ourselves from the clutches of a system that profits by keeping us sick or diminished. Earlier, at breakfast, he pounded his fist on the table: “It’s time for change! People are waiting! There’s work to do for the life force!”

This enthusiasm for—and firsthand demonstration of—expanded human potential is pure oxygen for the high-performance set. Recently, Hof trained a group of Navy SEALs how to endure cold water. His fans include Laird Hamilton, Joe Rogan, Tim Ferris, Dave Asprey, Russell Brand, and even Gwyneth Paltrow, who recently filmed a Netflix special with Hof. “I think we all have the capacity to do superhuman things,” explains Hamilton, a daily practitioner of Hof-­inspired exercises. “Wim is one of those guys who’s able to show you what’s possible.”

But it’s not just celebrities and pro athletes who are drawn to Hof. He has reached a much bigger audience. On any given day, Instagram is filled with photos of Hof followers up to their necks in ice baths, dashing into the ocean for polar plunges, standing under frosty waterfalls. A Vice Media documentary about Hof has been watched more than six million times on YouTube; another video, on the Yes Theory channel, titled “Becoming Superhuman with Ice Man—Wim Hof” has nearly 11 million views. Each year, Hof hosts a handful of one- or two-day workshops, on his home turf in Amsterdam and elsewhere around the globe, and a handful of weeklong expeditions into the mountains near Przesieka, Poland, where he owns a house that serves as a base camp, and in Morillo de Tou, Spain. Now when he charges up snowy mountains, he takes bands of followers with him. For anyone with a Speedo and a strong desire to test themselves, another Kilimanjaro expedition is slated for early 2021, pending developments in the COVID-19 pandemic. (The proceeds from the fee to attend will go to a local charity.) There are also about 600 certified Wim Hof instructors offering their own workshops, graduates of an eight-to-ten-month training program called the Wim Hof Academy, in addition to a free minicourse on Hof’s website and longer online courses, the prices of which have been reduced since COVID hit to allow more people to participate. All of which is to say that the Iceman is having a major moment.

As Hof tells it, his feats are powered by a simple routine of breathing exercises, cold exposure, and mental focus, known as the Wim Hof Method. The breathing is controlled hyperventilation, done in three to six sets of 30 to 40 deep breaths (strong inhale, relaxed exhale). On the last breath of each set, you exhale and hold for one to three minutes before taking a recovery breath and holding for 15 seconds. As with other rhythmic-breathing disciplines like pranayama, kundalini yoga’s breath of fire, or the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice of tummo, it’s common to feel tingly, woozy, and, frankly, high: people have reported seeing spots and stars, kaleidoscopic lights, and other visions. It’s a bit dizzying as well, which is why you should do it seated or lying down.

The next step is cold exposure—Hof likes to immerse himself in freezing water, but even a minute under a cold shower will do—during which the mind panics, activating the fight-or-flight response. The point, Hof says, is to override this, calm your shrieking inner voice, relax, and focus on generating warmth in your body. (“Visualize a ball of fire in your chest,” he advises.) Meanwhile, you’ve flooded your brain and cells with oxygen, perked up your vascular system, squirted out endorphins, taken your mind by the reins, and brought yourself fully into the present moment. “It’s a full-body reset,” Hof says. If this regimen enabled only the ability to withstand bitter cold, that would still be worthwhile. But it appears to do far more than that.

Over the past decade, researchers from major universities have studied Hof and found solid evidence that when practicing his method, he can control his own body temperature, nervous system, and immune response—findings that are head-scratchers for medical science, because humans aren’t supposed to be able to do any of that. It’s now documented in peer-reviewed papers that, among other things, Hof may be able to turn on at will his body’s tap of opiates and cannabinoids—euphoria-inducing chemicals that provide natural pain relief and an overall sense of well-being. What’s more, Hof insists, if he can do this, so can the rest of us. “Everybody has control by their psychology over their physiology,” he says. “It’s an innate capacity. It’s like you’ve got a shortcut to your own house, but you don’t know it.”

