From running a marathon in the snow — barefoot— to climbing part of Mount Everest wearing shorts, Wim Hof, "The Iceman" is no stranger to the extreme. Hof, a Dutch athlete, trained himself to withstand very cold temperatures using a unique breathing technique. Wim Hof breathing has been featured on TV shows and researched in labs. More importantly, people around the world now use it to boost their immune systems, feel more energized and less stressed, improve focus and athletic performance, and release endorphins — happy hormones. This method can be an important part of your self-care tool kit, too!
What Is Wim Hof Breathing
Wim Hof breathing is a technique using "controlled hyperventilation," followed by a couple of slower, deep breaths. This isn’t the kind of hyperventilating associated with breathing into a paper bag or being overly excited, nervous, or scared. In this case, it means the literal sense of the word — hyper means extra or rapid, and ventilation means breathing. Rapid breathing in a controlled manner! Here’s how to get started.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, like you’re getting ready to meditate.
- Start by taking 30 to 40 fast breaths, breathing in through your nose and exhaling out your mouth. Wim Hof says to make these powerful bursts of air.
- After you exhale the last burst, breathe in slowly, filling your lungs as deeply as you can. Exhale the air out, and hold your breath until you have to breathe in.
- Breathe in deeply again, but this time, hold it for 10 to 15 seconds before you exhale. This last breath is called the recovery breath.
- You can do the whole cycle, from fast breaths to the recovery breath, three to four times.
During this process, you may feel tingling sensations or lightheadedness as your blood chemistry changes. Hof combines this technique with focused meditation and cold therapy to further boost his ability to withstand extreme exercise.
6 Health Benefits of This Technique
This breathing method offers many benefits for your mind and body, which is why I like it so much. Breathing exercises can actually help you control your fight-or-flight response. The fight-or flight-response makes your body release stress hormones when an emergency happens. While it’s helpful in such times, your body can end up in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight when you experience too much daily stress. This is not helpful and can cause disease.
This fight-or-flight response is part of your autonomic nervous system, which regulates your breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and more. When practicing the Wim Hof method, you are working to change your stress response. You’re also spending time focusing on your breath and removing distractions, which is a form of mindfulness meditation.
Raise Your Energy Levels
Have you ever been so tired that you feel like your body and mind are moving in slow motion? There’s strong evidence of a connection between your breath and feeling sluggish.
Breathing techniques might help wake you up. That’s because meditation and breathing exercises help you produce appropriate levels of noradrenaline, a natural chemical that helps you focus and energize.
When you have low energy, or right when you wake up in the morning, try a few rounds of Wim Hof power breathing.
Strengthen Your Immune System
Many people are looking for ways to stay healthy and boost their immune system. Exercise and meditation can create positive changes in the immune system, improving your resistance to harmful organisms that could make you sick.[4, 5] People trained in the Wim Hof method were able to modulate their body’s stress response after being exposed to E. coli. In fact, they even had lower fevers. Science shows the method acts as a natural anti-inflammatory.
Wim Hof breathing can also help you better withstand cold temperatures. Cold showers are one technique that speeds up your metabolism, and therefore boosts your immune system. This breathing technique can help you withstand the cold shower or ice bath, giving you a double dose of health! Given that Wim Hof is in his sixth decade, it is also a great anti-aging technique, improving immunity, reducing inflammation, and boosting mood!
Reduce Your Stress Levels
When I feel stressed, I turn to meditation and mindfulness to help me cope. Mind-body meditation practices are so powerful that they can even change the structure of your brain. Wim Hof breathing uses aspects of tummo meditation — tummo means inner fire and is used by Tibetan monks. It also uses elements of Pranayama yoga, so you can use breathing training as a chance to clear your mind and meditate.
These types of techniques can help reduce anxiety and stress levels. When you couple breathing meditation with cold exposure, as Wim Hof does, you can further boost your body’s ability to manage stress and anxiety, while improving mood.
Release Mood-Boosting Endorphins
Endorphins are natural hormones that are released by your nervous system, especially during exercise. You’ve probably heard of dopamine, a feel-good hormone that creates a feeling of happiness. Endorphins are a natural way to lift yourself up when you’re feeling low.
If you’re not a fan of running, but you’re still looking for that "runner’s high," Wim Hof breathing is one way to release those same endorphins. Even though Wim Hof breathing is a mind-body technique that doesn’t involve physical movement, it’s still a powerful way to get a mood boost. As a form of meditation, it may release a similar amount of endorphins as running.
Improve Athletic Performance
Elite athletes around the world use Wim Hof method breathing to help them improve their athletic performance. These breathing exercises help athletes tolerate ice baths by warming up circulating blood and increase focus before competitions.[1, 2]
But Wim Hof breathing can help anyone be a better athlete, not just skilled competitors. After doing two cycles of Wim Hof breathing, product manager Alex P. said, "I have never tried breathing exercises before, but that was fun and challenging." Alex runs for fun and exercise, often in cold weather. "I can see how a few rounds of breathing would help me focus and get energized before going for a run."
Try taking an ice-cold shower or an ice bath when you have sore muscles. Use the Wim Hof method to focus on your goals: feeling better and performing at your best.
Did you know that breathing through your nose is especially helpful for improving cognitive function? That’s why the fast breaths at the beginning of the Wim Hof breathing cycle can help boost your focus and mental clarity.
Points to Remember
Wim Hof breathing is a breathing technique popularized by Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete also known as "The Iceman." By using his breathing method, you can modulate your body’s autonomic nervous system. The Iceman also includes exposure to cold temperatures in his practice.
You can use Wim Hof breathing to benefit your mind — whether reducing stress, improving focus, or boosting your mood. Research suggests that this technique may also help support your immune system and improve athletic performance.
Wim Hof breathing can also help wake you up and increase your energy, especially if you splash cold water on your face or take an ice bath or cold shower.
For another way to boost your immune system, try Global Healing's Immune Boost Bundle with elderberry, echinacea, and other premier herbal ingredients. For more ideas, download Dr. Group, DC's Immune Strengthening Guide.
- Muzik O, et al. "Brain over body"–a study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure. NeuroImage. 15 May 2018;172:632-641.
- The Benefits of Breathing Exercises. Wim Hof. Accessed 15 May 2020.
- Melnychuk MC, et al. Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: effects of meditation and pranayama. Psychophysiology. 2018 Sep;55(9):e13091.
- Simpson RJ, et al. Can exercise affect immune function to increase susceptibility to infection? Exerc Immunol Rev. 2020;26:8-22.
- Davidson RJ, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-570.
- Kox M, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 May 20;111(20):7379-7384.
- Buijze GA, et al. The effect of cold showering on health and work: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2016;11(9):e0161749.
- Lazar SW, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893-1897.
- Harte JL, et al. The effects of running and meditation on beta-endorphin, corticotropin-releasing hormone and cortisol in plasma, and on mood. Biol Psychol. 1995 Jun;40(3):251-265.
- Zelano C, et al. Nasal respiration entrains human limbic oscillations and modulates cognitive function. J Neurosci. 2016 Dec;36(49):12448-12467.
- Sharma VK, et al. Effect of fast and slow pranayama practice on cognitive functions in healthy volunteers. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014 Jan; 8(1):10-13.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.