A Dutchman, an Englishman and a Kiwi walk into Luna Park’s Big Top on a sunny Thursday afternoon. It’s not your conventional set-up, and this was not a conventional day out. This is the story of how I set out to learn about the science of ice baths but accidentally found myself in the middle of a cult initiation…
Before we get into the blow-by-blow of what went down during the Thursday afternoon session of the Human Kind 2023 summit at Sydney’s Luna Park, it’s worth doing a quick overview of who Wim Hof is and what he’s all about, for the benefit of the blissfully uninitiated.
Wim Hof is an adrenaline junkie turned motivational speaker whose central gimmick – I mean, er, ground-breaking scientific discovery – is the cold. Specifically, the power of cold water and intensely cold environments to bring about seismic changes to people’s physical health, performance, and mental well-being.
He sees the power of cold water as presenting the opportunity for a paradigm shift in the way we understand ourselves, our loved ones, our health, and the industries that profit from our health. No small task, but one he is furiously committed to. More on this shortly…
And before we get into the undeniable weirdness of the talk, it’s also worth running through Wim’s very impressive resume of achievements and accolades, which even the keenest cynic would be hard pushed to be unimpressed by.
In 2007, Hof set a world record for the longest time submerged in an ice bath. He completed the Seven Summits challenge in 2009, becoming the first person to climb the highest mountain on each continent – during winter. In 2010, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in just two days wearing only shorts and sneakers. In 2011, he completed a marathon in Finland at minus 35 degrees Celsius. In 2012, he ran a marathon to the South Pole in just over five hours, setting a world record for the fastest marathon ever run in Antarctica.
He also holds multiple Guinness World Records for extreme endurance and his experimentations with cold therapy led him to develop the Wim Hof Method (a registered trademark, with access to ‘fundamental’ video courses starting at $300) that involves exposure to cold temperatures, breathing exercises, and meditation.
Hof has become an internet sensation in recent years, with his work helping pro athletes achieve unprecedented performance as well as multiple appearances on most-watched shows like The Joe Rogan Experience helping him build a following that puts even the most precocious influencers to shame.
In short, there was a lot to be excited about here. And though I can think of few worse ways to begin my day than with a freezing cold ice bath, I approached this session – comprised of two lectures followed by a group breathwork session – with sincere open-mindedness and curiosity.
And yet, how quickly the tide can turn…
Walking into Luna Park, the sun was beating down with a maddening intensity. Combine this with the sprawling artwork of creepy clowns that decorates the park and you could see that a slightly unhinged atmosphere was in ascendance.
On walking into the Big Top, this only doubled down. The room was packed from front to back: there must have been well over 2,000 people in attendance. Given that it was a Thursday afternoon and tickets to the event cost upwards of $199 apiece, this is not an insignificant amount of people…
What felt more significant, however, was the energy these people had brought with them: the room was absolutely electric, brimming with palpable anticipation. Audience members were keen to talk to one another, sharing stories of how they came to discover Hof and how he’d changed their lives over their beers, glasses of wines or, most commonly, large cans of Red Bull. Prost.
This was echoed by a woman I spoke to, who worked with the PR agency running Wim’s Australian tour. Whilst walking through the city earlier in the week, having just wrapped up a TV segment, she explained how people had swarmed Hof like a messiah, desperate to speak to or even touch him, telling him that he had transformed their way of living. One man even claimed his baldness had been cured in an ice bath.
It quickly dawned on me that we were not in the presence of a mere motivational speaker or scientific marvel – Wim Hof was a rockstar, plain and simple.
This suspicion became concrete the very second proceedings began: the room went dark and a video emerged on two huge screens on either side of the stage. On it appeared another stage – a huge outdoor festival stage, with a vast crowd in front of it. On the stage appears Wim, wearing a long, mystic-looking black cloak with a large hood that covers his entire face.
