At the beginning of January 2017 my back got hurt in a way that was quite disheartening. I was simply bending over to pick up a piece of paper off the ground and the SI Joint (Sacroiliac Joint) slipped.
It’s the same injury that happened 6 months prior and then a year prior to that. So for this third go around I was extremely pissed that I had somehow landed in the exact same broken boat of injury land.
Flat on my back.
On the floor.
For two weeks straight.
Not fun times.
This same injury had been impeding any sort of fitness goals I was trying to achieve for the last 18 months. Every time it happened I literally had to start back at square one. Walking and body weight movements only. No snatching, no cleaning, no deadlifting, no running… Just the basics. I had to restart and reset and ONLY focus on my CORE.
Working from the beginning or ground zero again is such a humbling experience. None of my PR (personal record) numbers mattered. The slate was cleared. I had to relearn how to engage my core and then learn anew how to deepen to another layer of core strengthening on the inside. I’ve heard some people refer to it as “The core of the core”.
While basic core stabilization is pretty easy to remember, pull the belly button in and squeeze the butt, the next step was learning how to meet this bracing by breathing deeply with the diaphragm (muscle on the inside of core that helps regulate breath expansion and retention) into the already held and stabilized outer core muscles.
I was driven to go deeper.
It was like learning how to breathe deeply, gracefully, and rhythmically into this already held space. Sounds a lot like the practice of Trust to me.
Honestly, I was so angry about this situation, that I was having to deal with a setback injury Again, but I knew I needed to turn the tables and try to figure out a way to see it as an opportunity. This time I needed someone else to coach me through some breathing exercises and hold me accountable to continuing to practice.
Enter in Wim Hof!
I’d been hearing about Wim’s feats for the last year. He’s been on podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience (Episodes #712 & #865), The Tim Ferris Show, The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes, etc. I also heard Brian Mackenzie (founder of Crossfit Endurance, Power Speed Endurance & contributor to XPT Life) on various podcasts talk about his experiences with breath work through the 12 Week Course that Wim Hof offers and then sharing it with Laird Hamilton and how they’re both broadening their approach to breathing with XPT life.
It was a VICE documentary called Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman posted by an old friend on Facebook who said a few simple lines to the tune of, “I’ve been trying this for a while and the results are extraordinary”. No pushing. No selling. No ulterior motives. Just a simple anecdote of authenticity. Just my cup of tea. So this time I watched and I listened. Still skeptical, but a bit more open to trying a different avenue.
While Wim Hof is extremely charismatic and one could get lulled into his charisma alone, it was the layers underneath that I saw. His feats are nothing less of extraordinary. What he is doing right now (and for the last 20 years) is completely uncharted territory. And the best part is that it is being scientifically tested at schools like Harvard and RMIT in Australia with an extensive book of calculated experiments and proven results across the board.
Through breathing and cold therapy Wim is able to completely clear and reset his immune system. Which also means he is able to clear any inflammation that is occurring. To me it sounds like the actual trigger of what’s going on for a lot of people, inflammation. It would seem that most basic ailments are just inflammation in one way or another that can be cleared. Whether the clearing is done through exercise, nutrition, meditation, cold therapy, breathing or a combination of each. An overall healthier lifestyle will mitigate most basic inflammation responses by utilizing proactive approaches in the first place. For example, if dairy causes inflammation in your body (nose drips, phlegm in the throat, digestion issues) then minimize the dairy intake! With proactive basic steps in place and then adding consistent deep breath work and cold water/ice therapy into the mix it’ll add a whole other layer of clearing and expanding. Literally superhuman.
So, as I laid flat on my back for those two weeks this last January (336 hours) I did the only things that were available to me at that point. I began to practice deeper breathing. It’s all I could do. And as humility has taught me through these last several years the only thing that needs to be done is One Step. One step with an I CAN statement. In these very vulnerable moments my I Can statements have very gingerly moved from I Can stand up today, I Can walk 5 minutes today, I Can walk around the block today…
I also researched the 10-Week Video Course that the Wim Hof Method provides on it’s website to see if it was something I was interested in committing to. Since I wasn’t able to do Crossfit or any sessions with a one on one coach I chose to shift my budget towards something else that might provide a different kind of progress.
