The Iceman Cometh

Cover photo from Becoming the Iceman

I’m not a fan of the cold. Winter is my least favorite season. When my feet are cold, I feel terrible. All of that goes against the philosophy of a man named Wim Hof.

Wim Hof, (AKA “The Iceman”) holds some world records for endurance and exposure to cold from doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes and running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle. He stood in an ice-filled container for more than 112 minutes. This guy really believes in the natural power of the cold.

He teaches breathwork and the health benefits of cold plunges. He has millions of followers who say his method results in a wake-up call to the brain and body. Some say it has cured a variety of things from depression to diabetes.

Hof is Dutch. He is 61 years old. He summitted Kilimanjaro in 31 hours nearly naked. Climbers often take a week to do that with all kinds of cold-weather gear and oxygen tanks.

In the book, Becoming the Iceman, he says that it is unfortunate that we are taught to fear the cold and protect ourselves from it. Hof believes that the ability to control the body’s temperature is not unique to him, but is an ability that can be adopted – and should be adopted – by everyone.

What is called the Wim Hof Method includes a lot of breathwork.  It’s breathing that is like controlled hyperventilation.  Here’s an example: Do three to six sets of 30 to 40 deep breaths. That means a strong inhale through the nose and a relaxed exhale from the mouth. On that last breath of each set, you exhale and hold for one to three minutes. I tried that. It made me a little dizzy and there was no way I could hold my breath for even a minute. I guess I need a lot of breathwork training. After that held breath, you take a recovery breath and hold it for 15 seconds.

This may sound familiar to you if you have done meditation or pranayama (kundalini yoga’s breath of fire) or the tummo of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. All of these are rhythmic-breathing disciplines. I have tried these techniques in the past. Some people enjoy the resulting buzz in the brain as a natural high. Some people feel dizzy and start seeing flashes of light. Not everyone feels it’s a good thing.

As I said at the start, I don’t like the cold. Hof would tell me that after all that intense breathing, what I need next is cold exposure. He is of the school that believes you should immerse in freezing water, but he would be okay if I started with even a minute or two under a cold shower to get an effect.

The initial effect is panic in the brain. Like a meditator dismissing the intruding thoughts, he says you need to dismiss the panic and relax and focus. That focus can be visualizing heat inside you and generating warmth in your body.  (I agree. Warm is good!)

That cold shower also floods your brain and cells with oxygen. Your vascular system gets a boost. Endorphins, which are structurally similar to the drug morphine, are released. They are natural painkillers. Your opioid receptors are activated. They can bring about feelings of euphoria and general well-being. Hof believes it brings you fully into the present moment.

I read a long article in Outside magazine about Wim Hof. He has turned his philosophy into a business. That always makes me apprehensive.

He might answer my apprehension like this: “This method is very simple, very accessible, and endorsed by science. Anybody can do it, and there is no dogma, only acceptance. Only freedom.” That comes from his book, The Wim Hof Method, which I plan to read this winter while sitting in a warm house, possibly under a blanket.

Then again, maybe I will venture out into the cold after reading it. I do find that stepping out a cold morning for my daily walk is very “bracing.” Of course, I’m not naked or wet, so it’s nothing like what he is preaching.

He has a company called Innerfire and, despite his entrepreneurial side, he is a “counterculture” hero. He has more than a million Instagram followers. He has written or contributed to a shelf full of books. He hosts seminars around the world and there are certified Wim Hof instructors offering their own workshops. This is a business.

I tried out the free minicourse on his website and it was an interesting teaser and I could certainly try some of the basic techniques on my own. But I am not ready to do any polar bear plunges into the Atlantic Ocean.

I would say this Iceman has arrived.

Wim Hof
from Hof’s Instagram page where he writes “If you trust the messages of nature, then nature entrusts you to be a messenger. Breathe and use the cold.”

Ground Yourself

lightning strike

Have you ever heard the remark that someone was “grounded”? You probably have an appliance in your home (stove, washing machine, dryer, etc.) that is grounded. Your car has grounding straps. Tall buildings have lightning rods.

You certainly have shuffled your feet along a carpet or pulled off a jacket on a dry day and then touched a metal doorknob and felt and maybe seen the zap of a small lightning bolt. That static electricity in you was grounded – quite literally – to the metal.

