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Rediscovering the healing power of breathing in a masked-up world.
We’d all like to forget 2020. But in this exclusive book excerpt, we learn how to defend ourselves through the art and science of breathing.
As I step off the ice and enter the zero-degree water, a thousand hypodermic needles seem to simultaneously pierce my skin. Electricity jolts through my nervous system, slamming me into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Every muscle in my body has no choice but to tense up. I can barely breathe. But I’m not the only one.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) instructor tells me to do my best to relax, to focus on my breath and breathe deeply and slowly. Once I’m able to catch my breath again and slow it down, the cold no longer feels quite so bad. I relax, letting go of each tense muscle, one by one, until I feel like a jellyfish floating among the ice. Each time I re‑enter the water, I just focus on my breathing, relaxing and surrendering into the moment. Although the cold is never pleasant, it becomes strangely bearable.
Let me tell you how I got here.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination with trying to find answers to the big questions of life. What is the nature of reality? How did the universe come to be and why do we exist in it? I would often ask my parents these questions, hoping for answers. However, the most consistent response I received back was, “You think too much.” By the time I was 18, I had already read, watched, and listened to hours and hours of material on philosophy, spirituality, psychology, and personal growth. Yet when I reached my mid-twenties, I still felt like I was no closer to getting answers to any of my questions, which left me unsatisfied and unhappy.
I’d been working at an international consulting firm in Australia for nearly six years, with big visions of career progression, traveling the world, and enjoying all the material successes of working in a big firm. While I enjoyed some of the work and got along well with my colleagues, it became clear over the years of caffeine-fueled late nights in the office that doing 80-hour work weeks under fluorescent lights was not what I was supposed to be doing on this planet.
One of the greatest blessings I’ve received in my life is my parents, who are always ready to listen and give support where they can. After confiding my struggles to them, they gave me some sage advice: to take some time off work, leave my current routine and environment, and go somewhere completely different to clear my head. When you feel lost or stuck in a rut, getting distance from your regular environment allows you to leave the old patterns of thinking and feeling behind, making it easier to more clearly identify the problem points and what needs to change. This advice proved to be the turning point for the rest of my life to begin.
It just so happened that a good friend of mine had recently returned from a trip volunteering at orphanages in Peru. One evening we had dinner together and he shared many stories about his experiences. As he spoke, something inside me was telling me that this kind of experience of service to others in a different part of the world, in a different culture, was exactly the thing I should do at this stage of my life. I asked if he would help me arrange to volunteer at the same orphanages that he had worked at. Luckily, my boss agreed for me to take an indefinite sabbatical from my work and, in nine days, I was on a plane to Peru.
While on the plane, the anxiety of stepping into the complete unknown, leaving everything that I knew and was familiar with behind, hit me like a sledgehammer. My heart felt like it was about to beat out of my chest and I noticed how my breathing became rapid and erratic as my mind raced with all sorts of doubts, worries, and questions about what the hell I was doing. Despite this, my gut was telling me that this moment in my life would be like a crossroads and that, when I got back, nothing would be the same. This was a terrifying feeling, but I decided to surrender to it and embrace it. As I was going to a place where nobody knew me, this was an opportunity to put aside everything that I thought I knew about myself and start afresh.
When you feel lost or stuck in a rut, getting distance from your regular environment allows you to leave the old patterns of thinking and feeling behind...
I ended up spending nearly three months in Peru, volunteering and traveling around the country. The experience was transformative. Given the opportunity to be completely myself, without the expectations of people in my usual environment, I unfolded into a completely different person. Each morning, I’d wake up and say to myself, “Forget who you think you are!” By letting go of any ideas on how I would or should normally be, I’d often surprise myself at how differently I started to think, feel, or act. Even the way I laughed changed!
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Yet I knew that when I returned to my normal environment, I’d be under pressure to slip back into the old ways that had led to my unhappiness. (How many times have you gone on vacation and received inspiration to do something when you got home, but once you got back you forgot all about it?) Now, having reconnected with a part of myself that had long been ignored, my intuition was telling me that I was going to have to make some very big changes. And that if I didn’t do it quickly, I might succumb to my old ways.
In a moment of inspiration (or was it desperation?), within ten days of arriving home I quit my job, ended a long-term relationship, sold everything I owned except for a suitcase of clothes, and decided I wanted to leave Australia and move overseas. My parents were living in Hong Kong at the time and suggested I could stay with them until I worked out what my next move would be. With no better ideas, I moved to Hong Kong.
I really had no plan, no idea what I was doing. But I trusted my intuition and surrendered to the unknown. Again following my gut, I decided that I wanted to learn how to build websites and mobile apps. This ended up being an inspired decision.
Working for myself as a web developer gave me the flexibility for the journey that was about to come.
It was during this time that my family received some news that would rock us to the core. My dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that slowly breaks down the body’s nervous system, with no cure. What was particularly scary for us was that my grandmother also had MS, so our family had already seen firsthand how the disease can cripple someone. However, until the day she left us, my grandmother was the strongest and most positive person that I have ever met, and I still think of her whenever I need strength.
Since there was no set treatment plan for MS, my mom and I would scour the internet for any information or advice on anything that could be useful for Dad, from alternative treatments to lifestyle changes. It always amazes me how just one book, documentary, or podcast can completely change the course of your life. This is exactly what happened to me.
One day I was listening to a podcast, an interview with a man named Wim Hof, a fascinating Dutch man commonly referred to as “the Iceman.” He holds more than twenty world records related to cold exposure activities, including staying submerged in an ice bath for close to two hours and climbing Mount Everest to an altitude of about 22,000 feet, wearing only shorts.
