Ice baths and snow meditation: can cold therapy make you stronger? – The Guardian

Before Scott Carney set about climbing a Polish mountain in his underwear in temperatures 10 degrees below zero, he believed his days of adventure were just about over. He was in his mid-30s. An anthropologist by training and a journalist by vocation he had written two books about the dangerous extremes to which humans go to find salvation – the first about the black market in organ donation, the second about the fatal consequences of a particular meditation practice.

His journey to the Polish mountain – called Sněžka, 5,300ft, the pinnacle of the Silesian mountain range – had begun one afternoon at his computer in Long Beach, California, with palm trees swaying gently outside his window. He had been idly Googling when he came across a picture of a man in his 50s sitting cross-legged on a glacier in the Arctic Circle, unclothed.

The man was Wim Hof, a Dutch evangelist for an extreme physical method that he claimed allowed him to raise and lower his body temperature at will and to control his immune system with the power of his mind. Carney was intrigued, but also highly sceptical. He decided to investigate Hof’s claims, and persuaded Playboy magazine to sign him up for a week-long initiation into the Dutchman’s methods that took place in a shack in Silesia in January.

He assumed that the story would be about another guru with an eye to the main chance, another investigation into the ways in which the gullible can be parted from their money in the name of enlightenment (the week cost Carney and his fellow disciples $2,000 each).

His scepticism did not last long. By the end of the week, after a short course in the breathing techniques that Hof demonstrated, and controlled exposure to the winter elements and icy water, Carney felt transformed. Not only could he climb Sněžka in 2ft of snow, but he discovered a kind of elation – and an enormous sense of internal warmth. He was converted.

Carney with Wim Hof and a fellow disciple, all bare-chested, linking arm and with fists of defiance, near the summit of Kilimanjaro.



Frozen assets: (from left) Carney with Wim Hof and a fellow disciple near the summit of Kilimanjaro.

His latest book, What Doesn’t Kill Us, explores the science and the philosophy of Wim Hof’s methods, which promise to unleash dormant “inner fire” by creating the mitochondria-rich tissue – “brown fat” – that is produced when the body is exposed to extreme cold.

By the time Carney met him, Hof had achieved notoriety by running a barefoot marathon in the Arctic and climbing 25,000ft up Everest in his shorts. Carney went on not only to relish the Dutchman’s regime of ice swimming, but also to accompany him in a shirtless climb up Kilimanjaro. The “guru-buster” had been won over by a man who claimed that a few simple physical techniques can promote world peace and “win the war on bacteria”.

But Carney is enthusiastic rather than being easily won over when it comes to Hof’s more grandiose claims. The book is pretty exhaustive in its investigation and he provides anecdotal evidence for Hof’s belief that his regime can improve the lives of those with auto-immune conditions – such as Parkinson’s, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis – and this comes with caveats. The biology of the method focuses on the potential of vasoconstriction – the narrowing of blood vessels in response to extreme cold. The philosophy behind it suggests that our bodies – and brains – require exposure to physical extremes to realise what they are capable of.

Speaking to me about his conversion, Carney explains his belief that we have “forgotten” how to access the powers Hof describes. “Our technology has advanced to such a degree that we no longer see ourselves as part of nature,” he says. “But we are just big smart monkeys, right? One of the driving forces in our technological progress has been to try to maximise comfort and convenience – and that has had consequences.”

Whether that progress is thermostatically controlled room temperature, a decent sofa, or easy navigation, the aim, Carney suggests, is to protect ourselves from things that are hard physically and mentally. Without those everyday challenges, he argues, we have undermined our natural biological armoury. The Hof method – which begins with hyperventilation and culminates in lots of ice – is designed to switch on and wake up inbuilt energies, and to trigger immune responses – those same responses that allowed our ancestors to trek across tundra and thrive in unheated caves.

The idea is seductive, but isn’t Carney wary about evangelising what are potentially dangerous practices? He claims there is some evidence to support Hof’s theory, although it’s not conclusive or wholly supported by science. “There is always the risk that people take these things to extremes,” he says. “Certainly one of my worries about writing this book is that someone might read it and think: ‘Oh my God, I can be immune to the elements!’ and then die on a mountaintop. That is not the message I am pushing…”

He is cautious, too, as he describes the health claims Hof has made, but is clearly personally persuaded. He has moved with his wife to Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rockies, where he can experience temperature extremes more easily than on the coast. Still, he stops short of describing himself as a “brown fat” disciple. Though he was seduced by Hof’s philosophy, he attempts to balance that with a clear-eyed examination of the Dutchman’s frailties.

Hof comes across as a kind of freaky Spartan, but not a charlatan. “The good thing is that you would never want to be him,” Carney says. “He has a very disorganised life. Kids with different women, alcoholism in his past. He is flawed and human. I feel that if you hang out with him that makes you trust his really good qualities.”

It’s four years since the pair of them first met in Poland and they remain close friends. Carney has kept up his regime. “I had a cold shower this morning, did my 70 push-ups and 15 minutes of breathing exercise with my wife” (who is also a convert). But it is the understanding of the connection between his health and his environment that has changed his life. “I am much more comfortable with being uncomfortable now,” he says. The understanding of extremes provides, he believes, a sense of “physical perspective”. He feels not only healthier, but part of the natural scheme of things. While our fight or flight responses are as likely to be triggered these days by worrying about the mortgage or getting outraged by the internet, he says, contact with the elements reminds us both of our frailty and our strength.

The regime becomes addictive. A cold shower might release a few endorphins, but it is only a gateway drug. Carney craves the sensation of plunging through ice. “Jumping into very cold water and knowing you will feel warm is pretty cool,” he says. He does it as often as he can.

His book links the psychological appeal of the practice to the attractions of punishing obstacle course challenges, such as Tough Mudder. Carney sees not only a health benefit in those challenges, but also the kind of rite of passage that society rarely affords: “The idea used to be ‘a war will make a man of you,’” he says. “An idea that obviously doesn’t do us any favours. With these kinds of disciplines, you are putting yourself in a challenge and proving you can overcome it. There are many benefits of that.”

As an anthropologist, with an interest in eastern religions, I wonder how much he sees it in an ascetic, monastic tradition. Isn’t it just masochism?

“They are related, but they are not the same,” he says. “Ascetics deny the flesh to get closer to God. That is not the heart of this. It is celebrating what our bodies can do. You don’t have to do it all day every day. You can wear a coat sometimes if you want. I am not suggesting you become a cavemen and ditch the internet and forget modern medicine. It is about balance,” he pauses. “But I guess it certainly shows there can be a joy in pain.”

What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney is published on 11 May by Scribe Publications at £14.99. To order a copy for £12.74, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

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