Grounding – in a more figurative sense  – is an ancient technique. It was practiced in Chinese medicine. Indigenous people around the planet have done it. We still follow this today in behavioral health, doing yoga and meditation, and connecting in some way with nature.

Grounding can be defined in a number of ways. I feel grounded when I walk barefoot on the earth or in the water of the ocean, a lake or creek. Why? Grounding in its many forms helps us be more present in the here and now.

The Fitbit on my wrist reminds me to be active. The Fitbit blog reminds me that there are techniques to help me be more grounded.

Lightning rods are an old-fashioned device. It is a metal rod mounted on a structure and intended to protect the structure from a lightning strike. If lightning hits the structure, it will preferentially strike the rod and be conducted to ground through a wire, instead of passing through the structure, where it could start a fire or cause electrocution.

Grounding yourself is a way to channel anxiety and stress into the ground and away from you.

Looking forward or backward can distort the present and grounding can bring you back to the present. But you ask, “How do I ground myself?”

This isn’t a how-to post, but techniques like diaphragmatic breathing appear to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, initiating the relaxation response. Lie down with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you inhale, feel your belly press into your bottom hand. As you exhale, feel your belly soften and fall. This (as with meditation and yoga) is intentional breathing. where you are conscious of your breathing, We breathe all day and pay almost no attention to it until there is either a problem (out of breath) or doing one of these conscious activities.

I wrote earlier about breathing. One simple technique is breathing deeply through the left nostril (holding the right one closed) which can lower blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety. Exhale normally.

You will also hear the term “Earthing” used, meaning the very simple practice of paying attention to the sensations of your feet against the earth, which can be in the woods or your backyard, a park, the beach, or any other natural setting.

Another relaxation technique I learned which helps me relax and sleep is doing a body scan. You can either start at your toes and work up to the crown of your head, or go in the opposite direction. What you are doing is to very consciously feel one body part to the next (toes, heels, ankles, calves, etc). Observe where there is tension, warmth, coolness, numbness, pain, pressure, tension. I first learned this by trying deliberately to tense that one area and then relaxing it. You don’t know hot without cold, light without darkness, tension without release.

Set a lightning rod inside yourself and push the anxiety into the earth where it can be dissipated.

Ben Franklin invented the “Franklin Rod” as a way to ground a structure before he ever did his famous and foolishly dangerous kite experiment. Much safer to ground yourself.

Take a Deep Breath

deep breath
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Humans take about 25,000 breaths per day. Think about that. No, I mean really think about that. Most of us, most of the time, give no thought to breathing. You would think about it if you were having difficulty breathing. That’s a panic situation. On the other extreme, you would think about breathing if you were meditating. That’s the opposite of panic.

I heard an interview with author James Nestor on Fresh Air about his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. A journalist, not a scientist or doctor,  James Nestor became interested in breathing when his doctor recommended he take a breathing class to help his recurring pneumonia and bronchitis.

I have done meditation and some yoga and fitness activities that ask you to focus on your breath. I know that breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is associated with a relaxation response and that when the diaphragm lowers, more air moves into your lungs and your body switches to a more relaxed state.

The nose breathing seems to be the key takeaway. Nestor participated in a study while working on the book in which his nose was completely plugged for 10 days, forcing him to breathe solely through his mouth. Not a way to feel better.

What’s so much better about nose breathing? Air taken in through the nose is filtered and warmed and it can trigger different hormones to flood our bodies, lower our blood pressure and even help store memories.

I didn’t know that the nose is more closely connected to our genitals than any other organ. It has the same tissue and when your genitals are stimulated, your nose will become stimulated as well. Some people even sneeze when stimulated (“honeymoon rhinitis).

It sounds like Nestor was also inspired to study breathing while working on his previous book, Deep, which was about the science of freediving where holding your breath for long periods is key.

It was also news to me that scientists believe that breathing is one way that our bodies maintain balance. When we breathe through our right nostril, circulation speeds up, so we get hotter, cortisol levels increase, and blood pressure increases. But breathing through the left nostril will reverse that – lower blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety. You don’t need to think about this as it occurs naturally, but you can think about it. I’ve had meditation breathing sessions where we try to breathe in through our left nostril – without holding our right one closed.

When you breathe through your mouth, you lose that balancing.

And exhaling relaxes the body. A deep breath in lowers the diaphragm and sends a lot of blood into the thoracic cavity, and when you exhale, that blood shoots back out through the body.

