Bare skin, freezing cold and mind control

A couple of weeks ago, Wim Hof, a tummo meditation master, visited Montreal to demonstrate how to keep warm in freezing temperatures, even with minimal clothes on. One Cult MTL writer went along for the ride.

The author braves the ice bath

It was approximately 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and I was standing on Mount Royal, in about a foot of snow, wearing nothing but pants and a tank top.

“Keep moving,” said Wim Hof, the man who had compelled us to brave the cold in not much clothing. “You can do it. Don’t descend.”

So I kept moving. In a semi-seated position, I tried to control my breathing and proceed in a manner reminiscent of tai chi: slow and focused.

But the atmosphere around me was playful and primal. Our group of 20 stood in a circle and like children free of inhibition and any concept of ego or pride would laugh, groan, scream and dance one after the other and sometimes together.

Not long ago, when the folks from the Valhalla Movement (a sustainable community deal) told me they were bringing Hof to Montreal, I thought, “Awesome. I get to see a man freeze himself and kind of learn how to, also — but mostly watch him freeze himself.”

Hof, if you don’t know, is an 18-time world record holder who’s done things like complete a 42.195-kilometre marathon above the Arctic Circle in Finland in temperatures close to −20° Celsius wearing shorts and submerging himself in ice for nearly two hours. To accomplish such daring (and, some would say, pointless) feats, he uses an apparently scientifically valid technique called tummo meditation, which allows him to stay warm by increasing his body temperature. And which he would be introducing to us.

So I should have known that, 20 minutes after arriving at the seminar,  I would end up in snow, mostly unclothed, trying to push my body to the same extreme as Hof does.

Hof offered us no demonstrations, nor did he really talk about himself. Instead, we spent the two-day seminar meditating, doing yoga, jamming on guitars and tambourines, singing, dancing, encouraging each other and listening to his speeches about the power of the mind and the greatness of the human body.


The idea was to mentally prepare us for the two challenges we would have to face each day: meditating in the snow unclothed and submerging ourselves in an ice bath. Because contrary to popular belief, tummo meditation is not something you do. It’s more of a mindstate in itself.

Not knowing much about meditation and yoga, and being caught completely off guard by the simple fact that we actually had to do this, I was scared. But by the time it was my turn to approach the ice bath or take off my socks and jump in the snow, that ball of nervousness and fear in my stomach was easily overpowered by tremendous feelings of calm, optimism, confidence and self-control that I unknowingly absorbed throughout the day.

“You can do this,”  Hof told me. Somehow, I believed him.

It was all about inducing some form of catharsis to prevent thoughts of how cold it was from overpowering you, so I just tried to stay focused on my breathing and movements. Others in the group salsa danced or cried. Hof sang “Kumbaya.”

Yes, it was freezing. But I also realized that there were two forces at play — the cold and your inner heat — and it’s up to you to focus on one or the other. Even in the ice bath, by far the most challenging part of the day, it was possible to take control of my shivering and hyperventilation. I saw people, myself included, go from complete shock to total relaxation in a few deep, concentrated breaths.

At the end of the seminar, we dried off, packed up our yoga mats and decided we would take Hof out for Vietnamese food. As I walked outside, feeling invincible and fully clothed, the first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Fuck, it’s cold.”

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