Ever since I can remember I’ve been afraid of cold water. I don’t think I’ve ever dived into a heated pool without shrieking. I run cold. My finger tips are perpetually cold, I sleep with sox on, you get the picture… So when I had the chance to visit Lake Louise and participate in a Wim Hof workshop and work on these issues, I dove right in.
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Wim Hof workshop
My Wim Hof Workshop took place at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Here, they run a variety of wellness retreats each spring and fall. Their Wim Hof Method retreat was led by Cian Dalton, a certified Wim Hof Method Instructor. Cian is a former professional boxer and runs The Stretch Space in Vancouver. Carolyn Schmidt, a movement specialist, breath-work facilitator and former pro dance was a co-facilitator.
For those of you who don’t know what Wim Hof is, you may be in for a surprise. Wim Hof is a man, a Dutch extreme athlete AKA the Iceman, who’s able to withstand extreme temperatures. He’s developed the Wim Hof Method, a combination of cold exposure, breathing techniques and mindset, that helps people control their mind and body to achieve incredible things.
The cold water aspect of the Wim Hof Method gets the most attention, but really, breath is the anchor. One of the main areas of focus at this Wim Hof workshop was on breath work.
The breath work
The basic breathing method we learned was to inhale and exhale for 30-40 full breaths. You don’t have to hold these, just breathe in and out fully. After our final exhale, we held it – not taking in anymore air. I didn’t time it, so I’m not sure how long we held that for, but I’m guessing somewhere between a minute and two.
Our next inhale was to full capacity and we held that for about 10-15 seconds. Then we went back to breathing normally. That’s the end of of the round. Ideally you’d cycle through 3-4 rounds of breathing before exposing yourself to the cold.
It’s critical to breathe in a safe environment. I’m no instructor, so please check out this video before trying it for yourself.
I’ve done a bit of breath work with hot yoga, but the Wim Hof Method felt different. I could feel a tingling sensation inside. Apparently it’s normal for your body temperature to fluctuate as you get into a parasympathetic state, and at times I felt like I was shivering slightly internally.
Sometimes during this workshop, we did the breath work to music. That was helpful. You could feel the sound vibrations which made breathing to the beat easier. Each breath was conscious and connected. It was deeply relaxing.
Wim Hof cold therapy
As a wellness journalist, I investigate a fair number of therapies. Many don’t have the science to back up their claims. Fortunately, there’s a tonne of scientific research on the Wim Hof Method. Cold water therapy and breath work does work.
An easy example is if someone has a sprain. It’s widely accepted that putting ice on the injury reduces inflammation. Cold water is also known to improve circulation, and cold exposure causes stem cells to form brown fat instead of white fat, which can help burn excess body fat. Read more about that here.
So we know that a Wim Hof style of cold therapy is good for many of us (always consult your medical doctor before trying new therapies). Cold water therapy is simple to do. But it isn’t easy – at least it wasn’t for me.
Wim Hof retreat
Rest assured, on this Wim Hof retreat, we didn’t dive immediately into Lake Louise. As mentioned, there was breath work training and practice. And we had little jaunts outside to get more comfortable with the cold.
We stood outside in -15°C and practiced our breathing. Like many others, I ended up taking off my jacket and hat. Focusing on our breath and feeding off the energy of others made this seem not so difficult. We placed our hands in the lake for two minutes one night. Weirdly, that felt more difficult than submerging my body the next day.
Movement was also incorporated into our Wim Hof retreat. We stretched and did poses ranging from yoga to qigong. We were also frequently reminded to think about why we were doing this. What did we want to get out of the experience?
My reason came to me quickly. I was drawn to this retreat because I was repelled by it. Quite simply, I was afraid. But I couldn’t figure out why. Over the course of the weekend, it came to me.
I’m afraid of uncertainty. There’s the micro – I’m not sure I’ll be able to withstand the cold lake. On a macro-level, I’m afraid of the future. My future. I’ve realized I’m limiting myself because I’m afraid of taking risks and being open to new experiences.
This is frustrating because I used to have a much higher appetite for risk. I used to take more chances and not worry about achieving a perfect outcome. At the same time, I’ve realized I need to be gentler on myself. Sure, I’m more cautious now (having kids and a mortgage will do that to you), but I don’t need to beat myself up about it.
