The Iceman's breathing method for immune function, improved conditioning, and better overall health

(4 min read)

Anyone who’s gone to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu(BJJ) class for the first time knows how challenging it is. I’ve worked out in the gym religiously for the past 2 decades and felt in great shape. My perception of what good conditioning was came to a screeching halt after my first BJJ class. After just 10 to 15 minutes I was left in a pool of sweat, barely able to lift my arms. I was breathing so heavily that I was surprised the other students in the room didn’t curse me out for hogging all the oxygen.

Several months later, and many classes down the road, my conditioning improved quite well. But as I always do, I was looking to gain an even greater edge. I had known of the Wim Hof Method for several years. I saw him interviewed on Joe Rogan, the documentary piece done by Vice, and several other podcasts. I downloaded the app to see what this was all about.

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The Wim Hof Method is a deep breathing practice similar to hyperventilating. It’s a slightly slowed down, more deliberate version. The intention of the exercise is to fully oxygenate your body and improve your immune system’s functioning. Recall from people who have experienced the breathing exercises have felt tingling all over their body, become lightheaded, and even had slight hallucinations. Wim explains that the reason these symptoms are felt is because your body is stimulating every cell in the system while you’re taking in much more oxygen then we do from our typical way of breathing. This leads to a suppression of the immune system’s response to stressors. Wim “The Iceman” Hof used this breathing technique to break the world record and withstand close to 2 hours fully submerged in ice. He also holds the record for the longest underwater swim (without coming up for air) under an ice glacier!

Wim also suggests that by learning how to take in full deep breaths, we maximize our diaphragm's ability to store and use oxygen, exactly what’s stored in our red blood cells and delivers oxygen to our working muscles. If you’re able to store and use more oxygen, your muscles will work harder and longer. Seemed like a no-brainer to me that practicing this method of breathing would increase my breathing efficiency during a hard session of BJJ, or any strenuous exercise for that matter.

Wim’s protocol calls for 30-40 deep breaths where you do a powerful, full inhalation and just calmly release the exhale. After the 40th breath cycle, and all the tingling and lightheadedness is in full force, you’re to exhale all your breath out and then hold your breath for as long as possible. When I tried this for the first time I was able to hold my breath for around 90 seconds! This is at least 30 seconds longer than just taking a deep breath and holding it normally! By the third time I did this exercise I was exceeding 2 full minutes on my holds. Wim’s method of breath holding on the exhale was also one of the most relaxing breath holds I’ve every experienced. My body felt this “charged” effect and I had plenty of residual oxygen stored up in my system to carry me to the minute and a half mark.

After you have the urge to breathe again, you’re then supposed to take a breath in and hold it for about 15 seconds. Release the air, then you begin that sequence all over for a total of 4 to 5 rounds.

While limited on time before heading to BJJ class, I was able to get 3 rounds of the exercise in. It took me around 15 minutes and I did it laying on my back on the floor, afraid that if I was to get light-headed and pass out, I wouldn’t fall over, slump in a chair, or injure myself if I remained flat on my back. This would also allow me to close my eyes, shut off all my muscles and just focus on the breath coming in and out.

After the third and final round, the feeling of euphoria was immediate. I felt totally calm and peaceful. I noticed my breathing had slowed and was relaxed and composed. There was zero restriction or resistance. While I felt calm, I also felt a sense of focus and energy. I’ve done longer sessions of meditation for around 30-45 minutes at a time and the calm, focused feeling was similar to that of a meditation session. But the added energy I had was different. I liked it. A LOT.

Thirty minutes later in BJJ class I was in the thick of the warm-up conditioning drills. Animal crawls, partner carries, wheelbarrow drills - all things that would typically have me gasping for air. This class was different. I had an abundance of breath at my disposal. Even in our drilling and sparring sessions, I noticed I was far less fatigued that the others in the room. After 5 minutes of sparring I got up off the mat and while everyone’s mouth was wide open and panting, I was able to calmly remain breathing through my nose only, and my heart rate seemed to recover well within the 30 second rest periods. Success!

I was looking for a way in increase my endurance, and as a result, found a great way to gather some focused energy and improve my immune function in the process. Time will tell how this continues to improve my conditioning over time, but Wim’s research into the power of the breath and its ability to help us withstand cold temperatures, boost immune function, or tap into the autonomic nervous system are all exciting breakthroughs that I can’t wait to see how many people’s lives can be improved by using something that’s free to us all. The breath.

Here’s Wim’s protocol for a round of the Wim Hof Method of Breathing:

  1. Breathe in and out 30-40 times, A powerful, full inhalation and a relaxed release on the exhale.

  2. On the final breath of the cycle, do a full exhalation and hold your breath for as long as possible (ideal time is 1-2 minutes).

  3. When you have the urge to breathe again, take a full breath in and hold for another 10-15 seconds.

  4. Repeat from #1 for a total of 4-5 rounds and record your breath hold retention times after each round.