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Wim Hof: The Iceman’s Heroic Journey To Warming The Hearts of Millions
wim hof

Wim Hof: The Iceman’s Heroic Journey To Warming The Hearts of Millions

Mind over matter?

The moments in life that shape your destiny tend not to be rational but guided by deep intuition, an intelligence not comprehended with the conscious mind, but one that commands respect. One winter’s morning in Amsterdam in 1976 was one such moment for a 17-year-old boy unaware of the magnitude of a choice he was about to make.

Walking through Beatrixpark in the Dutch capital, the vapor of breath visible in freezing temperatures, the young man felt a strange calling. A calling most would call crazy or even dangerous. At that moment the young man felt the urge to jump into the icy canal. Rather than dismiss this intuitive pull, he stripped off his clothes and boldly took the plunge.

As his body was submerged and shocked, something incredible happened — his mind fell silent. Immediately, this 17-year-old knew he was onto something profound. His intuition led him into the sub-zero waters of one of Amsterdam’s most beautiful attractions, and to a sense of personal liberation.

That moment led this 17-year-old to dedicate his life to overcoming the cold, befriending discomfort, and kindling his inner fire. He would go on to defy scientific limitations, break multiple world records, climb Everest in just a pair of shorts, and eventually become a cultural phenomenon known the world over, teaching others to unlock their inner power, too.

That winter’s day in 1976 was the day a legend was born. It was the day Wim Hof started his journey to becoming the Iceman.

A destiny written in the stars

When Wim shares his story with Goalcast in an exclusive interview, it’s hard to shake the peculiar sense that the stars aligned. Born on 20 April 1959 in a small city in the Netherlands, Sittard, he was one of nine children. Wim’s working-class parents were interested in practices such as yoga, karate, and Hinduism, each of which contained core teachings that would inspire Wim’s approach.

Wim’s desire to help humanity began years before his plunge into the icy canal. Aged 12, he was struck by the cruelty and unhappiness he saw in the world, and made a pledge to himself to do something about it. “How, I did not know. Sometimes you don’t start to find the answers, but start to live the question. You become a searcher. I became a searcher, and a searcher becomes a finder.”

The secret was found five years later, a Sunday morning, alone near the canal, an intuitive pull led to Wim’s greatest lesson. “I lived in a squat, I had no money. I was very happy. I was a thinking man, but puzzled. Books books books. Debate debate. Philosophizing. Philosophizing. That was my mind. Always thinking. My body was great, I did incredible yoga stuff, yet I kept on thinking, thinking.” 

When Wim entered the ice-cold water, he knew he’d hit the jackpot. I had this feeling which I can translate into: this is it. And it is not a thought, but a deep recognition of who you are and what you are.” His mind fell silent. He played with the ice, overcome by fascination, the sense of cold barely noticeable. “I took that feeling with me. I had reached a different state of awareness inside my body, and it gave me a rush for the rest of the day.”

After his initial dip, Wim’s thinking mind returned. To ensure his new practice wasn’t coincidental, he returned to the same spot the next day. Again, into the icy water. Again, the blissful silence. “I was astonished. I had broken open my being, my awareness, into a different dimension.”

The breath and the life force

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As Wim teaches, the breath is an anchor between consciousness and the body. It’s an automatic process; you don’t have to think about breathing, you just do it. Yet it’s a process easy to consciously control. Intentional inhalations and exhalations place you in command of the most crucial bodily process, allowing you to breathe in a way that relaxes the body.

Wim has demonstrated the ability to control more than the breath, including lymphatic, neurological, and hormonal systems. His method builds upon a rich history of traditions, although tailored for modern times, free of philosophical excess. After his early years of books, books, books, he developed his technique through first-hand experience. Instead of studying the words of others, he studied nature itself.

Wim’s approach to extreme temperature as a portal to mind control is closely mirrored by Tummo meditation, or pranayama (prana is Sanskrit for breath or life force), a tantric practice of inner heat, and part of Tibetan Buddhism. Like Wim, many ancient traditions viewed the breath as the link between body and soul. 

