A Critique of Wim Hof Breathwork

First, I need to start by saying this: I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for Wim Hof the human being. 

If you’re not familiar with Wim, he’s the eccentric dutch man who’s become hugely popular in recent years for his genuinely groundbreaking practices using extreme cold exposure and breathwork to manipulate his metabolism, nervous system and immune system (and teaching thousands of others to do the same).

He essentially single-handedly provoked scientists to reconsider the question of whether the sympathetic nervous system and innate immune response might be accessible to voluntary influence (both were long considered by scientists to be wholly unavailable to direct conscious influence). See this 2014 research paper if you’re curious to learn more on this.

Generally when someone upends core fundamental assumptions of a hard science field, we’re talking about a bonafide genius. While I wouldn’t put Wim in the same category as an Alan Turing or Charles Darwin, his disruption of the neurobiology orthodoxy is a massive contribution.

My critiques are not even so directly of the breathing techniques Wim uses, as they clearly have utility in his system of practices.

The critiques below are of the manner and context in which these techniques are being taught, by Wim, yes, but mostly by countless other “breathwork instructors” of varying (and generally dubious) credentials.

1. Wim Hof Technique Is Nowhere To Be Found In Yogic Breathing (Pranayama)

Here’s how I view pranayama: 

The techniques we have today are the distillation of thousands of years of countless yogis sitting in caves experimenting with different breathing patterns to determine which techniques most reliably move the mind/body/nervous-system towards vitality, balance and - most importantly - peace.

So what are we to make of the absence of any technique resembling Wim Hof breathing from yogic texts?

If a breathing pattern or technique does not appear in yogic texts, there is one thing we know for certain - it’s not because it wasn't tried. 

If a technique fails to appear (particularly one as simple as Wim’s), it’s because it was experimented with thoroughly and determined NOT to move the nervous system towards balance and peace.

2. It’s Fundamentally An Aggravating Breath Pattern

In my view, the absence of Wim's technique from yogic texts points towards it having been determined to actually be counter to the aim of balance and peace with some frequency (if not in all cases).

Wim's technique is an intense one, and intense techniques are rarely, if ever, neutral in effect (and certainly not techniques involving the breath). Rather, Wim's breathing technique is (in most cases) an explicitly aggravating one.

This squares well with both my direct experience of Wim's techniques, and what I observed and heard reported by others when I've attended workshops teaching Wim's technique. I've attended many such workshops, although, admittedly none led by Wim himself (some were led by direct students of his, however).

Aggravating is not at all synonymous with "bad" or even "not useful". It is precisely because the technique is aggravating that it produces the novel psychic and emotional effects that Wim and others find useful.

One point to make here is that, while potentially useful in other contexts, if one's aim is a balanced and peaceful nervous system, a fundamentally aggravating technique like Wim's is not a good candidate for daily practice (certainly not when time-tested pranayama techniques are available).

The other point is that an aggravating technique like Wim's can open the door to many varieties of intense experience, such as...

3. This Aggravation Can (And Often Does) Bring Trauma To The Surface

While Wim's technique does not closely resemble any pranayama technique, there is a technique to which it is very similar: Holotropic Breathing.

Holotropic breathing was developed in the late 60's by Stanislav Grof, a  who had previously been doing research with LSD.  When LSD research was effectively made impossible to do legally with the substance's criminalization in 1968, Grof began looking for other ways to continue his research of the subconscious/unconscious mind.

This eventually led him to a cyclic breathing technique that he found to be quite effective in allowing subjects to access parts of their subconscious/unconscious psyches, including repressed traumas.

Holotropic breathing and Wim's technique are not identical, but they do share key elements: a cyclical, intensified breath with equal duration and emphasis on the inhale and exhale.

Given these similarities, it's predictable that the effects on the nervous system also tend to be quite similar, with potential emergence of repressed traumas very much on the menu.

There is one critical difference between Holotropic Breathwork and Wim Hof breathing, at least as it's commonly practiced...

4. Rarely Is Integration Or Support Available

Holotropic Breathwork is a therapeutic technique (almost always) used in a therapeutic context under the guidance and supervision of trained professionals. 

Uncomfortable experiences, including the emergence of repressed traumas, are expected, and the guides are present in large part to comfort the client and help them to work through and integrate the uncomfortable experiences when they arise. This dramatically increases the probability that the session will be productive and healthy, and doesn't reify past traumas or create new ones.

There are now many thousands of people worldwide guiding Wim Hof breathing sessions, and I would hope/assume that some number of them are in fact trained psychotherapists with adequate personnel present to support all of the participants.

Unfortunately, I can assure you that this is not the case for 99+% of Wim Hof breathing workshops (sometimes now called "psychedelic breathwork" or "DMT breathwork", etc).

I've attended Wim Hof breathwork workshops with 50+ people in a yoga studio. I even attended one where the "guide" was on a stage at a music festival, in front of thousands of people (in wildly varying psychopharmacological states, I'm sure).

At none of these was there anything approaching adequate personnel to support the participants (in either numbers or training). Given the possibility for traumatic experiences, this is downright reckless (moderately so in the case of the yoga studios, extremely so in the case of the music festival).

Predictably, at every one of these workshops, I saw multiple people having difficult/unpleasant experiences with no one on hand to help them work through it.

I don't want to give the impression that this was the common experience - I don't think Wim's techniques would have become so popular if that was the case! Without question, the majority of people at these workshops have a pleasant, even profound, experience.

But is it worth if for 47 people to have a pleasant, breathing-induced high if the other 3 in the room have potentially traumatic experiences? I can't imagine any ethically-inclined person would say yes.

This is particularly true because it's not necessary. There is certainly a place for Wim Hof's technique in the world, but that place is in therapeutic setting, not large workshops.

And, of course, if one wants a daily breathing practice that reliably beings the mind/body/nervous-system towards peace, yogis have been sitting in caves hard at work on this very project for many millennia.


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