The Cortex Is the Enemy
Greenpoint is a historically working-class Brooklyn neighborhood full of industrial buildings. In the last two decades these have been turned into lofts with skyline views, and skyscrapers are going up, and there are waterfront parks and coffee shops adjacent to other coffee shops. The old pencil factory is condos. The old rope factory is an event space. Along with adjacent Williamsburg—which now has an Apple Store, a Whole Foods, and an Equinox all on the same block—Greenpoint has become New York’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
In the heart of it is a 60,000-square-foot, glass-walled building called the Brooklyn Expo Center, which opened in 2014. It’s a single story with 24-foot ceilings. Inside on a Friday in May, roughly 400 people sat on the floor facing a makeshift stage. Above it was a screen that read, “We can do more than we think we can.”
On the stage stood a Dutch man in black shorts and a synthetic blue shirt. His grayish hair flopped as he paced. He looked somehow robust despite an absence of prominent musculature and a sort of convex abdomen. This was Wim Hof.
He is The Iceman.
“Depression, fear, pain, anxiety—you name it,” Hof’s voice boomed through the speakers. “We are able to get into any cell and change the chemistry. We are able to get into the DNA.”
Hof claims that people can address, prevent, and treat most any malady by focusing the mind to control the metabolic processes in their cells. For example, we can will our bodies to heat up in cold situations. He told the audience “we can beat cancer” by shutting down malignant cells. “I challenge any university in the world to test this out,” he roared.
For a four-hour seminar in The Wim Hof Method, attendees paid around $200. The ticket offered an opportunity to hear Hof speak and to perform his famous breathing exercises, and then to take a brief dip in an inflatable pool of ice water.
Almost the entire first half was Hof speaking extemporaneously, shoelessly. “You are the alchemist,” he said, gesturing out to the people, who sat rapt, mostly silent. “Nature is so merciless—but so righteous.”
This isn’t the exact sequence in which the aphorisms flowed. I wrote them down as quickly as I could, trying to follow. I wanted to know more about exactly how to focus one’s mind—to use “mind control,” in a way that would alter the metabolism of cells. We never entirely got there.
“It’s scientifically endorsed. It’s all in the books,” Hof said.
I barely had time to process one claim before he moved to the next, but if these claims are all in the books, that seems at odds with the challenge to the universities to study them.
“The cortex is the enemy,” he said. “That evil cortex needs to SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
Hof was energized, and his mouth was too close to the mic there. I worried about hearing damage for the audience. The people mostly just nodded or laughed. They were roughly 99 percent light-skinned and 90 percent men, 90 percent fit-looking, and 90 percent under 40.
They regard Wim with something not less than love. The program included a 45 minute break, and when it finally arrived, a crowd flocked to The Iceman. A line formed. At least one person was in tears as he hugged him. Most wanted a photo, and many wanted to pour out their personal stories to the man. Hof’s litany of meandering and sometimes fantastical claims seemed to have done nothing to alienate anyone.
That may be because Hof is irrefutably exceptional. And his refusal of physical and logical limits is itself the source of his appeal.
Wim Hof’s curriculum vitae includes holding his breath for six minutes, running a marathon above the Arctic circle in only shorts, and achieving a Guinness world record for the longest ice bath (nearly two hours). Hence the name.
His book Becoming The Iceman describes Hof’s initial transformation from civilian to daredevil as, at least in part, a reaction to his wife’s 1995 suicide. Looking for control, he turned to his body. In ensuing years, a second transformation seems to have taken place, the journey of self-discovery turning into an ice-based lifestyle brand. Hof, based in Amsterdam, now travels the world spreading the word, peddling medicinal claims at seminars and guided cold-weather excursions.
The Hof family has built a business around packaging and distributing Wim’s ideas, and the idea of Wim. It’s called Innerfire, and it controls intellectual property for the Wim Hof Method, which is still primarily sold by way of an online video course that leads students through exercises in breathing and cold exposure.
