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"Is it like the Wim Hof Method?"

It probably isn’t surprising that we’ve been asked a few times if the breathing work we do is like the Wim Hof Method. Both the man and his method have gained in popularity with many practising his techniques and many others having at least heard of them, either in the context of cold water exposure or the breathwork he promotes. Now that the Scott Carney video* is out in the public domain, we feel that this is an appropriate time to answer the question more formally. As neither of us has any direct experience of the Wim Hof Method, we’re placing the emphasis here on what we do and how it may contrast and overlap with WHM practices.

Anyone who engages with us with respect to our Breathing Re-education programs and classes will be getting precisely that: information and training and motivation to re-establish functional day-to-day breathing. It may, or may not, be surprising to learn that many of us have disordered breathing, characterised by various patterns but primarily fast, upper chest and mouth breathing. The people we work with come either in response to a health condition they would like to resolve or alleviate, or as a means of improving their mental and, or physical performance.

Many of those who undergo breathing re-education for health reasons will need to proceed gently, at least at first. Two recent students of ours, for example, needed to avoid all strong breath hold exercises at least initially. The health conditions in these instances were Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Long Covid. Any extreme exercise could have led to a worsening of symptoms and in the case of one of them, increased the already present anxiety. This alone points to a major consideration: anyone coming to us whose breathing is sub-optimal, even if their objective is simply to increase exercise performance may well have additional health considerations. If dysfunctional breathing is present, optimal health is pretty much impossible which is why we proceed first with caution.

But hasn’t the Wim Hof Method been successful for many people, even those with certain health conditions? The answer is clearly yes, and we’re not looking to say otherwise. We are, however, saying that the breathing re-education programs we draw on, Buteyko Breathing and Oxygen Advantage, can and do achieve many of the same results, albeit maybe more slowly, but with significantly reduced potential for damaging or even fatal outcomes. The latter may be a particular issue for those who effectively devise their own approach based on the hype of the WHM, rather than fully investigating what can happen physiologically when hyperventilation breathing techniques and water immersion are combined. Hyperventilation and breath holding can and do interfere with the timing of the body's natural reflex to breathe such that a breath hold can last not just seconds, but minutes during which time oxygen levels drop but the message to resume breathing is delayed. If even a relatively shallow amount of water is part of this scenario, drowning can result.

Whilst water immersion isn't a part of our programs, breath holding may be as long as the holds are either very short, or are taught only to those whose health status at the time means the practices are suitable and likely to precipitate useful adaptations rather than cause harm. Our trainer for both Buteyko and Oxygen Advantage, Patrick McKeown issues the following warning:

“Hyperventilation and breath holding are very powerful exercises designed to temporarily disrupt the body’s balance to trigger adaptations. They are not suitable during pregnancy or for anyone with serious health conditions including diabetes, sleep apnea, epilepsy, anxiety, panic disorder or cardiovascular issues.”

Additionally, all of the breath hold exercises we use involve holding the breath on the exhale rather than the inhale which re-trains the body’s response to excessive breathlessness without the temporary blunting of the reflex to breathe.

As for hyperventilation, we don’t include it in any of our programs (it is incorporated into some other Oxygen Advantage programs where, for example, a high level of sporting fitness is involved). Both hyperventilation and breath holding are stressors, up-regulators, and can certainly serve a very useful purpose for certain people, but for those very many people whose breathing has become dysfunctional, restoring optimal breathing patterns is of paramount importance if they are to reduce their anxiety, sleep better, reduce breathlessness (including asthmatic breathing) and perform better both mentally and physically day to day. This means that even if they are able to use the up-regulating exercises, it is essential that they know how to down-regulate afterwards. In fact, we believe that anyone at any stage should know about down-regulating after a stressor. Making it part of the training means that responding to stressful life events can become less fraught as the body is increasingly familiar with the experience of down-regulating after a stressor.

As already stated, Graham and I know too little about Wim Hof and his method from a perspective of personal experience to pass judgement on what we have seen in the video previously referred to. What we do know as a result of our work, including the nutrition education side of our work, is that too many people are stressed, anxious and sleeping badly owing to the nature of what now passes for ‘normal life'. We feel there is an urgency to address this, hence our motivation to work as breathing coaches, not to mention the transformations we’ve witnessed in ourselves.

If you would like to accompany us on this part of our mission, we have a new Facebook page and a new Instagram page. Both are called The Vegan Breathing Coaches (to emphasise who we are). We’d love you to join us there and become more familiar with the overlooked magnificence of breathing.

~Annette Henry

*Scott Carney is an American journalist and author. Despite his passion and appreciation for what he has learnt from Wim Hof, he has concluded more recently that all is not right with respect to Hof and his Company, Innerfire, and he’s therefore making every attempt to expose what he sees as the truth, including risk-to-life practices. He's doing this primarily via an hour long video which he has posted on various platforms called The Rise and Fall of the Wim Hof Method.

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