The Wim Hoffers

The Wim Hoffers

It is said, the life force in our bodies, our energy, our being and our mental and emotional states, are resting in our breath. It is what fellow adventurers, Shikhar Malhotra and Vikas Sagar, traversed across the world to do – to take a breath. A first person account of their incredible journey is documented below. Their excitement is palpable and morethan that, remarkably infectious and endearing.

The search for Wim Hof, who has several world records under his belt for doing superhuman feats with cold exposure and has become hugely popular in the West, first after walking a barefoot marathon in the Arctic Circle and then for introducing his unusual methods of breathing to the world. His method is built on three pillars: Conscious Breathing, Cold Exposure and Mindset/Intention. It is a method that is said to have given people some profound experiences and this was Vikas and Shikhar’s new victory.

Shikhar Malhotra: Vikas and I run and bike together and it was during one of our peripheral conversations that we touched upon ice baths, something neither of us had really experienced. We may have taken the occasional plunges in Gangotri but never a proper ice bath. For me, the best approach was to dive right in rather than gradually work up to it. So, in August, I messaged Vikas, ‘Listen, I’ve signed up for the Wim Hof event in Poland’. He replied just fifteen minutes later, ‘Well, so have I now’. And that was the day we decided to push our limits.

The Wim Hoffers Shikhar Malhotra

Shikhar Malhotra

Vikas Sagar:
There were about four hundred people that had signed up for this experience in this super bizarre looking hotel that’s straight out of the Soviet era—although the hotel was built only like ten years ago. It has massive hallways, even bigger ballrooms, volumetric; it felt very unusual. The people from Wim Hof’s team had this really mystique aura about them. They wouldn’t tell us what the plan was until the morning of that day itself. The team told us, ‘Wim is unpredictable like the weather’.

SM: Even when we bumped into him in the lift, we immediately sensed his super high energy. On day one, they broke us up into twenty different groups of roughly twenty people and essentially your next five days were just with those twenty. We were lucky to have found a great group. And these four hundred people came from many different nationalities—lot of Europeans, few Asians, a lot of people from South America, Australia as well. Everyone had lived different journeys and came from different walks of life and were looking for this experience to be a fulfilling aspect of their life.

After they made our groups, the day began with a breathing session for about forty five minutes. The concept is to embrace breathing as your ally, allowing it to consume you. Our group sessions, set to the rhythmic beats of drums, guitars and songs, were guided by the soothing voices of our instructors. A forty minute cycle of hyperventilation and breath-holding propelled our minds into a trance-like state. We witnessed people overcome with emotion, some crying, deeply moved by the experience—an overwhelming surge of joy and serenity throughout the body.

Everyday once we were back, there would be windup sessions. Around three times our days culminated in a session with Wim. He would do this masterclass of breathing andshare a lot of his philosophy. That’s about four hundred souls packed in a room breathing in unison. It is actually quite a sight to see and quite a powerful experience. Then some downtime followed by dinner. By then we would be completely zapped and ready to call it a day.

The Wim Hoffers Vikas Sagar

Vikas Sagar

VS: We would also do breathing in our small group. Then, we would do cold exposure and then the third thing in the day was an interaction with Wim—who would either do a Q&A or just a joint breathing session. For our first exposure, we gathered around in monolithic tubs, not inflatable but rigid, filled with water that soon turned into an icy grave as we plunged seventy bags of ice, each weighing ten kilos, into their depths.

SM: The challenge was set: submerge in the frigid embrace of four degree centigrade waters. Ten souls at a time, unprepared for the biting cold that seized our very core. The goal was simple yet daunting—endure for three minutes.

VS: Instructors were patrolling around us and kept us engaged by making us do the horse stance, breathing while squatting to keep the blood flowing. Every group that emerged victorious joined the rhythmic movement which was a collective effort to reclaim warmth. Then it was our turn. The water was a shock and completely brutal. 

SM: Vikas is being incredibly humble about it. It was a breeze for him—the first three minutes. He may have felt brutal on the inside but he certainly didn’t show it. He entered a trance—he didn’t flinch even once.

I, on the other hand, was not so composed. My legs refused to bear the chill. But the spirit of camaraderie was infectious. Encouraged by the collective energy of four hundred souls chanting in unison, I found the courage to re-enter the icy waters. I completed the trial, the only one to have faltered and fought back to finish. They say it’s rare for one to return once they’ve come out but the support and the sight of Vikas and other people enduring, fuelled my resolve. When I emerged from the pool, the cold clung to me like a second skin, the stone beneath my feet sapping what little warmth I had left. It took hours for sensation to return to my toes.

VSAmong us were four Indians, not particularly devout, yet in the face of such extremity, every Sanskrit prayer we knew was chanted.

SM: I remember this; whenever I feel my end is near, my default setting is to chant Gayatri Mantra.

The Wim Hoffers

: On the second day, we faced the mountain’s call. Clad in mere shorts and boots, we defied the chill that nipped at two to three degrees, embarking on a trek up Mount Snezka that spanned a formidable sixteen kilometres.

