Cold immersion, breathing techniques and focus are the underlying elements of two extreme wellness retreats that I recently experienced in two very contrasting destinations – wintry Poland and tropical Bali – led by two renowned yet very different wellness personalities – Wim Hof and Dr Marc Cohen.
The fact that they help boost the immune system is particularly pertinent amid the world’s COVID-19 concerns. But there are a whole host of other benefits for participants and host spas too.
Exploring the edge of your physiological and psychological extremes by subjecting your body and mind to controlled stress induces a hormetic stress response that builds resilience. Exploring the extremes also helps you find your balance point and attain physical and mental homeostasis.
Extreme breathing techniques, such as repetitive diaphragmatic deep breathing (hyperventilation) followed by breath holding, create extremes of carbon dioxide and oxygen that force cells to declutter and make mitochondria (energy generators) more efficient. Deep breathing also creates low levels of carbon dioxide, nudging blood into a temporary alkaline state and helping the body to fight viral infections.
Extreme hot and cold exposure boosts circulation and flushes out toxins, and can help relieve pain, inflammation and slow ageing. Using extremes of temperature also allows you to practice being comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable situation and this builds mental resilience.
Not only do these practices require commitment and focus to keep repeating, they create a ‘forced mindfulness’ that can fast track practitioners into a meditative state.
Immune boosting properties
Ideal right now, all of the above can boost the body’s immune system, helping it fight pathogens, whether viruses, bacteria or other antigens intent on taking over the cells of our bodies.
In 2011, Radboud University in The Netherlands experimented on Hof and his claim that he could control his autonomic nervous system and immune response. Injected with a bacterial endotoxin while practicing his concentration and meditation techniques, he did indeed overcome the usual flu-like symptoms of fever, chills and headache. In 2014 they re-tested him and 12 volunteers who’d undergone 10 days of Wim Hof Method training (meditation, breathing, cold exposure) and they all showed similar remarkable results.
Why offer extreme wellness?
The boundary-pushing nature of these retreats is a great way to attract more men to wellness. Extreme challenges also bring extreme results, potentially leading to life changing transformations fast – something most spas would love to offer their guests.
“A lot of people go home and change daily routine and habits,” says my Wim Hof Method (WHM) instructor Leonardo Pelagotti. “With this new awareness, they feel more in control and start to take more care and ownership of their choices.” Under his own company Inspire Potential, Pelagotti offers workshops in France, Italy and Switzerland.
Alex Tsuk, founder of Breathing Cold, led the ice bathing sessions on Cohen’s retreat. He offers regular online and offline workshops blending the techniques. “Participants call it a beautiful internal journey from perceived discomfort to a state of inner peace, having confronted fears, challenges and limitations,” he says. “It takes your wellness to the next level and has a ripple effect on everything around you.”
Ice baths, breathing and focus techniques aren’t difficult to facilitate in most locations; snowy mountains and freezing rivers, hot springs and saunas are ideal but not 100 per cent necessary.
As one participant from China says, “I’m back in Beijing, which has been hit by the coronavirus. I’m using breathing methods daily to boost my immune system and get into the cold (ice water, short pant winter runs) when I have the chance.”
HOW, WHAT, WHERE
Dutch wellness pioneer, author and f-bomb renegade, Wim Hof is known as The Iceman thanks to his affinity for the cold and over 25 Guinness World Records for ice exposure (see SB17/4). He passionately recommends his WHM that includes the three pillars of breathing techniques, cold immersion and focus/meditation.
In Poland every January and February over 100 participants a week, a mostly male crowd, arrive at the mountain village of Przesieka where Hof has a home, for a five-day Winter Expedition – costing around US$2,400 (€2,200, £1,932). He also hosts Summer Expeditions in Spain, and his growing band of instructors hold workshops year-round globally.
Our group’s instructor, Pelagotti, guided us through breathing exercises (classic, anti-inflammation and power), cold immersion in pools and rivers, a hike to a snowy mountaintop in minimal clothing, and time in saunas and meditation. Hof appeared every day to lead occasional sessions and impassioned talks.
“We live in artificial environments with air-con and heaters, everything controlled,” he says. “Breathing and cold are mirrors that tell us our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual state.”
Cohen, a renowned industry researcher and author, professor and wellness expert with a background as a medical doctor, met Hof in 2017 and found his method helped him overcome persistent pain from a past injury.
Cohen’s own Extreme Wellness Retreats include Wim Hof influenced ice baths, extreme breathing and breath holding, as well as his own additions such as nutritional feasting and fasting and activities that encourage exertion and relaxation, focus and flow (see SB19/1).