This is reflected in the evolution of language, too. In the Western world, the etymology of psyche comes from the Greek psykhē, meaning “the soul, mind, spirit; life, one's life, the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body.” Another source, psykhein, means “to blow, or to breathe.

One yogic text, the Chandogya Upanishad, compares pranic energy to the Sun. The energy emanating from the sun, sustaining life, is said to be the same as prana within, which is the body’s source of heat. Although this appears metaphorical, Wim Hof embodies Sun-like radiance, his technique a powerful way to ignite an inner-heat that can overcome the coldest external situations.

Born a missionary

Wim’s destiny was chosen long before ice or oath. When his mother gave birth to his brother, the doctors were unaware she was pregnant with twins. By the time they realized, it was almost too late. “They had to push her fast to the operation room to cut me out. A cesarean filled her with fear, so she pushed me out just in front of the doors. As she did, she said the words: ‘Oh God, let this child live, I will make him a missionary.’” 

2007 was a formidable year on Wim’s path. He broke the world record for the fastest barefoot half marathon in snow, and reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in less than two days, wearing only shorts and shoes. But the biggest breakthrough came in an experiment at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, where Wim demonstrated something remarkable — he could consciously control the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve originates in the brain stem and runs through the neck into the chest and abdomen. It’s the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, responsible for major physiological functions including heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and digestion. In recent years, scientists believe the vagus nerve holds the key to wellbeing.

Wim’s technique suppressed inflammatory bodies in his bloodstream, those associated with chronic illness. Previously thought impossible, now scientists are exploring the link between diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, the vagus nerve, and the activation of the body’s parasympathetic system, or the rest and digest relaxation response.

Wim’s ability to demonstrate this in an experimental setting was a game-changer. Once ridiculed, the Iceman was moving beyond an entertainer and endurance athlete. He was gaining the attention of the scientific community by doing things humans were not supposed to be able to do. But this was Wim Hof, superhuman, chosen missionary.

When the doctor in charge of the experiment told Wim that his results would have huge consequences for humanity, his mother’s words came back to him. “I knew the missionary was born,” he said. Like much of Wim’s life, triumph was closely met by adversity. “Half an hour later I get another phone call saying to me my mother had died.” 

Less than an hour before her death, and 48 years following her bargain with God, her son’s mission became crystal clear — to revolutionize the understanding of the power of the human body, through science. As he processed the news of his mother’s death, fittingly, he was left with a growing conviction.

“I’m only a simple man, but now I’m going to change the world.”

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A defining tragedy

My mentor once told me that the greatest teachers are those who didn’t discover their gifts easily. They’re those who struggle, experiment, adjust their approach, and find a way that works for them step-by-step. Only by going through that process can they teach others to walk the same path. The hero’s journey always seems to include adversity before the hero returns, ready to share their learning with the rest of the world. Wim’s story is no different.

Following his first jump into the canal, Wim continued his practice, although he kept it mostly to himself. When he was 21, he met his wife, Olaya. “I met her when I was 21. She was a free mind, and she was beautiful, so extroverted. She talked to everybody, she danced, she expressed herself, I called her a butterfly. I fell in love with her. I knew she was the one. It’s like the water. It’s not a thought, it’s a feeling, a deep recognition. She was it. She blew my mind.” The pair had four children together, and Wim envisioned spending the rest of his life with her.

Following the birth of their third child, things took a turn for the worse. “A shadow came into our life. And that shadow grew larger and larger, and it took over. She was so suppressed in her spirit, it was heavy. I could do 100 pushups with one arm and one breath, yet I was helpless, seeing how this darkness overtook our presence, and she was drifting away because the darkness took hold.”

Feeling powerless to save the love of his life, Wim relied on the refuge of yoga, cold water, and breathing exercises to remain strong, and support his children, as Olaya’s mental health deteriorated. She was overcome by manic depression, psychosis, and schizophrenia. In 1995, at 2 o’clock in the morning, she kissed her children goodbye, before jumping eight stories to her death. 