The method has indeed been the subject of some scientific study. In Brooklyn, Hof referred multiple times to findings published in 2014 in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. Twenty-four people were injected with E. coli endotoxin, and researchers tracked their immune responses. Half the people had previously spent 10 days going through Hof’s training, and the other half had not. The former fared better once injected with the toxin, showing more effective immune responses than the control group. This led the researchers to conclude that “through practicing techniques learned in a short-term training program, the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced.”
In other words, mind control.
In a related study, tests of Hof’s blood found exceptionally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This is generally not desirable in the long term, but researchers have theorized that it could be related to Hof’s ability to fight infections. Still the mechanisms and basis for many of Hof’s claims remain unstudied and even implausible, based primarily on anecdotes and extrapolations of The Iceman and his many followers.
Many among the Brooklyn event staff were volunteers, motivated by devotion to Hof and free attendance at the seminar. One told me he started the method because he’s training for the Navy SEALs, and that involves enduring cold temperatures. Another was ex-military and dealing with chronic pain and PTSD. Sometimes the breathing techniques make him lose consciousness. (This is listed as a side effect on Hof’s site, in bold, underlined font: “Never practice it before or during diving, driving, swimming, taking a bath or any other environment/place where it might be dangerous to faint.” There have been reported deaths among practitioners of the method while swimming.) The fainting happens when a person’s oxygen levels get low, and the system shuts down. This sometimes does the trick of clearing one’s mind.
Among the paying attendees was Brian Van Duyne, a 25-year-old from Long Island. He doesn’t consider himself an athlete. He got into Hof after he watched a Vice documentary. It started with an innocent curiosity: “Who’s this crazy guy running in boxers along glaciers?” But Van Duyne’s interest got real after a family member of his was diagnosed with cancer. He started doing the breathing exercises—mostly long, conscious exhales—and taking cold showers. As he put it to me, speaking of cancer, “Anything that can limit my chances.”
The Power of Conscious Breathing
After the lecture at the Brooklyn seminar, everyone was invited to lie down. This was the first of two interactive portions of the afternoon. The breathing was about to begin.
Hof explained, “Breathing exercises produce brain waves.”
He asked for music to be turned on, a song he loved. Through the speakers came a cut from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, “Breathe.”
Breathe, breathe in the air,
Don't be afraid to care,
Leave but don't leave me,
Look around, choose your own ground
“If you’re depressed, go breathing,” Hof said. “Make some dopamine. You don’t have to go to a doctor.”
People lay down and closed their eyes. Hof directed: “In. Out. In. Out.” The commands accelerated and descended into guttural yells. When the song ended, other tracks from Dark Side played, which made less sense lyrically. At some point someone put it back to “Breathe.” The intensity of the leader’s calls and the psychedelic rock and the people lying prone, their chests rising in unison, was a lot to take in. There was about a half hour of breathing. By the end most people looked dazed, and everyone told me they felt amazing. I saw no one lose consciousness.
A less intense DIY version of the breathing regimen goes something like this: Inhale deeply from the diaphragm, then exhale slowly and fully. Repeat. After 30 or so breaths, hold on exhalation until you experience a clear need to breathe. Then inhale deeply and hold that breath as well, but only for about 10 seconds.
Many high-performing athletes swear by this and similar methods both to boost performance and focus attention. Non-athletes use it as a tool in the quest for calm and mental clarity. Still others use it to ameliorate specific symptoms, or in an attempt to curb outbreaks of oral herpes.
A Skeptic Becomes a Disciple
Among the latter is Scott Carney, a journalist who has made a career of debunking bad science. He met Hof several years ago, expecting the story of a charlatan in need of exposure. Carney put it to me straight: “When I went to meet him, I thought he was full of shit and that he was going to get people killed.”
But then Hof and Carney ended up summiting Kilimanjaro together topless.
Carney went on to write a whole book about the experience: What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength. It tells readers, “Exposure to cold helps reconfigure the cardiovascular system, combat autoimmune malfunctions, and is a pretty darned good method to simply lose weight.” Hof even wrote the foreword.