Hof’s cold tolerance and physiologic control would be remarkable enough if he were a Navy SEAL himself or packing an extra hundred pounds of insulating body fat. But he’s lean—six foot, 200 pounds, and just a hint of a belly—with no special athletic credentials beyond being a former free climber and having a startling degree of flexibility from years of yoga practice. The ability to put your foot behind your head, however, is no guarantee that you’ll be able to run a half marathon above the Arctic Circle in a bathing suit. So is Hof some kind of genetic mutant? How does he avoid crippling frostbite or hypothermia or worse? What the hell is going on here?

To date, scientific studies on the specific health benefits of cold exposure have been inconclusive. But there’s growing evidence that it contributes to overall wellness by revving metabolism, reducing inflammation, relieving depression, and strengthening the cardiovascular system, among other benefits. And Hof’s recipe, which adds breathing exercises, may yield further advantages.

“The combination of breath work and cold plunges is very effective,” says Kevin Davison, a Maui naturopathic physician who specializes in regenerative medicine. “First you’re increasing lymphatic flow through the breathing. That recruits lymphocytes and natural killer cells into the bloodstream—they’re the cells that are out there looking for invading bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. Then the cold plunge kicks that in even more. So you’re getting your whole system jumped up to the next level of immune protection.” Undeniably, at a time when coronavirus is dervishing through the population, we could all use an extra edge.

Suddenly, cold has become very hot.

I went to Iceland last fall to spend some time with Hof and watch him in action because, like so many others, I’m intrigued by his story. Here’s a guy who’s rewriting the rules of health and wellness in highly appealing ways. While other 61-year-olds are popping Lipitor and bitching about hip pain, Hof is training himself to hang by a finger between two hot-air balloons. In Wim’s world, work and play are the same thing: you do what you love, with people you love, and you love everybody, even society’s worst assholes. Nature is everything, inspiration and fuel. “If you trust the messages of nature, nature will trust you as a messenger,” he says simply. At the end of each day, you celebrate with great food, plenty of friends and family, and generous portions of music and laughter. What’s crazy to Hof is choosing to function on low throttle, being sort of miserable, feeling kind of crummy, and thinking that’s the sum of what’s on offer. “I’m not afraid to die,” he says. “I’m afraid not to live.”

As it happens, Hof’s life almost ended before it began. His mother hadn’t been expecting twins, and yet there he was, still wedged in the womb after his brother André was born. “I almost didn’t get out in time,” he says. “I believe this left an imprint on me. I was always different.” Growing up in the Netherlands, Hof was a seeker. At 12, he was reading books on esoteric philosophy and Zen Buddhism, dabbling in yoga, and teaching himself meditation. At 17, he quit school and lit out for India, searching for… something. Back home, he jumped into a frigid Amsterdam canal and realized he loved the feeling of it: the rush of adrenaline, the jolt of presence, the weird elasticity of time. He began to take icy plunges every day, and to experiment with breathing; he noticed that his body’s natural response was to gasp when he hit the water. During yoga, he’d experienced the power of breath work, so he repeated the reflexive gasp to test its effects. This wasn’t a new strategy—ask any freediver—but Hof eventually discerned the best intervals for cold tolerance. “It was instinctive,” he recalls. “If you breathe deeply, you harness yourself suddenly. You become stronger in this very hostile environment. And you learn, hey, I can stay longer and longer.”

He’d found his teacher—the “merciless but righteous” cold. But Hof still needed to make a living. He’d met a lovely Basque woman named Olaya, married, and started a family in Amsterdam. “I did all kinds of things,” he says. “I was a postman, a tour operator, a writer. I was working in the harbor. Gardening. Mountain guide. Teaching yoga. Whatever, you know.” It wasn’t a life you’d exactly call settled, and his wife was prone to dark bouts of depression, but Hof was holding it together. Until one day in 1995, when Olaya leaped to her death from the top of an eight-story building.

