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Breathing like the Iceman

by Sarah McLusky, Project Manager

In our Catch Your Breath exhibition there is a pair of shorts. To some they will just be a slightly grubby-looking pair of bird print shorts. To fans, they are the equivalent of a superhero’s cape – the outfit which transforms an ordinary person into one capable of superhuman feats. The shorts in question belong to Wim Hof, aka The Iceman. Wim wore the shorts (and little else!) on a trek up Kilimanjaro in 2016.

You can see him wearing the shorts in Video

And this Facebook gallery

Most other climbers would use super-insulated technical gear and oxygen or medication to help them withstand the high altitude, rarefied air and -20C temperatures. Wim has led several groups of amateur climbers to the summit of Kilimanjaro, including a record-breaking climb in 2014, when they completed the 19,341ft trek in under 32 hours. Wim holds 26 World Records including the fastest half marathon on snow (barefoot!), the longest ice bath, and longest under-ice swim – all wearing nothing but a pair of shorts!

Wim credits his all of extraordinary achievements to breathing. In particular, a series of breathing exercises based on Tibetan Tummo meditation (now known to devotees as The Wim Hof Method) that he insists anyone can learn. Clearly Wim, like all ultra-endurance athletes, is an outlier – a rare combination of genetics and drive – which gives him an advantage. But there is substance to his claims. Wim has been extensively studied by scientists and they have found that he is able to consciously control body systems that most of us assume are automatic like skin temperature and, perhaps most astonishingly, immune response. Indeed, in one of the most convincing trials, he trained a randomly selected group of volunteers in his method before they are injected with bacterial endotoxin. The control group all got sick, whilst his trainees didn’t. 

So what is actually going on? Studies have shown that his breath work (or pranayama) and cold exposure seems to induce a stress response – changing blood carbon dioxide levels, increasing heart rate, stimulating adrenaline production and supressing pain. The forceful respiration also seems to generate heat in the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) which helps warm the blood in the lungs, reducing the impact of breathing the cold air. Wim describes this as ‘turning up his inner thermostat’.

Wim is a man on a mission. His wife committed suicide, leaving him as a single parent to four young children. He insists that his method isn’t just about attention-grabbing stunts (although he clearly revels in them). He believes learning to control our bodies and minds can alleviate depression and anxiety, to avoid anyone else experiencing the same tragic loss that he did.

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