Then, the words “We Are The Alchemists Of Breath” appear on the screen, flashing in one by one. Meanwhile, the crowd are cheering, clapping, and slowly settling into some deep breaths, led by Wim. In the background, a faint EDM hum emerges, building up intensity…
Suddenly, Wim and his audience seem to reach a kind of climax – as breathwork peaks, Wim is screaming into his microphone, still wearing the cloak, while the crowd get increasingly worked up and ecstatic. Suddenly, the building synths drop into a full-blown hardstyle shelling, fireworks emerge from either side of the festival stage, the crowd collapses into smiles and hugs, and Wim continues to scream.
The Luna Park crowd are enraptured by this, and their excitement seems to build in line with those on the screen. After a good three minutes of hype, the screens go black and the Hof-in-the-flesh emerges…
WATCH a few moments from Wim Hof’s Sydney seminar below.
Though dressed somewhat more humbly – in a tee and shorts, barefoot, of course – he commands the attention of the room instantly. In the space of a few seconds, it becomes clear that just as much as the audience is gagging to see Hof, he is more than capable of wrapping them around his little finger with so much as a sentence.
Though a great deal was said in the next ninety minutes, I’ll do my best to summarise so that we can focus more closely on the breathwork session that marked the strangest possible end to a strange afternoon.
Hof’s real talent is in his rhetorical skills. Though he makes many grand claims about the powers of his method as well as his own psychological brilliance, including, but not limited to:
Being the only man in the world to have been injected with E. coli and killed it off in the space of fifteen minutes without the aid of medicine; being the only man on earth to have been able to control his own skin temperature when doused in alternating hot and cold water during an MRI scan; saving a little girl from death’s door by rocketing her immune system so much in the space of eight days that she was able to take a final and life-saving course of chemo; and curing a boy’s bad eyesight with a single ice bath.
These are very bold, very impressive, and – in some instances – entirely anecdotal claims. What’s more impressive is the way Hof is so easily able to move between these claims, a number of fart and sex jokes that have his audience in tatters, and his wider mission statement.
What’s the mission? To raise an “unstoppable tsunami of faith coming which is not able to be contained by the existing paradigm and its mechanisms of control”. To bring back “unconditional love in every family [and] every person in the world”, to “have people who are independently able to heal themselves to go to a deeper control within”, and, in doing so, take down the entire pharmaceutical industry that he sees as nothing more than a profit-generating machine, making shareholders rich off the myth of medicine.
What’s impressive is the way that Hof is able to blend his evidence-based information, his anecdotes, his jokes, and his surprisingly politicised rhetoric so seamlessly, allowing the more questionably truthful aspects to slip through unnoticed whilst his audience remains hooked.
This is where the next speaker, New Zealander Nigel Beach, comes into play. Supposedly, he’s there to present and explain the science behind Hof’s method. A simple summary of the science he presented was as follows:
Humans have two nervous systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system controls the “fight or flight response”, activated in response to danger, stress, or excitement, and increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and so on.
The parasympathetic nervous system promotes the “rest and digest” response and counteracts the effects of the sympathetic nervous system by decreasing blood pressure, constricting pupils and decreasing sweating. In essence, it relaxes and calms you down.
Beach and Hof believe that the modern world – the “corrupted Western environment” – is designed to overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system, making us unwell. Endless phone and email notifications, the pressure to intensely workout and tense our entire bodies for photographs, living in smaller spaces at higher temperatures… All of these things activate our stress-induced sympathetic nervous system and make us sick – “IBS is really sympathetic overload”, they say.
As such, they argue for a return to the parasympathetic system based on calm and relaxation, activated by nothing better than, you guessed it, Wim Hof Registered-Trademark Ice Bath and Breathwork.
What really caught my attention with Beach, as it did with Hof, was the way that all of the science is doused in cheap jokes. Beach cuckolds himself to Hof in his opening gag and can’t stop talking about the “wowsers in his trousers” that he got after taking up the method – as a means of skipping over how little hard evidence is actually being presented. Hehe, hard.
