Wim Hof on Love, Grief, and Cold Water
Wim Hof might be superhuman (although he’ll tell you otherwise). His method of active breathwork, third eye meditation, and cold exposure has allowed him to accomplish what appear to be impossible feats of mind over matter, like running a barefoot marathon in the desert and keeping his body temperature stable in freezing weather conditions. It’s no secret we’re fans: We sent goop staffers to Tahoe to train with him for our Netflix series, The goop Lab. We’ve practiced his breathwork and downloaded his app. We have our eyes locked on the emerging
research on how his method might affect immune
health. And next we’ll be binge-reading his new
book: The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential.
Hof’s book is part memoir, part research log, part instructional manual. At times, it’s a striking mix of all three. The excerpt here—in which Hof recounts how he met his wife, Olaya; lost her to suicide; and found stillness in cold water—is one of those moments.
Why the Cold Is a Noble Force
Beatrixpark in Amsterdam sat roughly a quarter mile from my home and I would go there every day, like a ritual, to charge myself up—into the cold water but also into myself. I would go to a spot between two willow trees and I’d look out at the water and feel its presence. Once I entered the water, I’d charge myself up through my breathing, feeling at first a pleasant tingling sensation but then intensifying, as if my body was a beam of electricity. Once I was beneath the water, I would hear nothing at all. I would feel nothing but a deep sense of peace. It was like rebirth. I’d remain there beneath the water at first for one minute, then two, three minutes, building up to four minutes without breath, and when the real need for breathing came, I’d just pull myself easily out of the water. Remaining in the mind, not cold or shivering at all, just being. I’d come out, get dressed, and do my exercises right there by the waterside, completely in control and within myself. It was like my body had gained an untold power. And the more I did it, the stronger this power became.
It was within my awakening to this power that I met the woman I would marry. I was at a gathering at a friend’s home and saw her dancing. She was so beautiful. Long curly hair, bright eyes, full lips, just lovely. There she was dancing right in front of me, and I was mesmerized. Just absolutely transfixed. She told me her name, Olaya. When we were together, it was as if we existed outside of bounds of time—in the pure emotion of the moment. That’s how I remember it, at least.
After about a year, Olaya had to return to her home in Spain, to Basque country. She was gone for about five months, and I grew lonely without her. Then one day a letter arrived, and it said that she was nearly six months pregnant. So I did what anyone in my situation would do. I went immediately to the rail station and boarded a train headed for Paris. And from Paris to Pamplona. In those days, there weren’t any mobile phones, and she had left me no phone number to call. All I had was the letter. But I was on my way, straight as an arrow; I was going to be a father, and my heart swelled with pride.
Enahm was a happy baby, very agreeable, laughing all the time. You know what I did with him? From a tender age, I began taking him into the cold water. Just a quick dip—no ice swimming! He would gasp at first, startled, and then he would laugh and laugh. He emanated so much energy for such a little thing. We had a great time with him. We didn’t worry about this or that as many new parents do. We were not inhibited in any way in our love for him. And when you have a great time with your baby and the baby is growing nicely, growing strong and happy, the idea of a second baby—and a third and a fourth—makes sense. Even when you have no money. So that’s what we did.
We named the second baby, a daughter, Isabelle. Isa for short. She was a truly beautiful baby, with the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. And then her sister, Laura, and brother Michael, who came soon after. Laura had the biggest eyes you could ever imagine on a baby, and we named Michael after Michael Jackson, the American pop star. I loved Michael Jackson’s music back then, and I still do.
By 1995 we were living in Spain—my wife, four children, and I—and encountered some difficult times. Not only did I have little money, but Olaya’s mental state began to deteriorate. A darkness, a shadow, had begun to take shape and was gaining momentum. She had always been so open, extroverted, always talking, an absolute unique being. It’s very difficult to see someone you love dwelling in darkness and sinking deeper and deeper into it. I never knew which Olaya I would get. One day she’d be a great mother, and everything would be wonderful, but on other days, she would stay in bed and refuse to engage.
Further and further down Olaya spiraled. Pills and injections, therapy, none of them could stem her descent into darkness. I tried my best to be there for her because she was the mother of my children, the love of my life. I still loved her madly, but there was little I could do. She was terrorized by her own mind. I needed to be strong for our children, to maintain as stable an environment for them as I could. And I did. We had actually a good time. We had our little nest, and we filled it with love, but the Olaya I knew was gone.
The breathing and the cold really helped me deal with the stress, allowed me to let go, and at least in my mind, be free. My method became a practice and then a ritual as I struggled to find a place for myself and my family within a society that was largely insensitive to our plight. The children and I loved Olaya deeply, but we could no longer rely on her so we learned instead to depend on ourselves and on each other. The older children had to grow up faster than I would have liked.
That summer I was leading trips into the canyons, and it made sense to have the children nearby, where they could be looked after by Olaya’s family. I was on the job one day when I got a telephone call from Olaya’s brother telling me that she had jumped from the eighth story, having kissed our children goodbye moments before.
I went directly back to Pamplona, and her father took me to see her. I saw her face, and it had been liberated of its shadow. The darkness had lifted. The demon, the terror was gone. Whatever it was that had split within her brain was gone. She had achieved peace and despite my heartbreak, in a way so did I. I felt Olaya’s presence from up in the ethereal hemisphere and knew that she could see that I was doing well with our children. The love and emotion were still there—they still are to this day—well preserved, strong, and alive.
Do you know what healed me? The cold water. It brought me back into reality. Instead of being guided by my broken emotions toward stress and sorrow, the cold water led me to stillness. Stillness of the mind. That gave my broken heart a chance to rest, restore, rehabilitate. And that’s the way it went. The children made me survive, and the cold water healed me. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the cold water made me survive, and my children gave me the strength to heal myself. They gave me a purpose to live and to be present for them 100 percent. When you go into the cold water, you’re no longer thinking about your mortgage, your next meal, your emotional baggage. You’re not caught up in your thoughts. It’s freezing, and you’re just surviving. That brought me to a place where I could heal. I loved my children deeply, and they were my salvation.
It was then that I first understood the true benefits of the cold water, breathing techniques, and positive mindset I was employing. So, I made a method out of them, in the hope that others could benefit from them as I had. That was twenty-five years ago, and the method has evolved a lot since then, but its original spark is still with me. Like the memory of my dear, sweet love, Olaya, I carry it with me wherever I go.
Adapted from The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential by Wim Hof (Sounds True, October 2020)
Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete and Guinness World Record setter known for his ability to withstand extreme cold for long periods of time. Hof developed the Wim Hof Method, a protocol for mind-over-body mastery that consists of breathing exercises, cold therapy, relaxation techniques, and commitment. He hosts Wim Hof Method trainings and retreats worldwide and works alongside scientific research groups to illuminate how his methods work and might be applied for human health. Hof is the author of The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential.
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