Wim had no choice but to continue to care for his children, and it was during his period of profound grief that he found refuge in the ice. Through his discipline and determination to learn from trauma, Wim developed a growing conviction to share his gift with the world.  “I couldn’t reach her. I loved her. Maybe she was part of a bigger scheme, because I’m going to change the world. And her heart, her depth, her wanting a world where everyone is talking, having fun, creating, sharing... that I will make.”

To this day, Wim is inspired by the memory of Olaya. She gives him the resilience to keep going. “Her spirit is still within me. I haven’t lost it. I could’ve lost it easily, the darkness that took over, I could’ve drifted, but my kids had to be taken care of, the warmth of the nest had to come back. I couldn’t help her, but now I can help millions through changing science and showing that we have a completely different paradigm to take on.”

Breaking through barriers to mainstream recognition

After Olaya’s death, Wim developed an unwavering belief in the transformative power of the cold, and the ability to control the body and mind. But he was often ridiculed or thought of as crazy. “I have always been there, but the world was not there. They were not interested in my philosophies.” Then came a moment of serendipity — a TV news crew filmed Wim jumping into holes he’d cut in the ice at a frozen lake. By happenstance, he saved a man who had fallen and was moments from death.

That moment put him on the map. His star was rising, and people were curious about the Iceman, stunned by his superhuman feats. “TV is crazier than me,” he says. “They began to challenge me. Can you swim 50 meters under the ice? Can you stand in ice for 2 hours? They challenged me all the time, I was simply doing that as a discipline to get a hold of my agony. I did that and then I got more reputation, became more famous, but that was not my war.”

Those who aren’t overly familiar with Wim’s story may see these feats — he broke 26 world records — as superficial or pure entertainment. But Wim’s motivation was always to break through, to become famous with the purpose of furthering his mission. “I had found a way to get back inside myself to deal with my pure emotion, to turn it around into energy, into success, into love, into warmth, everything was there.”

That’s not to say Wim’s extreme feats are free from risk. During a rehearsal for a world record attempt, he swam under thick ice without goggles. The aim was to swim from one hole to the next, a distance of 50 meters. But due to the cold, his eyes began to freeze, his vision went hazy, and he couldn’t find his exit route. He almost died but was rescued just in time by a diver who pulled him out by his ankle.

“What I learned, that moment, under the ice, is that through the control of the life force you are able to go past what you think, go into the subconscious, go into a challenge the most extreme of all,” he reflects. “Drowning is not pleasant, it is agony, pure agony, claustrophobic, in the dark, under the ice, with no energy, it’s horrific. But it was not for me, because I was in control of the life force.”

Just as cold exposure led to Wim’s deep insights and the development of his technique, TV exposure put him on the map, and that’s when science came calling. The list of scientific research, with Wim at the subject, is outstanding. Most remarkable, in 2014, he taught a group of his students how to control their immune systems when injected with toxins.

Had Wim Hof been a genetic freak, he would never have become who he was today. It was only by diving headfirst into the depths — literally and metaphorically — as a journey of self-discovery and resilience — that he was able to create a structure to teach others. Or put another way in his book, “If Wim Hof is superhuman, then his method is a way to teach others how to be superhuman as well.

Growing influence and the Wim Hof Method

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Look on YouTube, and you’ll see Wim’s video explaining his breathing technique currently stands at 36 million views. It’s hard to estimate the impact his teaching is having on the world, as his approach becomes mainstream, and millions are experiencing a host of benefits, from improved energy to better mental and physical health. 

Years of graft and humility at the mercy of nature led to the development of the Wim Hof Method. It’s based on three pillars: breathing, cold therapy, and commitment. Deliberate breathing, as shamans have taught for thousands of years, unlocks hidden potentials in the body. Cold exposure ignited a host of beneficial physiological changes. And commitment is necessary to stick with the practice.