“That’s where it all began,” Hof says now, looking sober. Crumpling with grief wasn’t an option; now he was a single parent to the couple’s four children, two girls and two boys, all under the age of 12. Hof kept breathing, kept freezing. “I fell into the valley and got myself back,” he says. People began to take notice of the guy who was always sitting around in the ice. Soon, Hof was performing his icy stunts on TV, claiming to be able to regulate not just his body temperature but other autonomic functions as well. “And then science came in,” he recalls. “They invited me to be tested.”

Over the years, Hof has repeatedly offered himself up as a guinea pig, aiming to gain hard evidence of his method’s effectiveness. The results have been impressive. In one study, he was injected with an E. coli bacterial toxin that induces fever, nausea, headache, chills—the works. When Hof sailed through that test with virtually no flu-like symptoms, doctors were stunned. It appeared he’d been able to flood his body with adrenaline to stave off the toxic effects. “We thought, This is just not possible,” Matthijs Kox, assistant professor of intensive-care medicine at Radboud university medical center in the Netherlands, told an interviewer after the study was published. The researchers assumed that Hof was a physical anomaly; Hof proved them wrong by training a group of 12 volunteers to do the same thing. “These results could have important implications for the treatment of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, such as autoimmune disease,” wrote Kox and his coauthors in a paper published in 2014 about the experiment in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We have to change our beliefs about what’s possible for the human body,” Hof explains. “You are your own doctor. You’ve got your own power. And because people think that’s hippie bullshit, that’s why I go through science.”

In the afternoon, we hit as many icy locations as possible while the crew films Hof doing Hof-like things. There’s no shortage of dramatic options: icebergs, ice fields, ice boulders, ice caves, icy lakes, icy streams, more ice-filled lagoons. “We can pick anything here?” Hof asks gleefully. “Shit! It’s like the candy store!” He meditates in the lotus position on a slab of ice, generating so much body heat that when he gets up there’s a melted depression where he was sitting.

We’re traveling in a large van driven by Thor Gudnason, Iceland’s first certified Wim Hof instructor—a local who knows his way around the backcountry. Hof rides shotgun. As we bump down a bone-rattling washboard road, Hof swivels around in his seat to dispense stream-of-consciousness riffs. “In this society we think too much. We need to get back to our senses! Spirituality is right here, right now!” he exclaims, gesturing at the jaw-dropping scenery.

One major Hof theme is that we’ve allowed ourselves to become disconnected from nature and too dependent on technology, and as a result we’ve lost touch with our primal abilities. We’ve weakened ourselves, confused comfort with happiness, and now we’re beset with mood disorders, addictions, depression, illness, and all kinds of other maladies. Hof emphasizes that none of this happens outside of us, inflicted by forces beyond our control; it stems from an imbalance in ourselves that we can correct at will. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it. “Becoming powerful at the core—not being rattled, confused, this or that—there is no excuse anymore,” Hof says with a snort. “Get up!”

He’s still clad in shorts and sandals, with a fresh pink T-shirt. His wet hair is pulled back into a man bun, and for some reason he’s wearing a navy blue cloth bag on his head like a hat. We climb out of the van. Coming off the trail, a team of mountaineers in polar jackets, snow pants, hard hats, crampons, and harnesses, toting ropes and ice axes, give Hof’s outfit a double take. “Looking good, guys!” Hof shouts, waving, as he heads into a sharp cleft between two rocks. Snowy peaks tower in the distance.