SM: It was really nice walking in a group and was shockingly pleasant. We were expecting the worst. It was a different feeling—walking in a group, humming songs, just burning that energy walking uphill. Again, there was no real specific technique, except for just reminder to continuously keep breathing. Halfway through, the instructor told us to carry snowballs in our hands. We carried it for at least thirty minutes until it completely melted in our hands. Hands were like stone cold once again. Some of the stuff came surprisingly easy to us. I think that happened because we did not limit our own physical capabilities in our mind. As we reached the summit, we had a nice meal at a classic ski caféto celebrate what we had achieved and then we walked back.

: On the third day, we went to a river that’s close to the hotel. It was a stunning spot. The river is quite shallow. They make you walk right into the middle of the river and askyou to sit on a rock and you stick your hands in the water with it. It’s pretty brutal because the cells in your hands and feet are the most sensitive to the cold. We did just the hands on the first day to avoid an ambush but doing hands and feet together was very hard.

SM: The water is two degrees that leaves absolutely no sensation in your hands and feet at all. For the tourist around, it looked like we are in a circus act because we were doingthis for five to ten minutes while they couldn’t keep their hands in for mere two minutes.

The Wim Hoffers

: But then came the hardest day for me. It was about a twenty minute bus ride from the hotel where we saw Wim playing music on his little drum. You get to take a photo with him and then each group essentially goes in the water—there’s a waterfall and a pool below it, with the river gushing out from there. Shikhar truly was the star of the day.

SM: It is a flowing river and is basically ice melt. When you walk into the pool, there’s a layer that forms around your body because of which you still get a little bit of warmth.You’re stepping on rocks that are unstable and very cold. That’s because it is flowing water that takes all the heat away from your skin. It is pure torture.

I was super blessed that I knew some people on this trip. There were three kinds of travellers on this experience—firstly, there were fitness enthusiasts and influencers who are super fit. The world is moving to an alternate kind of healing; an alternate kind of fitness and Wim Hof is up there. People had flown in from around the world to capture their experience. The next were people like Vikas and all the others who’ve done stuff like this before. And then there is the bottom one third of the category; where I put myself. I was new to all of this and it was a struggle. There were people who were struggling, along with people who were doing it like a real breeze. I was shaken when I saw this waterfall. It was a really cold day. Plus, the pressure was immense since we were the last group to do it and had seen everyone succeed at it. I went into fight or flight mode. I channelled an inner, aggressive version of myself that I don’t see very often. I told myself not to fight but just to breathe through it and I came out of it feeling like a million bucks. Also, the union kept us going. We formed a human chain; the camaraderie was palpable. The silence that could have been our adversary was instead filled with the primal beat of drums played by Wim himself. Ten minutes in the water can seem like eternity but there was a rhythmic appeal to the entire thing.

VS: There is a crazy phenomenon called ‘afterdrop’ that the body goes through after one has been in cold water for more than ten minutes. When you’re in it, your body shuts down circulation to your skin, pooling warm blood in your core. This process helps you to stay in the water longer; with reduced circulation to your peripheral skin. But when you exit the water, the cooling process does not stop straight away. Even dry on the banks, this cold layer of skin and muscle continues to cool your core, bringing on shivering. A lot of people experienced ‘afterdrop’ and were feeling the after effects of the cold. We walked back to the bus through a beautiful forest. It was a tough day. We had a comforting meal of amazing pizza and pasta, which was so satisfying.

SM: Yes, the walk back felt like I was walking on stumps because I couldn’t feel my toes at all.

: The last day started with a breathing session again in the morning. And then we did a long plunge similar to the first day where we got back into the same tub and were told that we can do it as long as we like. It was followed by a final session that was very moving. 

VS: Yes, the penultimate session was extremely powerful. Something happened to me in that session. I had tears flowing and felt like I was in some different place. I don’t know what happened. I still haven’t processed it.

Personally, for me, it was just a great reminder that our body is an amazing instrument and we understand it so little. We don’t understand its full capacity and just need the right triggers to keep exploring it. It opens you up and excites you to do more. Now, I want to ride more, climb more, do more cold exposures. I want to keep pushing the limits and that was really inspiring for me. In hindsight, that was maybe the reason or the purpose that I got excited about it.

SM: I was petrified on the days leading up to our journey there. A couple of months before going, I got Covid and it affected my heart rate. I was concerned going into it but it helps immensely when you’re there because of the incredible company.

VS: If you’re afraid when you sign up, it’s perfectly okay. You imagine you’re going there as an individual. But actually, it’s a super collective experience and the energy that gets added to you will be a pleasant surprise that helps you get through it all. The experience has a long afterburn so the effects of it last for a long time.

SM: You will see the best version of yourself when you’re there. It is humanity at its best because they are helping each other without any judgements. Everyone is just focused on the experience and apart from that, nothing matters. They don’t care what you are or where you come from or about your accomplishments. Nobody’s really talking about their accomplishments or what they do or anything like that. Everyone’s focusing on the experience. A taste that stays with you long after you leave. A once in a lifetime experience.

Words Shikhar Malhotra and Vikas Sagar
Edited by Hansika Lohani
Image Courtesy Wim Hof Method