Updated: Sep 5, 2019
What if I told you there was something you could do every day for free anywhere in the world that would help you think more clearly, sleep deeply, digest better, raise your metabolism, alkalize your body, release fresh red blood cells, lower inflammation, control stress, strengthen your immune system, increase stamina, AND it would only take 20 minutes every morning? Would you be willing to try it out?
During my treatment days I had a lot of free time on my hands. I received chemo from Wednesday to Friday and I was fasting from Tuesday to Friday while also trying to avoid seeing, smelling or being around food. I had difficulty retaining or understanding what I was reading so I would watch shows on Netflix or videos on Youtube instead. I watched some documentaries and stumbled across a Vice documentary called “Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman”. It was a 40 minute video about this crazy Dutch guy who swam in ice water, climbed snow peaked mountains in just shorts and boots, and even ran a marathon in the desert without drinking water. It said that he was able to teach anyone how to do these same things just by following a breathing technique and focusing on mental strength.
It was interesting but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was in the middle of treatment and wasn’t planning on climbing mountains or swimming in ice water any time soon, especially because the oxaliplatin chemo I was receiving made it impossible for me to be around anything cold. It felt like I was being electrocuted if I touched or drank anything that had been refrigerated so I didn’t feel it would be useful to me.
As time went on I kept hearing about Wim Hof from other survivors. They said they had been reading his book and using his technique and it made them feel really good. I could use something that made me feel good so I decided to give it a shot. By this time I had begun getting pretty severe nerve damage. The neuropathy was getting more and more intense. My resistance to the cold wasn’t the only issue; my hands were shaky, numb and didn’t work the way I wanted them to. I would have trouble holding glasses and got used to regularly knocking over drinks or spilling anything I was holding. I had a lot of experience metalworking and one day I tried to weld some plates together and it felt like I was doing it with someone else’s hands. It was a similar story for my feet.
The first time I tried the breathing technique I followed a video on Youtube and I noticed in the later rounds I began to feel tingling in my fingertips. I hadn’t felt anything in my fingers for a long time so that was a surprise to me. I didn’t think too deeply about it but having some kind of stimulation in my hands I figured had to be helpful. I decided I would continue the practice. I wasn’t as consistent with it at first but I noticed I felt better every time I did it. It wasn’t just the sensation in my hands. I noticed that I also felt less stress, my mind was clearer, and it gave me a bit of a euphoric sensation. Every time I would do it I would wonder why I wasn’t doing it more often.
So, without any intention or expectation, I began doing the method more consistently. My body felt like a mess and I eventually had to refuse taking the oxaliplatin because I was worried about having permanent damage. I started taking the technique more seriously after my treatment was complete.
I had always had difficulty meditating. There was so much chatter in my head and, at times, I would feel more stressed trying to calm those thoughts down than if I didn’t meditate. I noticed after the breathing, especially when done in the morning shortly after I woke up, my mind was the closest to quiet I had ever felt before. This was the beginning of a morning practice that I have continued doing to this day. Because I practice intermittent fasting I try not to eat past 6pm and I don’t eat until after 10am. This gives me plenty of time in the morning to do my little routine. I start every morning with the breathing technique and then, depending on what I feel I need, I will either meditate, stretch, jog or any combination of the 3 before I have my breakfast. What I’ve found now that I’ve been doing this for well over a year is that the days I start with this routine end up being my most enjoyable days. If I miss a few days whether from traveling or just not being consistent I feel my mood and my body suffer. After my routine I can have days where it feels like nothing is going right and I still enjoy the day. When I miss it I can have a day go really smoothly and I will be a little irritable by the end of the day.
The Wim Hof technique is mostly known for the ice baths. That seems to be the focus of most videos and articles I have read about it. The ice baths are wonderful for the body and mind but, as I mentioned before, during treatment I wasn’t able to be near anything cold. The breathing technique alone can do wonders. It is not so much the breathing but the lack of breathing that does the trick. You do 30-40 deep inhalations, getting in as much air as possible breathing through your nose, mouth or a combination of both. You are breathing in 100% and exhaling 70% with a light sigh to relieve the pressure in your lungs. You aren’t trying to hyperventilate but to force in as much oxygen to naturally lower your carbon dioxide levels.
When we feel the urge to breath it is not as much about needing oxygen as it is about releasing carbon dioxide. This is why when you have been holding your breath for a long time and you take a big breath in you don’t feel as much relief. After you exhale, take a second breath and exhale again is typically when you start to feel better. Our brains can tell if we are low on oxygen but it’s not something that we can register. We can however feel the build up of carbon dioxide. By doing these deep breaths we are forcing in oxygen deep into our cells, muscle fibers and throughout our body and lowering our carbon dioxide levels very low. This allows us a much longer time before we register that we need to remove carbon dioxide. If you were to exhale all the air out of our lungs right now you may be able to hold for 30 seconds before you feel an intense panicking feeling. After the first round of breathing it’s typical to be able to hold between a minute and a minute and a half.
The deep breathing also causes a fight or flight response. Our bodies are not used to receiving this much oxygen because typically we are shallow lung breathers. Humans generally get in just enough oxygen to stay alive. By continuing to breathe through this response you can work to help reset your natural stress responses. There’s no need to feel anxiety and panic when you miss a phone call or if we are late to work. You should feel anxious when a lion is chasing you! Since lions don’t typically chase the majority of the human population anymore, our brains have adapted to giving this panic feeling for normal, everyday things. This is a safe, controlled way to get natural bodily responses under control. It also allows you to become more aware of your breath. When you are feeling anxious, you are either holding your breath or at least taking shallow breaths. If you can become aware of this as you get anxious before a panic attack happens, you can calmly increase your breath and lower your nerves before they go haywire.
When you have this extended period without any air in the lungs your brain registers that something is wrong. Where did the oxygen go!? It puts your whole body on alert. It knows something is wrong so it gives us everything it can to get you through this assumed attack. Fresh red blood cells are released, your vessels dilate, and you get a release of adrenaline and dopamine. When you take in that first deep breath of air it supercharges this response. If you look at it like your body is creating a fire to protect you, you are adding oxygen to it and set it into a full blaze.
After 3 rounds of this you can feel things differently than you did before you started. As I already said, your mind will feel calm and quiet but your senses will also be heightened. Whereas before you may have heard birds in the trees after you done breathing you can tell which branches they are on. Your vision becomes more vivid. Your body heals faster and becomes stronger. If you can do 20 pushups before you do the breathing exercise you may notice you can do 25-30 easily after you are done breathing.
With continued practice your diaphragm will open up and you will be able to take in deeper breaths, allowing you to hold your breath longer and receive even greater benefits. Additionally breathing deeply with your diaphragm throughout the day instead of just shallow lung breathing will give an expansive movement in your lower back, greatly lowering back pain. Remember in school where you had to do wall squats and your legs were burning from staying in a squat position up against the wall? If you were to stand up and go back into the squat position over and over again you could hold for much longer periods before you felt any pain. This is the same principle for your back.
These benefits and so many more can be huge improvements to your health and well being before, during, and after cancer treatment. Having less stress and a calm mind will make every aspect of cancer treatment easier. Having your body recover faster and work at maximum efficiency will allow you bounce back and regain a more “normal” way of life. You can do it from the comfort of your home and no one is going to ask you for your insurance information or say it’s an out of pocket expense. It may even help you reduce the use of prescription pills. All you have to do, as Wim so eloquently puts it, is just “breath mother fucker”.