In this podcast, Wim talked about a method he’d developed through his own experiences that was fantastic for anyone’s physical and mental health. But what caught my attention was his specific point that the method was effective in helping people with autoimmune diseases, including MS. Intrigued, I started to research exactly what the Wim Hof Method (WHM) was all about. I discovered that it was based on two main elements: cold exposure activities, such as cold showers and ice baths; and breathing techniques. Could something as simple as taking a cold shower and doing specific breathing techniques every day really help my dad? I was excited.
With nothing to lose, I spoke to my dad the next day to see if he wanted to try it. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hey, Dad.
Dad: Hey, Rich.
Me: Check this out. This Dutch guy called “the Iceman” says that if you take a cold shower and breathe every day, it will really help you with your MS.
Dad: Are you suggesting that taking cold showers and breathing a bit will cure my MS?
Me: Well . . . yeah . . .
Me: Oh, um, never mind.
Looking back, I can see how I was coming across as absolutely insane, suggesting that breathing and a bit of cold water could tackle a problem that modern medical practices hadn’t been able to fix! But for some reason my intuition was screaming at me, saying this was important. After a little more research, I discovered I could attend a week-long WHM training course in Poland during the winter. I would learn the technique and do all the crazy cold- elated stunts that Wim did. So I decided to send myself on a reconnaissance mission. I’d go to Poland and find out what this was really about. If I found it useful, maybe Dad would be more willing to try it for himself one day.
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Three months later, I find myself standing barefoot on the ice, at the foot of a frozen-over waterfall in Poland. It’s 21 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m wearing only shorts and trying really hard to not die. The WHM instructor facilitating this part of the training tells us that we’re going to do an exercise where we submerge ourselves in the 32-degree water for a few minutes, then come out and try to warm up naturally, using a series of movements he calls “horse stance,” while still standing, soaking wet, on the ice. And we aren’t just going to do this once, or twice, but three times in a row.
After the third round of swimming in the ice water, I step back on to the ice and notice something very strange. I’m not cold. In fact, I feel boiling hot, like I’m back on a beach in Australia in the middle of summer. I’ve heard stories of lost mountain climbers later being found with all their clothes off. The first stage of hypothermia can be that you feel extremely hot, even though you’re freezing to death. So, right away, my mind jumped to the worst conclusion. “Well, I guess that’s it, I’ve got hypothermia. I’m going to be that guy that ruins the training for everyone!”
So I approach the closest WHM instructor and ask him, “I’m not cold, I think I’m starting to sweat—what’s happening to me?” The instructor gives me a big smile and says, “Rich, look at your shoulders!” When I turn to look at my shoulders, steam is coming off my back. I look back at my instructor, shocked. He simply proceeds to explain how the body is capable of so much more if we just let it. By focusing on relaxing and letting go in the ice water, the body is allowed to do whatever it needs to do to survive. Take Wim, himself. To keep his core body temperature stable during his stunts, he has been measured as increasing his metabolism by nearly 300 percent. Something similar has likely just happened to me.
This was just one of the many perspective-shifting experiences I had during my week in Poland. We hiked wearing only shorts, barefoot in the snow that sometimes came up to our knees. We even climbed the tallest mountain in Poland, braving whipping wind and snow, wearing only our shorts. At the top, it got down to -2 degrees.
These experiences in extreme cold were incredible, but for me the most profound moment of the entire training was on the first day, when I experienced Breathwork for the very first time.
Breathwork is when you intentionally become aware of your breath and use it to improve your physical and mental health and performance and emotional well-being.
I’ll come back to this definition later. For now, let me tell you that you will never forget the first time you do a deep Breathwork session. I didn’t.
As a group, we went down into the basement of the hotel where we were staying. We lay down on the ground and, for about 45 minutes, performed a sequence of breathing techniques aimed at creating big changes to our physiology and big shifts in how we thought and felt.
Whether it was the physical sensations of buzzing and vibration through the body or the experience of various emotional states—from bliss and euphoria to feelings of power and strength—or me, it was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life.
After the session was over, I was filled with such a sense of peace, clarity, and confidence that my life was exactly where it needed to be and that everything was going to be perfect. It was as though every doubting thought had been silenced, leaving only a blissful sense of calm. I remember asking myself, “How is it possible that I can feel this good just by breathing? Why doesn’t everybody know about this?” Little did I know that the first seed had been planted of what would direct my life for many years to come.
After returning from Poland, I showed Dad the photos and shared stories of my experience. He agreed to try it. Today, my dad practices Breathwork and takes cold showers daily. This, in combination with a change in diet, has stopped any progression in his MS for years.
My experience in Poland, and seeing how breathing was helping my dad, ignited a passion in me to find out what else people were doing using their breath. Over the following years, I traveled the world to seek the teachings of anyone who was doing something interesting with breathing. My fascination has taken me across five continents, spending time and learning with yogis, Breathwork masters, doctors, researchers, therapists, physical therapists, and elite athletic coaches.
I’ve continued to witness the transformative effects of what happens when people learn to use their breathing as a tool to create massive change in their physical, mental, and emotional states. That’s what we call Breathwork.
In this technique, you’ll exhale for longer than you inhale and pause briefly after the exhale. Studies have shown that by extending the exhale to be longer than your inhale, you can significantly increase the level of activity in your vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the ANS, which in turn will activate your relaxation response.
I call this technique 5pm breathing because 5 p.m. is supposed to be that joyous moment where some of us get to knock off work, relax, and let our hair down. It also stands for 5 breaths per minute and is designed to help you wind down and de‑stress your internal systems.
From EXHALE by Richie Bostock, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Richie Bostock. Buy Now: penguinrandomhouse.com
>>Next: Places to Exhale Around the World
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