So what about the technique itself? Due to the intensity of the breathing technique and the risk of lightheadedness or losing consciousness, it’s recommended only to try in a safe environment. The technique is simple, so simple that Wim believes he’s had to fight so hard for people to respect the approach. This is because modern society equates value with complexity. 

The steps of the Wim Hof method are:

  • Step 1: Get comfortable. It’s recommended not to try the exercise while standing up.
  • Step 2: Take 30 or 40 breaths. These should be deep breaths, into the diaphragm, until a tingling sensation is experienced in the head or body. Although it can feel like hyperventilation, this isn’t the case (although it’s advised to stop if you feel dizzy). Allow breathing to follow a circular motion.
  • Step 3: After the cycle of breathing is complete, breathe out and hold your breath for as long as feels comfortable, without force. 
  • Step 4: Once you can no longer hold your breath, breathe in and hold the breath for 10-15 seconds.

These steps are repeated for around three rounds. It’s recommended to move from the exercise into meditation. In addition, cold exposure is most easily achieved with cold showers. Begin by taking 30 seconds at the end of a shower to blast the cold, mentally focusing beforehand, and doing your best to relax the body. Over time, it’s encouraged to extend this to 10 minutes for the full benefits.

When I first started taking cold showers, I became hyper-aware of my mind’s instant recoil when faced with the sensation of cold. The moment I had the courage to adjust the temperature, my muscles tensed, and a narrative came on board. Too cold! Get out! At that moment I became aware of how much my mind judged the cold. But was that true? Or was it a story? Were sensations just sensations?

A risk of modern living and excessive time spent caught up in thinking is a disconnect with the body. Without self-awareness, it’s easy for the body to become numb, like a passive bystander that carries you from A to B. Extreme temperatures, however, have an energizing effect — the body wakes up. And through that process, the mind becomes quiet.

What’s next?

From producing pain-reducing chemicals, energizing parts of the brain suppressed during meditation, producing adrenaline, and regulating the skin’s temperature, Wim is an embodiment of mind over matter. “Isn’t that logical?” he says. “The power of our mind, as a captain of the vessel, to sail the oceans? To express the soul? That’s the way nature has built us to be.”

For a man radiating energy and purpose, it seems Wim’s biggest contribution to humanity is yet to come. Inflammation is responsible for 60 to 70 million deaths each year and multiple chronic diseases, yet he was able to teach a group of students to reduce inflammation in 15 minutes, all with the power of the mind. The Ice Man dreams big, picturing a world where consciousness defeats physical and mental illness.

There’s an unmistakable spiritual element that runs through the essence of Wim’s approach to life and healing. “I tested myself deeply, and that deep sense came back on. That deep sense is to challenge yourself until you find love, true love, through all the confusion, an unconditional love. And there is happiness, strength, and health. There is the soul.”

Perhaps now, more than ever, humanity needs to reconnect to the collective soul, for the sake of the planet and for better harmony and health. And if there’s one man crazy enough to attempt to ignite this change, it’s Wim Hof. “I am here, fully conscious, and showing through Goalcast that my goal is to bring happiness, strength, and health to everybody, scientifically endorsed.” 

Wim’s journey is the true hero’s journey, one of resilience, unwavering belief, and triumph in the face of uncertainty and doubt. He took the path he knew he had to take to gain respect, and credit for a practice he knew was effective, decades before recognition. Having mastered his mind and his body, Wim is a man on a mission, determined to keep changing the world.

“We are facing a big enemy, money, power, establishment… but the new paradigm is where we are able to guarantee happiness, strength, and health, because we love our kids, we love the world, we love life.”

Although he’s known as the Ice Man, watching the warmth, love, and energy radiate from Wim as he talks about his mission, it’s impossible not to get inspired. And with Wim leading the charge, a man known for making the impossible possible, there’s a sense that the paradigm he talks about is waiting for us.

It’s a big challenge, but one that feels possible to move towards, one deep breath at a time.

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