I’m a trainer. I train. I enjoy focused plans and practicing executing moves to hit a target or goal. I’m a writer. I observe. I Listen. I write. I enjoy making sense of all the different thoughts, feelings, and ideas I have by seeing them flow into words before me. I am also continually skirting the edge of my boundaries and perceived limits to test myself and see what I really can do. Plenty of times I have fallen over this edge into the abyss and landed in very dark and deep canyons. And plenty of times I won’t get close to the edge at all because after falling it takes a while to build up the courage again to see what’s out there at the edge of my ‘limits’.
Sometimes an injury and a feeling of humility just brews instant courage. I had no other choice but to try something radically new and different to me to see if I could learn how to embrace my very own strength on the inside while also being completely stabilized on the outside.
I was absolutely scared shitless to try something new. The first time I experimented with some Wim Hof breathing it felt exhilarating. Different sensations arose within. My focus expanded and shifted in different ways than I was used too. It reminded me of a 30 day at home meditation retreat I’d done in 2013. All new territory on the inner landscape. Those first days of practice provided a window to experimenting more, but there was also a feeling of timidness. Am I going to be ok doing this? I don’t want to do something wrong… Is this the right way to breathe? And then thoughts of what could go wrong just scrolled through my head.
I panicked. Mentally. Buying into those thoughts.
And then I talked to the one person who can bring me down from these panicked states. “Gretchen, I tried this new thing, some new breathing exercises, and I’m really scared of what it might do to me.”
“Ok,” she always says steady and calm, “What is it, and what did you do?”
So I showed her the breathing. I talked through what I had researched. I discussed why I was trying these new breathing exercises. And she just sat there, listening, holding space so that I could ultimately hear myself.
It was the silence that provided the answers.
I knew exactly why I was trying this. I was inspired. And, it was backed by science.
So, after I was done talking, we just kind of looked at each other. I already felt better and calm. She didn’t have to say anything. There was nothing to fix or intellectualize. My mind was already clear and so I forged ahead.
I transferred the experimented breaths into a commitment by fully diving into the 10-Week Video Course that Wim Hof provides. It’s about the price of 3 personal training sessions ($179) and since I was not going to be in a gym any time soon I decided to buy a breathing trainer to have with me at home.
I started on January 11, 2017 which scheduled the 10th week to occur on our family trip to Maui. Perfect. All I really wanted was to be able to be in Maui with my family loves enjoying morning runs (walks for me), midday snorkels, and afternoon dips in the ocean. Basic body movements. Love.
At the outset the course provides a PDF workbook to write down progress throughout the ten weeks, a PDF of Wim Hof’s book Becoming the Iceman, and Weekly Videos that unlock themselves every 7 days so you don’t skip ahead.
My favorite part of the course was watching the new weekly video every Tuesday. Each week incremently builds upon the week before, the breathing, cold showers, and yoga flex (stretching) all go hand in hand.
First, we learned how to breathe deeply with the diaphragm and do it in rhythmic succession, 30 breaths in a row. I constantly had trouble with this, Am I breathing deep enough? Am I breathing too forcefully? Am I doing this right? All these questions came up a lot for me. So, mostly I just tried to mimic the breathing patterns of Wim and his students in the video.
Next came timed breath retention. After the 30th breath two very deep breaths are taken and fully exhaled. On the last exhale, we hold. And just sit in that space for as long as we can. But the hold is done gently and gracefully. We just kind of go to the edge where it starts to feel uncomfortable, but don’t force our way through, it’s really more of an experience of grazing by this uncomfortable zone so that you can get familiar with what this zone feels like for you. My goal was to just get 1% more comfortable in this zone everyday.
The workbook provides a space to track the breath retention times. This is more of an observation tool than anything. It is highly important to go into a course like this without judgment and that’s what I learned. Because the progress of this program does not follow a linear course. Some days my breath retention times were low, sometimes they were high, sometimes they fell in between.
One of that absolute biggest lessons I learned was how to observe myself doing something that seemed like a ‘failure’ one day, and seemed like ‘progress’ another day, but being able to walk away from the practice without judging myself or the day as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It was the gentleness in between that I was learning to embrace. And as I became more gentle with myself in releasing judgment and just went through the practices day by day… all of a sudden one day would shoot through the roof on incremental progress.