Now we’re hiking back into the glacier, following a ridgeline that tracks along a tongue of ice. A half-mile below us, blue shards of glacier jut out of a silty river, lined up for miles like marchers in the Night King’s army. Hof stops to do a few one-armed yoga inversion poses, teetering atop a giant boulder perched at the edge of a ravine. He’s dangling in such a precarious position that I have to look away.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen Hof do something that makes me flinch: there’s a don’t-try-this-at-home quality to many of his favorite pastimes. To date, no one at a Hof-sponsored retreat has locked up from cardiac arrest when jumping 20 feet off a bridge into a 32-degree stream, or lost fingers in a blizzard, or passed out from hypothermia—but there’s always a sense of an edge. In the Yes Theory video, one of the hosts has what looks like a mild seizure while doing the breathing exercises but comes out of it laughing. Hof monitors people closely and emphasizes his safety rules: never do the method when you’re in the water (shallow-water blackout is a hazard) or if you’re epileptic or pregnant or under the age of 16. Consult a doctor first if you have medical issues. Increase cold exposure slowly, and ideally, train with a buddy.

Before we leave, Hof can’t resist a final dip among icebergs floating in a runoff lake. One huge berg resembles the Sydney Opera House; a smaller one brings to mind a giant shark’s tooth. He ventures in and swims behind the tooth, disappearing from sight. In short order, however, he’s back on shore, and there’s something in his eyes that suggests this wasn’t an easy one, even for him. His skin looks like it’s been scalded. He dresses hastily, in uncharacteristic silence, as Gudnason, Schagen, and Burhan prepare to go in next.

Hof and I stand on the shore and watch them. Burhan has waded in up to his knees and appears stricken. Gudnason and Schagen take a short swim out and back, but nothing that can be called lingering. “The water is cold here,” Hof notes.

“Colder than the ice lagoon this morning?”

“I think so,” he says. “Here, it wants to eat you.” He gives the icebergs a nod of respect. “These are strange beings when you get close,” he says. “Altogether mystical. They showed their colors like thousands of diamonds. When you get close, it’s all diamonds.”

It’s a gray and drippy Saturday morning in Reykjavík, with a raw wind whipping off the North Atlantic, but the people filing into the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center don’t notice the cold. Why would they? This is balmy compared with what’s coming. The day will be given over to the Wim Hof Experience, a workshop that culminates in everyone here—all 450 of us—going into ice-cold water with the Iceman.

The crowd is about 70 percent male and 80 percent young and 100 percent folks you’d want on your team during the apocalypse. There’s a calm, strong warrior vibe befitting the descendants of Vikings, but more than that, these people look happy. I run into Gudnason, who’s awaiting the delivery of three tons of ice, to be dumped into portable tubs. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Ice Crew” on the back. “We’re a small country, but Hoffing is in our blood,” he tells me. From what I’ve seen that is certainly true, but as he walks away I wonder if it’s in mine. I’m Canadian, so I should be genetically winterized, but two decades of early-morning swim practice—diving into frigid pools in the predawn darkness—left me so averse to cold that I eventually moved to Hawaii. I’ve never met a hot tub I didn’t like. An ice tub is a hard sell.

In the greenroom I meet Laura, one of Hof’s two daughters, a serene 33-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair. Hof’s business is a close-knit family affair. Laura is the event manager; his eldest son, Enahm, 37, serves as CEO. Their sister Isabelle, 35, runs the training academy; Michael, the youngest at 31, is listed on the website as the “resident problem solver.” Even Zina, Hof’s dog, has a place on the roster. Hof also has a two-year-old son with his partner, Erin, an Australian woman he met in Poland, and a 15-year-old son from a former relationship. “We love each other,” Hof says of his clan. “The real love, not the sentimental bullshit.”

In the auditorium—a glass cube with cavernous ceilings and walls lit up like the aurora borealis—people take their seats. After a brief introduction and much cheering, Hof comes onstage. He’s barefoot, in the same shorts and T-shirt he was wearing on the glacier, with a woolen tuque on his head. “After today you will be able to go into the deepest part of your brain and regulate your mood and your emotion for the rest of your life, in any situation,” he tells the audience. “You won’t be overwhelmed by any form of stress. And if you can do that, what else can you do?”

