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.

Lucid Dreams

Dream lucidity means that while you are dreaming, you are aware that you are dreaming. There is a chance that it has happened to you. But there is a better chance that you have not had a “lucid dream.”

So, does this seem familiar? You are in the middle of a normal dream and suddenly realize that they are dreaming. This type actually has a name: a dream-initiated lucid dream.

I have had this type of dream twice. And despite trying to initiate a lucid dream, I have not been able to force one to occur though there are lots of suggested ways to make a lucid dream more likely.

An even rarer and odder type is called a wake-initiated lucid dream. That occurs when you go from a normal waking state directly into a dream state, with no apparent lapse in consciousness.

There are references to this phenomenon in the ancient Greek writings of Aristotle. He wrote that:  “often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.”   I question the “often” part of his statement, but clearly this is something that we have observed for a very long time.

The term ‘lucid dream’ to describe the phenomenon was coined by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in his 1913 article “A Study of Dreams.”

There is no way to force yourself to have a lucid dream, but there are methods that are said to make it more likely. I have written before about lucid dreams and I have tried all the methods I have read about.

One suggestion, which I have followed for many years, is to keep a dream journal. I keep my beside my bed and a few times a week I have a dream that remains clear when I awaken and I write it down. 99.9% of those dreams are not lucid. The journal is supposed to train you to remember more of your dreams. We all know that dreams fade very quickly if we don’t review them when we are awake by writing them down or telling them to others. I have also tried using a voice recorder to eliminate the time that writing takes. I have had dreams fade away while I am writing them down.

I have also been told that repeating a phrase such as “I will be aware that I’m dreaming” before you fall asleep. The official name for this technique is “Mnemonic Induction to Lucid Dreaming” (MILD). This is also a way to turn on awareness of your dreaming. Another awareness reality check is to stare at their hands for a few minutes before they go to sleep.

Increasing your ability to have lucid dreams is part of  the Tibetan Buddhist practice of dream Yoga, and the ancient Indian Hindu practice of Yoga nidra.

Neuroscientists are also interested in lucid dreaming as a way to study differences in brain activities while waking and sleeping. I read about a study in which researchers triggered lucid dreaming using low-power electrical currents of specific frequencies applied directly to the head. That is not a method most of us can access – and personally I wouldn’t want to try it.

Lucid dreaming is not without risk. People who are not mentally stable should probably consult with a doctor before experimenting.

All of experience some sleep paralysis during the REM cycle of dreaming. That sounds bad but it is a good thing as it prevents you from physically acting out your dreams. You don’t want to leap off your bed while asleep when you’re dreaming about jumping off a dock into the water. If while lucid dreaming you are in that  half-dreaming and half-waking state, you may feel awake but be in a kind of sleep paralysis.

For myself, the two times that I experienced a lucid dream state they were uninitiated. It just happened. Both times it was during a recurring dream. In one instance (which I wrote about “pre-lucidity” two years ago), I had a dream about walking down a particular street, stopping at a home and walking up the steps and knocking on the door. I had that dream three times before. The fourth time I had the dream I thought while I stood at that door that “This is a dream and I need to keep knocking until someone answers.” I did that and I finally met the person behind the door. It was someone I know, and I wrote as much about the dream as I could recall in my journal, but I still have no interpretation of its meaning.

Sending Your Daily Practice Out Into The World

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that I have in my non-academic life. I have written here about several of my attempts at a daily practice. The most successful one may be the poetry practice I was able to do 365 times in 2014.

But, if you say “daily practice” I think many people think of something religious or spiritual. Hopefully, they don’t think of daily habits – such as getting a coffee at the local shop on the way to work.

When I was more serious about my meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When i stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about.  EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. ”

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

Of course, many people apply Buddhist teachings as a way to release tensions of the body, reduce stress and pain. Moving that into the lives of others makes the practice more powerful. Students in a monastic community profit from the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration and being surrounded by a harmonious community who wish to apply mindfulness into their daily lives. But can that community be made even wider.

I tried yoga twice, but it didn’t work for me. It does work for many others as a practice.

In a post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn, she talks about a concept of “body prayer” where she applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (Here’s a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

Meditation and yoga classes are offered in corporate centers, churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It may seem new and hip but it is a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice even if it is being blended with technology,  modern medical science and with other religious and philosophical perspectives.

