Wim Hof: Hacking your nervous system

Imagine running a marathon in the Arctic snow. Now imagine running it in shorts and barefoot! That’s what Wim Hof did. But how? How did he bear the cold?

Hof can bear more cold than most people. He trained himself to do so. With a combination of cold exposure and breathing technique. He calls this the Wim Hof Method. But can anyone learn to be like a Tibetan monk and bear freezing snow – simply by breathing?

How does this work?

Tom Gullikson and the 16 second reset

Tom Gullikson is a tennis player who faced a problem. When he played a poor shot, he would follow it up with another poor shot. His mind just lingered on to a bad shot and made his game worse.

That’s when sports psychologist Jim Loehr taught him a 16 second cure. To help strengthen his mental fortitude. It’s a simple breathing process:

  1. Breathe In: Take a deep breath, inhaling for four seconds.
  2. Hold: Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Breathe Out: Exhale slowly for four seconds.
  4. Pause: Hold the breath out for four seconds.

This simple breathing exercise effectively calms the mind, enables one to stop lingering on the past mistake, and find focus again. It’s a quick reset technique that made Gullikson a much better player.

And it’s the same technique that Gullikson taught to Pete Sampras and Andre Aggasi when he coached them!

Conscious breathing between points improved the players performance. Made them mentally stronger. But how does this really work?

The vagus nerve

Kevin Tracey is a neurosurgeon who was researching how our bodies respond to inflammation. After a decade of research, Tracey came up with a kooky hypothesis for his times. That our nerves control our immune cells.

Tracey took a rat and cut an incision in its neck. And delivered several 1 second electric pulses directly to the vagus nerve. He then injected the rat with a bacterial toxin. Usually, the toxin would have triggered the body’s immune response. And lead to rampant inflammation. But surprisingly, when blood tests were taken after an hour, there was 75% less inflammation observed!

Dr Tracey had found the key that ancient monks had already stumbled upon. By simulating the vagus nerve, one could lower not only their inflammation but a lot of their body’s unconscious and automatic functions. Vagus nerves induced relaxation: lowered heart rates, dropped blood pressures. It’s the opposite of the body’s fight or flight response. 

But how can we access the vagus nerves without cutting an incision on our necks? By breathing.

Deep breathing moves our diaphragm in a way that stimulates the vagus nerve! Monks have known the power of breathing since millenia. But they didn’t know how breathing worked like magic, till Dr Tracey showed up.

Resetting the stress response

Wim Hof teaches a simple breathing technique:

  1. Take in a strong inhalation through the nose.
  2. Let out a relaxed exhalation through the mouth.
  3. Repeat for 30 breaths.
  4. On the 30th breath, exhale and hold for as long as you can.
  5. When you feel your body really needs to take a breath, inhale fully and hold for 15 seconds before releasing.

This is similar to the age-old “tummo” breathing practice that Tibetan monks practice. Except that Tibetan monks also visualise inner fire while breathing.

This conscious breathing practice resets our stress response. It allows us to hack our parasympathetic “automatic” nervous system. So much so that studies have shown Tibetan monks being able to raise their body heat by as much as 7 degrees – simply by practising tummo breathing for 55 minutes!

Action Summary:

  • Controlled breathing can stimulate the vagus nerves and reset your body’s stress response. Make it a part of your everyday life. Take short breaks for deep breathing throughout your day.
  • Any deep breathing technique works. Wim Hof method, Tibetan monks Tummo breathing, or Jim Loehr’s 16 second cure, all of them work – as long as your diaphragm is engaged!