Why I Paid $250 To Sit In An Ice-Filled Tub Behind A Brooklyn Warehouse
If you are a regular follower of this blog (how could you possibly stay away?!?) you’ll notice that it usually adheres to a pretty standard format.
It starts with a personal or pop culture story that serves as an allegory for some relevant fitness information and then wraps up with some sort of return to the original reference and concludes with an emotional or funny button.
There you go. I just gave away the store.
This week, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to start with the lesson learned and proceed from there.
Now I guess you can argue that this entire preamble makes this blog exactly like all the other blogs. And this explanation of how this blog is like the other blogs in and of itself makes it like all the other blogs. And you’d probably be right.
Very meta of you.
OK. In the words of Snoop Dogg, back to the lecture at hand.
Here’s the takeaway: Stress, in manageable, progressive doses is very, very good for your mind and body. Way better than avoiding stress all together or framing stress as some sort of illness-creating plague that will prematurely end your life.
If you dose out stress correctly and prove to yourself that you have the ability to handle it, the results are an improved mindset, immune system and general resiliency to many of the challenges and ills you will face in the world.
And I learned this from an remarkably enthusiastic, boundlessly energetic, slightly hyperbolic, Dutch pseudo-cult leader named Wim Hof on a recent weekend afternoon.
Enlightenment on a Concrete Floor
After Ubering through a rather industrial part of now-hip Bushwick, Brooklyn and standing in a line of way, way more people than I thought would spend their Sunday learning first hand the “secrets” of a man who climbed Kilimanjaro in his shorts and holds the record for the longest under-ice swim, a bunch of our staff and clients made it into the event space that looked like it was more equipped to host a molly-fueled rave than a health and wellness seminar.
Not two minutes passed by when Wim appeared out of nowhere and was immediately surrounded by a group of enthusiasts. It became instantly clear that these were not newbies like me but folks who probably followed Wim around from city to city as if he were the reincarnation of Jerry Garcia.
The throng spontaneously formed a circle with Wim in the middle, all of them jumping and chanting and seeming to appreciate the fact that they were alive and here and were about to do whatever the hell it was we were about to do. To me this was the epitome of living in the moment. A celebration of seemingly nothing and everything.
This lasted about 30 seconds before WIm darted off. But as he made his way out of the crowd he took a moment and stopped right in front of me, gave me a half-handshake, half-high five and then started, for lack of a better term, rubbing me up and down. Why I was chosen for this treatment, I don’t know. But I was pretty sure the workshop was getting off on the right foot.
I’m going to spare you the ins and outs of the entire experience. This isn’t a Yelp review, after all. A vast majority of the day was spent on lectures - by Wim himself and a staff comprised of several doctors, experts and early adopters who were now part of the inner circle - mostly aimed at giving medical, scientific and experiential data to back up the claims of what is now known as The Wim Hof Method. In a nutshell, the WHM claims that a three-pronged approach of cold exposure, specific breathing techniques and practicing mindfulness is the key to improving your immune system, cardiovascular capabilities, physical abilities and general happiness.
There were two practical applications taught and that is what I want to dive into a bit more. The first was Wim Hof breathing. Now, we’ve experimented with this breathing technique here in the facility based on numerous tutorials and interviews we’ve watched of Wim taking people through the sequence. Interestingly, at the workshop, the technique wasn’t taught by Wim but by one of his lecturers whose name I have regrettably forgotten.
We started by laying flat on our backs on our yoga mats while the instructor giving us detailed cues on how to breathe - in deeply through the nose all the way into your belly first, then filling your chest with air. The exhale was not to be forced, you were just supposed to, more or less, let the air fall out of your mouth. We did a series of 30 of these breaths followed by a maximal exhale and breath hold once all the air was out of your body. It was truly surprising how long you could hold your breath after “super oxygenating your cells”. When you finally felt the need to inhale we were instructed to take one big breath in, hold it for 10 seconds and then start the sequence of 30 breaths all over again. We did this 3 times.
Sounds simple, right? Well this exercise led to a near out-of-body experience for me. I was shivering, nearly convulsing on the ground. I’ve never done psychedelic drugs before but this was what I imagined them to feel like. Besides the lack of physical control, my mind took me to a strange place, seeing flashes of colors and light as if I were smack in the middle of a 1980’s sci-fi movie and this was the cinematic representation of transversing galaxies. Apparently I had dropped acid and was watching Laser Pink Floyd at the local planetarium. It was nuts.
I’ve done breathing exercises before but none had been as profound as this one. And, to be fair, I’ve tried replicating it on my own and have not had nearly the experience. Which leads me to believe that, just like most things fitness or worship, there is a real uptick when you do it in groups.
Either that or someone spiked my Kombucha.
The Ice Baths Cometh
The second hands-on part of the workshop involved stripping down to your underwear (it was actually swimsuits but that sounds like less fun) and, after performing what seemed like an endless sequence of Tai-Chi movements, marching through a set of loading dock doors at the back of the warehouse and stepping into glorified children’s outdoor pools filled with freezing water and ice.
This was the main event. What we’d all been talking about doing all day.
Once outside, my group circled our pool (there were about 5 of them), interlocked arms and, upon our instructors command, stepped in and submerged ourselves into the freezing cold, ice-filled water.
Now this shit was attention getting but not as bad as I imagined. As paramedics and event staff carefully monitored us (I guess there is legitimate risk of something bad happening to you if you have a medical condition or just a bad trip) we were instructed to take shallow breaths through our noses and long exhales out our mouths. We were allowed to stay in for a maximum of two minutes. No one in my group - or the seminar as a whole - died as far as I know. But a few people definitely jumped out after about 20 seconds.
Circling back to the event floor I felt invigorated. As we returned to our yoga mats we were instructed to not use our towels. Instead we were to rewarm ourselves by jumping back into the Tai-Chi which worked remarkably well.
I was also enthused to see that Kyle’s group had not yet been called to the ice baths because I knew that he was going to love this part of day and I wanted to see him head off to the backyard.
Once you sit in freezing cold water with hundreds of strangers it’s hard to imagine getting anything productive done and I think the event staff saw it the same as that pretty much brought about the end of the seminar. Wim did a bit more dancing (the dude can do full splits!) and there was a disjointed Q and A, but mostly we just got dressed and hit the road.
As we drove off still feeling all the good vibes that the day brought and discussing how to bring this practice into our daily lives and the lives of our clients we were only half surprised to see Kyle and Wim still sitting in the ice bath, shooting the shit and sharing a joint.
That didn’t actually happen, but I kind of imagined it would.
I really shouldn’t have left that Kombucha unattended.