I was curious to hear from Carney how that metamorphosis happened. Was he won over by a charismatic leader?
“Well, first, I separate Wim from Wim’s organization,” said Carney, “because Innerfire is — it’s become more about the money than about, you know, breaking into your body and finding something really cool.” He describes commercial pressures on Hof as external—the man himself owns little more than a handful of t-shirts and would be fine to remain that way. I didn’t get to speak with Hof directly at the event and he was unavailable afterward, but Carney gave vivid accounts of spending prolonged periods with The Iceman: “Wim is nuts. You know this, right? He’s disorganized, he smells bad, and he talks nonsense about half the time. So, he’s a flawed individual. This is how I deal with it in the book. Despite all his flaws, he imparts a bit of knowledge that’s really special. And I think only a crazy person could have started doing that.”
But how do you reconcile faith in a person who’s saying things that are only partly true, even plainly not true?
“The hype comes from Wim glomming more and more claims onto what his method can do,” said Carney. “We don’t know it can cure cancer or kill bacteria. But for autoimmune disease, and with regard to metabolism, there’s a tremendous amount of evidence. That’s something I completely believe.”
Carney has experienced very real benefits. He’s convinced that after 20 minutes of breathing, he can do twice as many push-ups. He used to get canker sores “like constantly,” but not since starting the Wim Hof Method. He still does the breathing exercises every morning, as well as cold showers, and has no plans to stop.
This gets to the point that the Wim Hof Method isn’t really a method in any traditional sense. Method implies a systematic study with an end goal, whereas this is more a set of principles—basic concepts and a couple techniques—to be continued throughout life. Cold exposure is supposed to help people train themselves to suppress a fight-or-flight response, and holding one’s breath teaches an ability to suppress a reflex to gasp. Through these exercises, you’re meant to gain a sense of control over the body’s autonomic processes.
“You could probably train yourself, using these concepts, to stop your heart,” Carney said, not lightly. “But I don’t know if you’d want to. You could train yourself to hold your pee indefinitely.”
You really think that’s possible?
“Yeah, I do. You could maintain an erection as long as you wanted to. Anything where there’s an autonomic response that you have some control over, you can train yourself to take it to an extreme,” he said. “But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
“You Should Talk to Laird”
Hof isn’t the only living extremophile who harnesses this sort of focus. Nor is he the only evangelist of the effects of deliberate breathing and cold exposure.
Laird Hamilton is a legendary big-wave surfer known for death-defying rides. As the site Surfline put it, “There is no bigger set of balls in the universe than the pair in Laird Hamilton’s shorts. He continues to amaze humanity by putting himself in the most harrowing situations imaginable and emerging unscathed.”
Hamilton and Hof met several years ago, and the surfer became a vocal advocate of The Iceman—a self-described “warrior for his cause.” In 2016 Hamilton effused about the Wim Hof Method, “There’s not a person alive who wouldn’t benefit from this. Not only does it bring calmness to the spirit, but it has enhanced my performance, and I believe this is a tool I’ll be able to use in the future to combat sickness and disease.”
He still does regular ice baths year round and he believes in the health benefits. But the surfer and The Iceman have had a bit of a falling out, according to Carney, and it’s not unrelated to the fact that Hamilton is now doing his own workshops that involve ice baths and breathing exercises.
“The Making of the Iceman had a profound effect on me in my quest for, I would say, enlightenment,” Hamilton told me by phone. He has, like Hof, become a lifestyle brand—a sort of celebrity who practices medicine through media appearances, writing, videos, etc. If you live long enough, it seems, you become a lifestyle brand. While we spoke he was backstage at The View.
“I think a majority of people in the world have no conscious relationship to their breath,” he told me. I asked him if he would still consider himself a warrior for the Wim Hof cause, and he danced around that. “I think in that moment in time, I was enjoying that, and, I’m a warrior of any breath work, any type of consciousness brought to breath.”