I did send my daily poems out into the world. The idea that there was some audience for them was important motivation for continuing. I had responses to the poems via comments, emails and some live conversations with friends and a few people I met through the poems. That was small compared to the way some practices change lives. Something for all of us to consider.

Awakening Soul

Is there a global shift in consciousness? I read some writers who believe it to be true, but I don’t really see it around me.  Some people say there is a spiritual evolution occurring. Certainly, people globally are going through rapid changes in their natural and man-made environments and that has to cause personal changes.  But it doesn’t mean that there will be an expansion of consciousness.

So, when I read an article about the traits of an awakening soul I am interested and skeptical.  Even the most hardened of us probably would like to be considered an empath with an awakening soul.

An article I was reading by Christina Sarich’s gives 21 traits. She writes a blog, Yoga for the New World and her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing The Body And Mind Through The Art Of Yoga.

If you’re interested, read the full article, but here’s my bulleted version of the list. How do you rate on the awakening soul traits?

  1. For you, being in public places is sometimes overwhelming.
  2. You know things intuitively, perhaps even your dreams are becoming precognitive
  3. You find watching television or most of mainstream media distasteful.
  4. You can sense lies.
  5. You may be able to sense illness in others.
  6. You root for the underdog, those without voices, those who have been beaten down by the matrix,
  7. If you don’t learn how to set proper boundaries, you can get tired easily from taking on other people’s emotions.
  8. Unfortunately, sensitives or empaths often turn to drug abuse or alcohol to block some of their emotions and to ‘protect’ themselves from feeling the pain of others.
  9. And yet, you are a healer and may practice acupuncture, reiki, Qi-Gong, yoga, massage, midwivery, etc.
  10. You see the possibilities before others do.
  11. You are creative.
  12. You require more solitude than the average person.
  13. You might get bored easily, but are really good at entertaining yourself.
  14. You have a difficult time doing things you don’t want to do or don’t really enjoy.
  15. You are obsessed with bringing the truth to light.
  16. You lose track of time.
  17. You hate routine.
  18. You often disagree with authority.
  19. You are kind, but not to those egotistical or rude or people who are insensitive to other people’s feelings or points of view.
  20. You are sensitive to the energy of foods. You may be vegan or vegetarian for that reason.
  21. Your emotions are visible and it’s hard to pretend to be happy.

These traits of an awakening soul center on awareness. Does this describe you? Does it describe those in the world around you?

Can You Stand Up?

I came across a deceptively simple little test of flexibility and strength online. What caught my attention was the claim that it was a good indicator of whether you will live a longer or shorter life.

According to the article from Discover magazine, a Brazilian physician, Claudio Gil Araujo, came up with this test as a way to let patients know whether they need to be doing more physically in order to maintain muscle and balance.

Having just crossed one of those end-of-decade birthdays that makes me think about mortality, I know that I am forced to consider every day simple things like bending down to pick up something up, reaching for things at a stretch and climbing stairs.

As we age, we lose flexibility, muscle power and our sense of balance. That means pulled muscles and more slips and falls.

poses_arm_balancesI tried yoga years ago. It didn’t work for me, although it seems to do wonders for some people. It made me hurt and It didn’t get better week to week. I also had problems with the names of the poses. Firefly, crane and peacock sound nice, but are meaningless to me.

I did enjoy looking at the women in their yoga pants and tank tops. I probably enjoyed that part too much.

This week I tried Araujo’s test myself.  It’s in two parts. Part 1: plop yourself down – well, “lower yourself down” – without leaning on anything.

Illustration: Roen Kelly/Discover

I could do that. More plop than lower, but I maintained my balance and passed part one. Five points.

Then the hard part of the test. Stand up, trying not to use your hands, knees, forearms or sides of your legs.

I rocked. I leaned. I changed positions. But I could not do it without using a helping hand. That’s a point off.  The two parts of the test are each scored on a 1-to-5 scale, with one point subtracted each time a hand or knee is used for support and 0.5 points subtracted for loss of balance.

Araujo had more than 2,000 patients ages 51 to 80 take SRT (Sitting Rising Test).  What he found was that people who scored fewer than eight points were twice as likely to die within the next six years. Yipes!   If you scored three or fewer points, you were more than five times as likely to die within the same period compared with those who scored more than eight points. Yipes times five!

An increase of  a point was associated with a 21 percent decrease in mortality from all causes.

Will this get me to the gym or back to the yoga classes? Unlikely. But I may start practicing the sitting down and standing up part. I have always been a good test taker.