The really new thing I learned about is about “mouth taping” when you sleep to train yourself to breathe through your nose. There are commercial products for this, but Nestor said a small piece of micropore surgical tape will work. I have now tried it for a week. Besides my occasional problems falling asleep, I have been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. I have a mouthguard that helps but before I was diagnosed, everyone (especially my wife) was bothered by my snoring. It’s too early to report results on the taping but, according to my Fitbit. I have slept better this past week.

Nestor mentions an experiment that had participants use the Sanskrit mantra Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ which I learned in a class on Buddhism to work on their breathing.

Another video Nestor links to is with Dr. Andrew Weil demonstrating the 4-7-8 breathing technique which can help you get to sleep. I’ve tried it and sometimes it does seem to work.

Videos about breathing linked on Nestor’s website

Listen to Nestor read an excerpt from Breath)

The Art of Relaxation

Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.


Ions, Water and Health

Have you ever thought about why we feel so good walking in the woods, on a beach, or near a river, breathing fresh air in the mountains, or just breathing the air after a rain shower?

The air around us is filled with electrically charged particles. Positively or negatively charged, they are called ions. Both positive and negative ions occur naturally in the air. However, the environment we live in today has far more sources of positive ions than in the past, creating an electrical imbalance in the air and our bodies. They are also called free radicals.

Free radicals are highly reactive, imbalanced molecules that are the byproducts of normal metabolism. They are associated with the degenerative aging process. Free radicals steal electrons from healthy cells to neutralize their own charge, and thereby cause cellular damage.

Free radicals (the positive ions) are produced by the discharge of voltage in high-voltage networks, heating and cooling systems, TVs, radios, transmitters, radar systems, computers, exhausts, cigarette fumes, smog, radiation and many harmful chemicals and toxins.

Water generates negative ions. Despite the connotation of the word “negative,” negative ions are the good ones for us.

It has been discovered that the dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge.

The breaking of the surface tension of water (waves, waterfalls or evaporation)  releases negative hydrogen ions and their ability to stick to different free radicals is very beneficial to our health.

Negative ions of hydrogen are more concentrated in the fresh air. Water being sprayed and dispersed releases hydrogen negative ions that purify the air kills bacteria and increases our energy level. That after-rain aroma in the air or after a thunderstorm on a sunny day is a good example. When it occurs in the presence of the sun, the effect is increased.

Negative-ion treatments are given to patients for bronchial conditions.

Negative ions have also been used to treat depression, which is our nation’s most prevalent mental health problem. Supposedly, about 15 million Americans spend about $3 billion a year on drugs to fight depression.

Most medications target either serotonin or norepinephrine (the brain chemicals which are neurotransmitters).

Low serotonin levels are believed to cause many cases of mild to moderate depression and symptoms of anxiety, apathy, fear,  insomnia, and fatigue. High levels of negative hydrogen ions in the air were discovered to increase serotonin levels in the bloodstream.

A closed room with several people will have a decreased level of negatively ionized air. That may be a large part of the “sick building syndrome.” Homes and workplaces are built much more airtight with less fresh air and heating and air conditioning systems cause friction which depletes the negative ions.

Naturally-occurring negative ions can have health benefits. Claims are made for them enhancing the immune system, increasing alertness, productivity, and concentration. There are claims that you can get relief from sinus, migraine headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks by increasing lung capacity.

Some tests have shown that negative ions can stabilize alpha rhythms in the human brain. Alpha waves usually occur when we are awake and relaxed.

If you feel sick, tired or depressed and wanted to try negative ions as a “therapy,” what could you do?

It’s not my place to be a health expert, but I do my research, and I pass it along. Here are some suggestions.

Try to avoid spaces with no fresh air – especially where you can’t even open a window. Even standing in your shower with the window open and fresh air can be invigorating. You have felt that, haven’t you?

Some people would recommend an indoor waterfall or a salt lamp for closed spaces.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules. Most commercial air purifiers are designed to generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers. Airborne particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These ions are de-ionized by seeking earthed conductors, such as walls and ceilings.

The computer notebook producer ASUS even introduced air ionizers in their computers.

But, pretty obviously, the best thing to do is to find spaces in nature where the moving water is creating those ions. Get to a beach, waterfall, or river. Get into the sunlight.