And I’d kind of be astounded, like where did that come from?
Never saw it coming…
A perfect example would be, after doing 3-4 rounds of these 30 deep breaths and then retention, on the last round instead of just sitting there and observing where the retention goes, you do pushups and you do as many as you can. On my first try I could only do 9 pushups. But throughout the weeks this number would incrementaly shift, 11, 13, 9, 10, 15…
I’d see what I would assume was progress by watching the pushups grow from 9 to 11 to 13, but then they’d fall back to 9 and then to 10… and at first I would get pissed again. Like mother trucker kind of pissed and mad at myself that I couldn’t ‘Do More’, rather than being grateful for what I could do.
What I started to learn to do was just say, “Ok, thank you for showing up today.” The focus of progress started to come through the commitment and consistency of following through on this program Every Single Day. Even when it was hard, boring, or it looked like I just completely sucked at what was ‘supposed’ to occur.
Without the pressure to ‘Do More’ is when my results started to flourish. Ultimately by the end of the course I was able to do 27 pushups on the last breath retention hold. And I’ll admit, for a slight second I did have an inkling of the feeling ‘It should be more’ but I let it go and just sat in the joy of what it was. 9 to 27 is no joke. It’s progress.
The interesting part of doing these pushups is that it really focuses your mind. One task. Do the pushups. I learned throughout the weeks that if I thought about anything else during the pushups my energy would fade and I’d have to stop. But if I just stayed in the zone of pushups I could just go and go and go.
This is a feeling of focus that I am still experimenting with. Which zones of flow do I want to go in? Does it have purpose? Meaning? I suppose those areas and answers are different for everyone.
As the weeks progressed through the Wim Hof Method course I noticed myself really feeling stronger and more stable in my core. I was able to enjoy simple trips to Hood River, to the country, to the coast, to get my hair done, and some soul rejuvenating time with the fam. It was as if the deep diaphragmatic breathing activated muscles that were long lost and forgotten in my body which started to come alive and activate again. I started to feel renewed and yet there were spaces in the back of my mind that quickly reminded me that I was not going to be able to “attack” old workouts like I had in the past. The way I moved now needed to be more mindful. More focused. Even my exercise routines really needed to be upgraded as far as purpose and meaning.
The daily breathing, stretching, and cold showers took upwards of 1-2 hours. I was not working in a strict environment at the time so it was easy for me to block out portions of my morning to dedicate to this new practice. Healing, growing and optimizing was the only thing on my mind.
I’ll admit that it was the cold showers that proved the hardest challenge at first. Cold is just COLD!!! I’d been experimenting with finishing regular showers with a shot of cold at the end for the last few years. 10 seconds to 30 seconds was my range. So as the weekly challenges grew, 1 minutes, 2 minutes, 5 minutes of a cold shower!!! To finally the biggest challenge of all a 10 minute long cold shower!!! F that was my initial reaction. But I committed to doing this whole course, and honestly the gradual steps of increasing the length of time in the cold totally prepared my system to be able to handle the 10 minute long challenge.
All in all I am so glad that I did this 10 week course. There were a few pieces of the classes and teachings that seemed like they could’ve been tightened up as far as video and congruency. But I kind of overlooked those things and just stayed with the course of doing the breathing, meditating, stretching, and cold therapy.
I totally still use the breath practice today at least a couple of times a week. Cold showers not so much. I’m back to the 10-30 second range with those. I finished the 10 week course while we were on vacation in Maui and the simple fact that I was able to be on this vacation and that my body was able to do water sports and activities was a total win in my book.
I highly recommend giving the Wim Hof Method 10-Week Course a shot with some definite grace and patience. Through the learning of the course and some life happenings these last several months, I can’t say that I’m looking forward to what is next. It seems like that loop of always looking for what is next leaves me feeling very empty and broken in the present.
What I will say is that the benefits of learning humility through an injury really hones in the value of operating from an ‘I CAN’ status every single day. So today, I am doing what I can. Inch by inch, moment by moment, and allowing myself to feel for the first time that that is enough.
Check out the daily happenings of my journey and lessons I’m currently learning at Lala’s Life Garden on Instagram!