Realizing that I need to be kinder on myself before my first lake dip was important. It took the pressure off. Like when you do your first hot yoga class and the goal is to stay in the room. My goal was to simply to get in the water.
What the actual lake dip was like
Going in as a group was helpful. I didn’t manage to go above my chest. It was -17°C outside and the lake was 1°C. The hardest part was the first 20-30 seconds. People had stopped to watch, but I didn’t care.
Carolyn banged the drum (literally) and gave encouraging words. Cian reminded us to focus on the exhale and try to lengthen it. After a few breaths I was able to. We formed a circle and checked in with each other. At just the right moment, Cian had us doing breath work .
Then he asked us to join in an ancient Chinese saying. He started singing, “Who let the dogs out?” When you shout, “Who, who, who, who,” you’re actually doing those long exhale breaths. There was a method to the madness.
My brain was totally talking to me while walking into the lake, but once I was in, I didn’t think about the cold. I’m not sure what I was thinking besides, “you can do this!” I know I enjoyed myself though. At times I was laughing.
Initially I was worried I’d be gasping for air, or that my chronic bronchitis would kick in. (I forgot to bring down my inhaler.) That didn’t happen. My breathing was regulated thanks to the practicing we’d done before and Cian’s guidance in the water.
Getting out felt great. I wasn’t frozen. I felt so incredibly alive. My body tingled for several minutes after, but considering how cold it was, I couldn’t believe I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t even need to rush back inside immediately.
Those who wanted to, could get back in the lake on the second day of our workshop. That morning it was even colder at -25°C, but the lake temperature was the same at 1°C. The second time around felt easier, and I was able to meet my goal of going up to my neck.
This time we all faced the mountains. In all my years of coming here, I’ve never seen Lake Louise look so beautiful. The evergreens had a light dusting of snow upon them, like someone had just sieved icing sugar overtop. The lake, not yet frozen, was still turquoise, but held a deeper hue, one that was enhanced by puffs of ghostly fog wafting across the surface. It felt otherworldly.
After our plunge, we had a few hours off. Still buzzing, I went back to my hotel room at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and ordered room service. Doing a workshop at a Fairmont felt decadent, but deserving.
Eventually I had a bath, but I didn’t feel the need to warm up right away. I enjoyed the tingling and cool sensation still running through my body. Senses alert, I was energized, but calm. And deeply relaxed.
So relaxed, I tried to have a nap, but couldn’t. TV was out of the question. So was work. I had zero desire to lift the lid of my laptop. Instead, I rested. I literally did nothing. I just kept still.
Plunging into Lake Louise in the freezing cold certainly was an experience, but it was actually so much more than those intense few minutes. Through this Wim Hof workshop, I learned valuable tools I can easily and cheaply apply in my daily life. It costs nothing to practice breathing exercises or flip the shower to cold for the final few seconds.
Most significantly, I learned it’s OK to feel scared and uncomfortable with the unknown. It’s natural to want to feel like you’re in control. It’s normal to want to know what’s going to happen next. But what I took away from this experience was that even if I’m not certain about the outcome, I can still do the thing – whatever that is. I can be afraid, but dig deep and do it anyway – whether it’s wading into a freezing lake in winter or taking a risk with my job.
What I learned through this workshop is that I can probably handle it – whatever comes my way. And it probably won’t be as bad as I think. There’s just as much likelihood of something good happening. And if the situation does go belly up, fretting about it prior won’t help me if the worst does come to pass.
Shifting my mindset isn’t easy. It’s a conscious choice and something I’m going to have to work consistently on. Did I ever think I’d want to explore finding comfort in discomfort? Hell, no! But I’m up for the challenge.
Want to try it for yourself?
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise runs a wide variety of wellness retreats each fall and spring. (Their December Winter Inner Peace Retreat looks fab!)
- As a certified instructor, Cian runs other Wim Hof Methrod workshops and retreats throughout the year.
- Sessions led by certified Wim Hof instructors run around the world. Click here to find out when activities are scheduled in your region.
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