The Escape From Torpor

Free your mind and body with Cold Exposure

One January 1, I will swim 1.25 miles from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore with Jon Connors as part of an effort to regenerate the planet, starting with ourselves.

The guards at Alcatraz used to tell the prisoners this was impossible —they said that they would freeze, drown, get eaten by sharks, or all three.

Challenge accepted.

I’ve been preparing for this for months without knowing what I was preparing for. Now that I know, I am intensifying my training and including more cold exposure and breathing meditations.

My hope is to do the swim without a wetsuit (what do I look like, shark bait?), with fins, and using the MovNat efficient swimming techniques to complete the endurance test. The most exhausting part will be keeping my body warm.

A while back, I got a free PDF of Wim Hof’s book, The Way of the Iceman, which teaches a method of cold exposure training that allows a person to control their response to the cold and elevate their body temperature through intense focus and breathing. The book starts with a definition of the word “torpor.” Torpor is the affluence-induced sluggishness and complacency that so many suffer from due to the evolutionary mismatch between our modern lives and the much more active lifestyles of our ancestors.

We’ve constructed a prison far more constraining than Alcatraz, because it is a prison of our own making. We’re captives to comfort and convenience, but we can leave at any time if we just learn to ignore the proverbial guards’ scare tactics.

The average adult spends over 10 hours in front a screen. Virtual reality has trained us to over-invest in the mental faculties of the neocortex — the most recently evolved part of the brain — at the expense of bodily intelligence.

The comfort and safety of modern life has also made us sicker. To solve the crisis of sedentarism, we must tap into our bodies’ evolutionary genius. The field of epigenetics teaches us that we can awaken ancient genetic codes “written” to help our much more resilient ancestors survive in an unimaginably hostile world.

Early humans endured everything from searing sun to freezing frost— all thanks to hidden genes that only kick into gear when needed.

The body needs stresses to grow and maintain health. To activate these hidden gene switches, we have to work through our evolved instinct to flinch in the face of pain and discomfort.

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The MVMNT Tribe at Berkeley’s South Sailing Basin

The cold exposure commitment

“If you are thinking, you cannot perceive the immediate present, simple as that. Conscious thought exudes an inky film that blurs the perception of reality… At some point the clenched fist must unclench.” — Wim Hof, *The Way of the Iceman*

“The Cold — merciless and righteous,” writes Wim “Ice Man” Hof, is severe. We must take the plunge. Commit!

Before you can take the plunge, your mind and body must unite in agreement. The plunge itself is the single action — the switch — that causes a cascade of health benefits, from reducing inflammation to storing and burning the right kinds of fat.

Hof and the doctors who have studied him have even found evidence that cold exposure training protects against infection, and asthma. It also helps weed out the root causes of diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disease. It does this by raising the body’s pH, and sending tiny hormonal signals to the cells that cause large changes in their behavior.

The good kind of stress

We learn in The Way of the Iceman that the body has 77,671 miles of blood vessels, designed to deliver nutrients and oxygen to billions of cells.

Cold exposure trains your blood vessels to be more flexible — opening (dilating) and closing on demand. The body’s intelligent response to cold environment is to constrict blood flow to the extremities and contract them in your arms, legs, hands and feet. This allows more blood to flow to the vital organs to keep them operating.

This process is an example of a hormetic stress responses. Hormesis is a term for processes that are harmful to an organism at high doses, but that provide a benefit within an optimal range. Hof recommends finding your hormetic zone for the cold rather than trying to go “Full Hof” with an hour long ice bath. Otherwise you could die or get seriously hurt.

After the plunge, the body goes into a mild form of shock. Breathing becomes shallow as the diaphragm rapidly contracts. Muscles tense up, and our instinct is to get out of the water ASAP. However, if we want to strengthen our blood vessels and keep delivering oxygen to our organs, we need to bear with the discomfort and let mind conquer matter.

Up until this point, our response has been involuntary, but we can bring it under our control through focused breathing, which becomes your locus of control as your mind keeps telling your body that the cold does not own you.

Baby steps, better breaths, and visualization.

Cold showers are a good way to build up an initial resilience. Hof suggests starting a relaxed breathing rhythm while the water is still warm, then trying to maintain a consistent pace of breathing after shutting the warm water off.

Let the cold water bounce off your chest while visualizing something that represents warmth and strength. Set a time limit that you will reach before turning the warm water back again.

In this way, we begin to influence our autonomic nervous system — overriding the default hyperventilation response with relaxed breathing and forcing the blood vessels to contract for longer than feels comfortable. We can use our minds to remind ourselves of the commitment that we have made, and that we are not in any real danger of losing our vital organs from a 30-second-long 60-degree shower.

The more often we do this, the better our bodies can adapt to whatever circumstances our environments throw at them.

“You can’t learn anything from the cold. But you can learn to not do some things.” — Wim Hof

Like cold exposure, modern life over-stimulates the neocortex, releasing cortisol (the “fight or flight” hormone) and making us breathe faster than necessary. However, the Wim Hof Method gives instructions on how to use the neocortex to slow down your breathing and effectively control our autonomic nervous systems.

Breathing and heart rate operate rhythmically — in pulses long and short — to regulate the body’ inputs and outputs as demanded by a given situation. While it is important to be able to regulate breathing and slow it down at times, we don’t want to flatten out all of the variability in our breathing or our heart beat. Wim writes:

“Heart rate variability or heart rate coherence is the variation in time between two successive heartbeats. Someone with a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute may have a pause of about a second between each beat. But, it is also possible to have intervals between a half and one-and-a-half seconds between beats. The second case is much better than the first.

… A healthy heart will beat faster at rest during inhalation than exhalation. In his bestseller, Healing Without Freud or Prozac, French psychiatrist David Servan- Schreiber writes extensively on the importance of good heart rate variability. He claims that people suffering from depression, stress, cancer, or who are in the final stages of life have low heart rate variability without exception.”

The Method Itself

Try this exercise:

I’ve found a few variations on the same basic Wim Hof Method (WHM), but the common features are controlled hyperventilation for ~30 breaths. Then, you exhale some but not all of the air in your lungs and retain this position for as long as you can without forcing. Then you inhale deeply and hold for another 10–15 seconds, and repeat this several times.

The hyperventilation expels carbon dioxide. And decreases the CO2 concentration in your blood. Blood vessels will contract, and more oxygen enters the pineal gland, causing the body to more oxygen.

I will go into more detail in the next post, including how to supercharge these breathing methods with certain kinds of meditation and visualization.

But for now, check out my new daily routine of WHM at the South Sailing Basin in Berkeley, and remember that inner warmth comes from an outer source.

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