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Cold comfort? What I learned from a weekend retreat of ice baths and Wim Hof breathwork

Being a lifelong swimmer and cold dip convert in recent years, I figured it would be great to get to know a little more about what the Wim Hof Method is all about and what benefits it can offer.

Held at the Ecopark in Porthtowan by SoulSweats, the retreat brought together a spectrum of wellbeing activities including yoga, meditation, sauna and nature immersion alongside nourishing food which all complimented the more hardcore aspects of the weekend perfectly.

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Porthtowan Ecopark. @altantic_surf_photography

Certified Wim Hof instructor Sam introduced the method, explaining that it’s an accessible way for people to become stronger, healthier and happier through daily breathwork, cold exposure and commitment, as everyone needs some degree of physical or mental healing. Ultimately the method is all about reconnecting with ourselves, others and nature to realise our full potential.

We launched straight in to the first breathwork exercise after a brief introduction so that we could see for ourselves the effect it can have. It consists of 30-40 deep breaths into the belly and chest with a relaxed exhale, before a final breath hold and recovery breath. I’ve practiced this type of breathing – also called Tummo breathing – before so knew what to expect, and felt the familiar tingling hands, light-headedness and muscle twitching before total calm.

We delved deeper into the breathwork theory later in the day, before a warming yoga flow got us prepared for the cold exposure with lots of core activation (and I tried not to watch the ice being unleashed into the barrel outside!).

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Porthtowan from above. @altantic_surf_photography

It was fascinating to look deeper into the science behind the method. We talked about the benefits of nose and belly breathing, as well as the profoundly positive effects of hormetic stress (exposing your body to stress in a controlled way for it to react and strengthen) on the nervous system.

Over the course of the weekend we also watched videos which explained the scientific studies conducted on Wim, including the groundbreaking endotoxin study, where Wim and others he trained in the Method were able to influence their immune responses to avoid illness.

To prepare us for the first ice bath, we gathered in a circle to practice breathwork and brown fat activation exercises. One by one we entered the ice bath, whooping each other on before rejoining the circle of lobster-red bodies doing the horsedance pose to stay warm after two minutes in the 1.6C water.

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Just about managing a smile for my first ice bath! @altantic_surf_photography

When my turn came around I took a deep breath and stepped in to the barrel, hearing the clacking of the ice and slowly submerged myself up to my shoulders. With Sam’s guidance and as I usually do when getting into cold water, I focused on elongating my exhale and soon my breathing became calm and controlled. It was strange to feel the water around me completely still, and after 30 seconds or so I started to really relax into it.

Lobster tans all round, we were glad of SoulSweat’s unique addition of a mobile sauna to hop into afterwards and felt the buzz of endorphins before dunking in the ice bath a second time. We de-thawed and tucked in to chef Kate’s thoughtful and warming vegan dinner, then eased into the evening with a yoga nidra class.

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Our Sunday morning wake-up dip. @altantic_surf_photography

The highlight of the next day was a dip in the sea after a mindful walk to the beach. Some of the group hadn’t been in the sea in over 10 years, but once in we were all united in being pummelled by the waves and laughing at each other’s bodysurfing moves.

I had a taste of what makes people so dedicated to the Wim Hof Method. It’s powerful stuff and everyone takes something different from it, but ultimately the same overarching benefit applies: that it feels good to push your limits and to come out stronger for it. It’s something that unites most of us cold water swimmers – that feeling of bliss when you breathe through the cold and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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Post-dip buzz at the beach. @altantic_surf_photography

Just like cold dipping, being part of an encouraging group made the experience all the more enjoyable and I came away with a renewed sense of groundedness and appreciation for what my body is capable of.

Anyone interested in learning more can visit the Wim Hof Method website or youtube for free guidance, and the SoulSweats website to check out upcoming workshops and retreats.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.