Hamilton also said his own interest in ice pre-dates meeting Hof. “I always naturally craved ice,” he said. “Whenever I was near frozen lakes or rivers, I always went in them, since I was a kid it was an instinct. The cold is a teacher we’re drawn to. It may be because of an unconscious understanding that it benefits our health.”
There is sound science behind the idea that living in climate-controlled environments year-round affects human health, in ways good and bad. I’ve written about this before, including an adventure in wearing an ice vest and enduring a “cryotherapy” chamber, ultimately concluding that a healthy thermal environment doesn’t necessarily involve either of these things, but probably does mean spending a little more time away from the 70-ish-degree perfection so many of us have been trained to think we need in the office and at home.
There is some overlap between that idea and Hof’s more extreme message. But Hamilton plays down the uniqueness of the Wim Hof Method. He’s now more into tummo, a type of meditation that involves breathing exercises. “Wim’s technique is really a derivative of that,” said Hamilton. “I don’t know if Wim will ever say that. I would like him to say that.”
The unoriginality criticism has been raised before. Innerfire’s marketing sidesteps the matter, describing The Wim Hof Method as “similar to tummo meditation and pranayama. Yet it is something else entirely.”
Meanwhile Hamilton said his own seminars are not derived from Hof’s. His method is called XPT. A beautiful Instagram profile describes XPT as “a lifestyle system focused on breath, movement, and recovery methods.” As he clarified it to me, “XPT really is a lifestyle, and a holistic approach to health and wellness. Obviously breathing is a critical component of that. But so is diet. So are relationships. So is sport. Breath work and ice baths isn’t enough. There are all these spokes in the wheel. I spent time with Wim, but I think in the holistic approach to wellness, we’re way down the road from that.”
The Ongoing Quest for Adversity
The Brooklyn seminar was notably missing spokes in the health wheel. Any mention of nutrition was fleeting, and lunch was Mediterranean fare (hummus, falafel, a pile of pita bread, etc), nothing uniquely healthy. Attendees also sat the entire time—on the floor, no less. (I wasn’t sure if this was intentional. The website for the Brooklyn Expo Center doesn’t list the cost of renting 400 chairs.)
The only physical activity apart from the breathing was when everyone rose at the end and meandered out the glass doors onto the back patio. There were a handful of blue inflatable pools filled with ice. Everyone stripped down to the bathing suits they had been asked to wear. Some changed in the bathroom stalls. In groups of six or seven, they got into the pool for about a minute. Wim led his pool in singing, or sort of chanting, the chorus of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on repeat. Other pools joined in at different times, so the overall effect was discord.
People emerged from the pools, their pale white skin blotched with red. Everyone I talked to told me some variation on “it wasn’t that bad.” All said they felt somewhere on the spectrum of good to great. It was hard to get much insight, though conversation was difficult over the singing.
At points, Hof led the crowd into the chorus of “Who Let the Dogs Out.” The who-who-who’s were chest-rumbling grunts. And then back into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” No one rolled their eyes, or even really even hesitated to get into the pool. Many seemed to be more accepting of Hof not despite his absurdity, but because of it. A more cogent speaker may have drawn more scrutiny. More cohesive thought processes may have precluded all that he has been able to accomplish in the physical realm.
I didn’t get into the pool. I’ve been in ice water. It’s an experience that’s easy to replicate, cheaply. I don’t think all the excitement and euphoria on the patio was about that. It also wasn’t about physiological facts or research data everyone had just taken in. It seemed to be about getting close to this man who seems to have something figured out, and who makes everyone believe they can do more than they think they can. As Carney put it, “The way I deal with Wim is, I’m honest. I say there are some fucked up things about this. He makes claims that are nonsense. But if you squint your eyes, you can see the truth. It’s not quite as grand as he claims, but it’s pretty awesome.”
At 4 p.m, people dried off and looked around and realized that the program had concluded. They put their clothes back on and wandered back into the empty hall of the expo center and then out onto the street, mostly alone or in pairs, maybe a little more conscious of their breath, to find some way to experience adversity.