Hof mentioned earlier that he never scripts his appearances, and sure enough his delivery is freewheeling, with dollops of swearing. Some of his scientific claims seem facile—“You can bring more neural activity in through the breath”—but the crowd is rapt. “What do you need if you are happy? If you are healthy?” Hof asks rhetorically, pacing the stage. “Money makes us crazy. More, more, more, more. Keep the people sick and you get more money. The systems are obsolete! The systems that are exploiting and polluting and making people insensitive—it’s over! It’s done! It’s now only a matter of waiting until they leave.” Hof stops pacing and wags a finger in emphasis. “I think the awakening is imminent. It’s coming. Humanity is beginning to realize that batshit is batshit.”

Later, Hof invites people onstage to give testimonials. Gudnason goes first. “I’m named after the Thunder god, Thor,” he begins. “And a few years ago I didn’t feel very powerful. I had three inhalers, ADHD medicine, and allergy pills. I don’t use any of them anymore. I don’t need them.” Watching Gudnason, it’s hard to imagine him enfeebled. He’s ropy with muscle and has a shaved head, a peppery beard, and eyes that look like they could bore into metal. In Reykjavík, he owns a gym called Primal Iceland.

Next up is Lea Galgana, a young Icelandic woman with a long, glossy ponytail. She’s also visibly athletic, radiating health. “Eighteen months ago, I was hospitalized with fibromyalgia,” she says. “I had crutches. I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit down. No pain medication worked. So I needed to find something new.” After adopting Hof’s training and feeling her symptoms recede, Galgana sat in an ice bath for 42 minutes, a new national record. “I was able to get off all the medications,” she says, smiling. “And I hated the cold! If I can do it, you can do it.”

Forty-two minutes in ice water!” Hof bellows from the sidelines. “No medications!” The room erupts in applause.

“We have, I don’t know, 50,000 testimonials from people who couldn’t be treated with regular health care—completely healed,” Hof tells me later. “They say I shouldn’t say these things too much because of the pharmaceuticals and the food industry—the ones who will really fuck us up. But it’s over, guys! It’s over. We’re not taking it anymore. We’ve got millions of people doing this now. But it needs to be at least a billion.”

After a medical presentation and an explanation of how Hof’s method works by Bart Biermans, an M.D. and Hof instructor, it’s time to try it. We do the breathing exercises together in the auditorium, guided by a timer projected on a screen—six sets of 40 breaths. Some people stay seated, but others, including me, lie on the floor. The experience is intense, and by the end of it I’m spinning, tingling, and soused with endorphins. I like the feeling very much.

En masse, we strip down to our bathing suits and file outside, where three kiddie pools await us. The pools are roughly three feet deep, each with room for about 15 people, and they’re brimming with so much ice that you can’t see any water. Hof laid down the protocol: no wavering, waffling, or whining. When it’s your turn to get in, you sit low enough that the ice hits your chin, and you stay there for two minutes, using your breath to wrangle your mind into submission. “The cold is a mirror to awaken you to your own power!” Hof shouts. “You are the boss within!”

The ice bath isn’t fun in the usual sense of the word, but it is thrilling. I can feel the cold as a real force, but somehow I’m detached from it—probably because I’m pumped with adrenaline and I’ve spent the past 30 minutes shouting and punching the air in unison with hundreds of fellow ice bathers. I stare into the middle distance, thinking calm thoughts and humming loudly. Whenever the urge arises to bolt from the water, I shunt that impulse aside and focus on my breathing. The burning sensation in my hands and feet is distracting but not intolerable; two minutes zip by fast. “I’m alive!” a guy next to me roars. My group stands up and we’re all as pink as shrimp. Instantly, I want to do it again—in fact, I crave it. The ice bath is a high, alright, a full-spirit wake-up call served with a cocktail of the body’s finest chemicals. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m sold. (This feeling doesn’t disappear, either: in the months since I left Iceland, I’ve continued to practice Hof’s method, setting up an ice bath in my backyard.)

We spend a few minutes embracing and high-fiving, milling around barefoot on the sleet-encrusted cement. Nobody fails to complete the challenge. Everybody looks like they’re having a blast. Hof watches us, smiling like the Cheshire cat, and then he calls the next group into the ice.