However, that kind of analysis is for another day. We now turn to the main event: the guided breathwork, which is where things got really weird.
On accepting the invitation to the session, I had imagined the breathwork session to be a calm, quiet, and relatively brief affair whereby Hof would share some of the basics of his method. What I got was an altogether more intense affair.
Wim returned to the stage and, though energetic throughout, had taken on the air of a televangelist, switching up from harmless jester in his first talk to an impassioned preacher in the second.
The lights go out again, but this time are replaced by a low-level light show that ebbs and flows in a breathlike motion. Similarly, new-age music begins to play quietly in the background. Wim commands his audience to “take it in”, on the inhale, “let it go” on the exhale and then – after a few increasingly quick rounds of this – to suddenly hold their breath.
The first holding lasted for a minute and fifteen seconds, which was already much longer than I’d expected, leaving me lightheaded and nervous about continuing. During the breath hold, a small army of Hof-approved instructors began to patrol the auditorium floor, making sure no one passes out unsupervised…
During the hold, as the room falls deathly quiet, Hof begins to rhapsodise, talking in hushed tones about how “science is done, sense is here”, about how he has taken on the scientific establishment and won, about how we too, as his loyal followers, have the chance to do the same…
The cycle repeats, this time Hof speaks a little louder, a little more aggressively, the hold comes and is intended to last one minute and forty seconds. As it turns out, I cannot hold my breath for this long, so I turned my attention to the crowd…
They are transfixed. Most sit bolt upright in their seats, veins beginning to bulge at the sides of their head as they struggle to contain the breath, some furiously release their breath, angry that they haven’t been able to appease their mentor and return to intense, heaving inhalations that move their entire bodies.
Some particularly committed fans, however, have left their seats altogether. Taking to the floor of the Luna Park Big Top, they eschew all thoughts about the hygiene of such a decision in favour of lying back, looking up at their messiah, and rolling their bodies back and forth with breath. It began with one lady who left her seat and walked to the very front, lying underneath Hof. Seconds later, a small crowd followed.
The rounds continue. The breath holds extend, and people become more lightheaded – some getting agitated and riled up, others almost tranquilised by it. With every round, Hof’s cries become more impassioned, more aggressive, more intense, rallying against the establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, against the non-believers. There’s also lots of talk about spinal fluid, for some reason.
As the final round approaches, the music has been raised to an almost deafening level, the lights begin to throb brighter and brighter. Hof has worked himself up into a cyclone. Despite the efforts of a fedora-wearing team member at the front of the room, desperately trying to show Wim a timer to help guide the rounds, the breath holds have become disjointed and confused, seeming to last three or four minutes at a time. I’m convinced that many in the room are no longer following his instructions, but are no less enthused by his presence.
The music somehow gets louder, the lights brighter. Audience members heave their bodies: those on the floor are scrabbling with excitement, almost speaking in tongues. Hof screams his final diatribe as the audience holds their breath: “we changed the world!”
The music stops and everything cuts to black. There’s a moment of total silence. Suddenly the lights go up again softly, Hof emerges, smiling. “We did it,” he says, “we changed the world – say it with me”.
The audience chants it with him, five times, loudly, passionately, and perfectly. Hof bows his head and says “thank you”, before receiving the single most enthusiastic standing ovation I have ever seen in my life.
Hof leaves the stage and the applause continues for some time. Slowly it fades out, and people turn to one another in disbelief, some hugging, some crying, some silent, dumbfounded.
Slowly, we all began to filter out, and stepping back into the afternoon sunshine felt all the stranger for the experience we’d just shared. On one hand, it was inspiring to see so many people brought together, enthused by one man and his mantra. On the other, it was deeply concerning – reactionary rhetoric wrapped up in fart jokes, all delivered with a cultish intensity at cultish prices.
I went in open-minded and left convinced: Wim Hof isn’t selling ice baths, he’s selling red-hot air. Or maybe I’m just in the pocket of Big Pharma. Who knows.