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.”