In Bali, Cohen and 18 participants gathered for his five-day Extreme Wellness Retreat at Tony de Leede’s Komune Resort & Beach Club in November (costing around US$1,500 – or €1,375, £1,207). Previous retreats have been held at Peninsula Hot Springs in Australia, Maruia Hot Springs in New Zealand and Four Seasons Chiang Mai, Thailand. Each has been led by Cohen and differ slightly to take advantage of the natural surroundings – such as ‘adventure bathing’ in New Zealand.
“None of the practices I suggest are new, I merely suggest doing them consciously and with a purpose,” says Cohen. “When these activities become part of your daily routine you’ll become ‘superpowered’ and require less food and less sleep while enjoying greater levels of energy and vitality.”
Cohen is hoping to train and certify Extreme Wellness leaders who will be able to hold retreats around the world.
Bali, November 2019
Leading up to the Bali retreat I was excited to experience the more extreme activities. With introvert tendencies, it was the group pursuits as well as the giving and receiving of watsu that were most challenging for me. However, the group gelled wonderfully under Cohen’s fun-filled leadership.
Days consisted of breathing techniques and yoga before breakfast, presentations and talks before lunch and activities like ice baths, watsu and learning to spin fire sticks in the afternoon. Delicious, light meals were taken around communal tables at Komune’s stunning Health Hub and in the evenings we migrated to the resort’s Beach Club for atmospheric dinners.
Cohen is astoundingly knowledgeable. There really is no question you can ask that his medical qualifications, research experience and boundless natural curiosity can’t answer, and his retreats bring an incredibly rich array of experiences and teachings.
My first ice bath lasted 2 minutes, the second 5 and the third I finally got out at 10 minutes. Getting in and exhaling calmly through the body’s gasping fight or flight response was most difficult. With my hands folded against my shoulders, the rest of my body got used to the temperature relatively quickly. I focused on the warm air on my face, and each time it was the increasing pain of the cold creeping up from my feet that forced me to get out. The cold had different effects on everyone, with emotions running over for many. Once out, the body’s rush of energy and adrenalin put me on an instant high.
When it came to the ice baths’ extreme opposite – fire spinning – it was comical to feel so clumsy as we practiced (without fire) and repeatedly dropped our sticks. The trick is to stop thinking about it and let the muscles learn the movements – and that night, against a sky full of stars, the incentive not to set fire to ourselves magically sharpened our focuses. I found myself spinning, dancing to the music, experiencing another high.
I left the retreat with introvert-built walls dissolving, feeling like I’d let go of a past relationship, and looking forward to filling 2020 with new challenges.
Poland, February 2020
Hof’s winter expeditions are raw rather than luxurious. The week offers varying degrees of accommodation, delicious (but not specifically healthy) buffet meals and an amazing diversity among participants.
I’d signed up because I can’t cope with the cold. In the spirit of facing your fears I was – ahem – quite nervous beforehand. How would I survive in a cold climate and even colder water?
Days started with breathing practice before breakfast, various techniques including anti-inflammation breathing using rounds of strong, fast breaths, then holding on the inhale. Breathing in a group emphasised the power of the inner journey. At times I found myself mentally and emotionally Rolladexing through my life, the people in it and where I was heading, leading to tears, gratitude, and ultimately, overwhelming feelings of love.
Our first experience with the cold was dipping just our hands and feet into a nearby river (around 2˚C) causing that familiar aching blue cold. The second day at Hof’s house we did pre- and post-dip energising exercises in the cold air, alternating with three full body dips in his freezing unheated pool, and sauna time. I ended the session cold and shivering. But from the third day onwards when we soaked in natural pools and rivers I relaxed and actively enjoyed the extreme sensations, especially jumping in from a high rock. The cold was full-on to almost unbearable – a real challenge – but the pay off of warmth, adrenalin and feeling invincible immediately afterwards was extraordinary.
One of the winter expedition’s key challenges is a 3-hour hike up a nearby mountain in minimal clothes. We set out in hiking boots and shorts (and bra tops for us girls), focusing on breathing in more oxygen than we needed. At the snow line we strapped on micro-spikes, scrunching our way over ice and snow, through wind but also occasional, wonderful sunshine. It was “only” -2˚C at the top but I can honestly say when in the zone of breathing and focus, I barely noticed.
I ended the winter expedition on a high, having well and truly become friends with the river and the cold, with the breathing’s meditative calm and resulting insights, and having made beautifully close friendships within our incredibly supportive group.
Back in everyday life, I’ve continued the breathing, cold showers and meditation, the timing especially ideal given their immune-boosting properties. And during this enforced indoors time, ideas for exciting future plans are slowly finding the space to come to fruition.