Perhaps the most fascinating part of the challenge is to get to know your “edge”, and how to dance with that shifting line from day-to-day, accommodating your body’s responses. With visualization we can set up our ideals, and with observation we can adjust. Here are a few thoughts and visualizations for others who might be seeking this line.
Visualizations and emphasis for Rapid Breathing:
I find it easiest to fit visualization to sensation while practicing breathing lying; however, if practiced seated, the instructions are the same. WHM categorizes their breathing method as "controlled hyperventilation". I prefer to think of it as oxygen-loading.
Breath through your mouth and/or nose based on personal preference, inflating the lower belly first. Fill your belly FULL, imagining a big, round balloon reaching maximum inflation given its container. By continuing to inhale, move this balloon upward, expanding it into your rib cage, chest, neck, and head, to behind the space where the third eye is signified - your central forehead, just above and between the eyes. Use this time to scan your body. If you find any stored tension as you do this, either active tension in the process of moving the air, or passive tension held in the muscles, use this opportunity to soften and visualize the air expanding into these areas. Try to practice simultaneously expanding internally, while letting your outer layers, skin, fat, muscle, and bone fall heavily toward the floor. You are relaxing the responsibility stored in your outer shell, and allowing only the expansion of the internal cavity to dictate the flow and carriage of your muscles.
Once you have moved the air up to the third eye, relax your breath and exhale. Make a rhythm of it. Let the exhale only last the length of time it takes for you to comfortably move back into a deep belly breath. Think of it as the reverse of an involuntary gasp. A quick exhale. The point is to hold *most* of the breath in the body, but to also create a little “release” so that you can draw more oxygen in. The exhale should be natural, almost an afterthought, a result of taking in the biggest breath imaginable, and in reaching that threshold, releasing the tension of the expansion. If you experience feelings of anxiety, scale back, focus more on the inhale, and lengthen your exhale a bit. Then doing it all again. In succession. 30-40 times. Followed by a breath hold. The whole cycle is to be repeated 3-4 times.
During breath hold: More body scans, moving from your toes inch-by-inch to the crown of your head, noticing sensations. Picture the interior of your body as an empty building, still water, or deep space. Once you begin creeping toward your retention limits, you may experience a wave of anxiety telling you to (gasp!). If need be, know that it is perfectly alright to release! But if you are comfortable, try to bear that microsecond and settle into a deep chest-knowing that you are not yet out of breath. In truth, the body’s “breathe NOW” response kicks in when there is plenty of oxygen still in the bloodstream. If you only find a few spare moments of “peaceful” hold before you must finally inhale, or even if you find none, know there is growth in the space between your perceived edge, and the one that your body knows a bit more deeply.
Your body’s relationship to the cold may change day to day, minute to minute, hour to hour. The overarching guideline of the practice is to “not overdo it”. But what does this mean? What do we monitor, and how?
In my view, “not overdoing it” means taking an aerial view of your health, your training, your stress and your nervous system, so that you can make the most objective choice in exposure time, temp, and suitability. People’s bodies vary greatly. 30 second cold showers are a great starting point, but even that might be too much for some, depending on body composition. 2-3 minutes is a great baseline to work toward to reap most of the benefits. I recommend the 10-week online Wim Hof course as a week-by-week guideline for most people, which is long enough to establish the practice as a self-perpetuating habit. I would like to emphasize the accountability aspect of the course and practice. It is advised that if you find a particular week’s work too challenging, you should repeat it. When starting out, there are a lot of new sensations and reactions to integrate, and it can be hard to sort out what is what, and whether or not it is time to increase exposure.
Backing up a bit, the mind-changing capacity of the cold is deep. For many, it is incredibly psychically challenging to approach the cold at first. It can be torturous just getting up the nerve. It may be important to remind yourself that you don’t do this for punishment, but for the positive physical and mental health benefits. Act accordingly. Luckily these benefits are powerful, and once you have established a practice, it is easier to remember the reward and not get hung up on the entry.
When entering cold water, it’s important to relax. To breathe deeply, and exhale slowly. To let nature into the body, to welcome it. Practice inviting it in. Ask the element what it can teach you, and thank it for its daily lessons. If you are practicing at very low temps (i.e. 45F and below), particularly with immersion, you will get flooded with intense sensation. I often like to close my eyes, so that I can tune in more closely to my heart rate, willing it to thump at the pace I want. I picture the blood vessels in my skin, my hands, and my feet, flexing open. I continue this once I’ve left the water, and often take a moment before I leave the waterfront to close my eyes and imagine my fingers and toes warming in the sun (even if it’s not out), which inevitably they do. You will learn you have some control over blood flow through visualization and conscious will.
I begin leaving the water when I experience a transition that feels more like pain than aliveness. It is hard to quantify, but important to be brutally honest about, and it may take some time to develop. When in doubt, start modestly, and monitor how you feel the rest of the day. If you experience “kickback”, being unable to warm up naturally afterward, or out-of-the-ordinary, bothersome physical symptoms, you have exceeded your edge. Which is fine, if you use this as information to “tune it down”. I would be surprised if not everybody encounters this when developing a practice. My blanket recommendation if you’ve crossed your line is firstly, take a hot shower. If a 15 minute movement practice hasn’t brought your body right again (this is still considered “natural”), then you need to manually warm yourself up, and give your system a chance to relax. Depending on the severity of your boomerang, you may want to take a day or two off cold plunge. When you return, drop your time back to a place where you experience no symptoms. Train at this level for 1-3 weeks. Then add 15-30 seconds and see how it goes. There is no race to win, only positive cumulative effects. If you bounce your nervous system regularly, you are putting unhealthy stress on the body.
When practiced responsibly, cold exposure is designed and intended to produce positive physical stress, giving you energy, greater health and positivity. To stay in right alignment with your practice also means you are exercising humility, honesty, and commitment to developing a positive relationship with your body’s limits.
[Just to be extra, extra sure, WHM is done at your own risk, and this is not medical advice. Follow the professionals mmmmkay ;)]