& Autonomic Explorations
“Fear does not go away by itself. You have to confront your fear, mold it, then learn to control it in it's own irrational reality. Every human being has the power to do just that. To go deep within and confront your inner being is a powerful act. Going deep and developing the will power is the only way.”
- Wim Hof
As I plunge into the freezing water, my cursing vanishes, and it's me and the ice once again. Like paint stripper, it peels back any ideas of discipline and grit I had about myself as I feel the fire of cold and try to place my entire attention on breathing. There is no way to be distracted here. Every ounce of energy is needed to focus on being, to tame the voice inside me that is screaming to get out, to end this discomfort and continue to live comfortably but disconnected.
The body has an incredible capacity to serve us, if we connect deeply with it. In order to do that, I have found that the boundaries of what we think we can and can't do are the border we have to cross to allow us to hear the whispers of wisdom.
Fortunately there are people of different traditions and methods to help us cultivate the ability to connect with the systems inside that we normally can't see. Wim Hof's achievements speak for themselves, and rather than go through them, this short video chronicles his own journey and insights that he discovered.
This article really is about my personal takeaways, my direct experience. A part of me wonders why I keep going back, but I know deep down that this technique allows access to part of my being that is very hard to get to any other way. I face the person I really am, rather than the person I think I am. To do that, I have to explore the systems that are beyond my conscious control.
The sympathetic nervous system controls the body's responses to a perceived threat and is responsible for the "fight or flight" response. If it was a tiger hunting me down in a jungle, great, I would need the adrenaline. In a meeting room with a tough client, not that helpful. The balancing force is the parasympathetic nervous system controls the body at rest, allowing us to digest and recover from the loads we impose on ourselves. This is activated when we are in states of deep relaxation, which is sometimes hard to achieve in an age of a flood of information.
The two are part of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the involuntary functions of the human body. The Wim Hof method is a door that allows us to explore these worlds that lie beyond our conscious mind, using the framework he expressed in 3 core ideas:
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By doing several sets of deep breaths and holding my breath in between sets, the blood becomes oxygenated, and the body primed. In the initial training, it consists of 3 rounds of 30 deep breaths, that start at the base of the tummy and fill the lungs from bottom to top. A yawn can be helpful in guiding the form of your own breath. After 30 breaths, we exhale to a neutral breath, and relax into the sensation until it is time to take a recovery breath, and continue onto the next set.
The gift of discomfort is deep understanding. At the heart of this practice is how we deal with stress. By cultivating an orientation to meet barriers that present themselves to us, and orient the body and mind with tools that serve to overcome them, we learn a skill that can be applied almost anywhere.
In the water, the body is stressed, and it reacts. Through repeated practice, I explore cultivating a relationship with the response, and try to observe the automatic processes of the body that were once hidden. By triggering the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) with the cold, we gain a chance to use our breathing and mindset to counter that with the para-sympathetic nervous system.
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Victor Frankel wrote "between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." We see this small space emerge as we exhale slowly in the water, by relaxing our breathing and moving to meet the sharpness of the cold where it is. How we deal with this extreme stress informs how we cultivate relaxation.
In the end, this is a breathing and mindset technique that sits in a galaxy of others. Considering that breathing, eating, exercising and sleeping define most of our lives, I think it has been an incredible exploration, one that is worthy of the short time we all have in life, and one that will continue for me.
Wim Hof - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wim_Hof
Chun Yih Tan - Certified Wim Hof Instructor in Singapore