The pain was all-encompassing. A blanket of stabbing, stinging needles. Alarm bells went off in my head, and my chest seized with panic as the unpleasantness sharpened with each passing moment.
“Control your exhale. Stretch out your exhale!,” said Tan Chun Yih, squatting next to the tub of 1°C ice and water I was submerged in. “Imagine you’re blowing heat all over your body!”
Then, in a sudden, an unusual calmness — and with it, the miraculous dissolving of pain. “That’s two minutes. You can come out now,” Tan grinned.
The 35-year-old is the first and only Singaporean instructor of the Wim Hof Method, a combination of cold exposure, breath control and meditation techniques dreamed up by the eponymous Dutchman famed for his record-breaking feats in freezing temperatures.
The method claims to improve anything from the immune system to mood and anxiety, and Tan — also the lone active instructor in Southeast Asia — believes the larger temperature difference in this part of the world sets up an interesting experience, to say the least.
“Compare jumping from 34°C weather into 2°C water, to going from a 5°C winter environment into - 5°C water,” Tan pointed out. “It’s a big discomfort we’re not used to, but one that’s good for you.”
He explained this using the biological process of hormesis, where the right amount of stress can lead to a positive outcome (the most obvious example being lifting weights).
If anything, Tan added, it’s in a country like Singapore — with its rising affluence and living standards — where people could do with more of such “good” discomfort.
“Most of us are born with adequate food, shelter, money. All year round, offices have air-conditioners turned up so high that people have to wear jackets at work,” said Tan. “But these comforts have become our downfall — we’re also constantly sick, stressed, depressed and worrying about things like finances.
“The Wim Hof Method provides a tiny dose of hardship to help reset our mind and body.”
On one hot, humid Sunday morning, I found myself — and seven others — on the balcony of Tan’s house, waiting our turn for this prescribed suffering.
Yet with each icy immersion, my command of my breathing improved; and as the time taken to reach the point of relaxation grew shorter and shorter, by the third round I practically didn’t want to step out of the tub.
By the end of Tan’s half-day fundamentals workshop, I was riding the same high of accomplishment I’d experience after rowing a 2,000m race or completing a high-intensity training session.
I wasn’t alone. Fellow participant and first-timer Shawn, 29, spoke of how the aftermath of the ice dips had similarly given him a large “kick” of positivity and happiness.
The most recent study of Hof also points to this “enhanced feeling of overall well-being”, with researchers concluding that systematic practice of the method “may” improve behavioural and mental health.
But Ray Loh, a senior physiologist at Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital, told VICE there was “limited” and “insufficient direct” evidence of the benefits of either cold exposure or breath control — echoing the cautionary tone often adopted by medical professionals when commenting on Hof.
For Shawn, though, a mix of online research and Hof’s viral videos was enough for him to see the method as a potential holistic, pharmaceutical-free remedy to falling sick frequently as well as PTSD from a recent traumatic event.
He now joins a local community of almost 70 strong, assembled by Tan in less than nine months since he started teaching — and with zero marketing effort to boot.
Athletes, bio-hackers, housewives, grandmothers, entrepreneurs, tech executives, people recovering from surgery or illness and even the occasional frigophobe: it’s an eclectic mix of “weirdos” chasing different goals, Tan mused, yet connected by something about the practice speaking to them at a “much deeper, more profound level”.
While Tan personally attests to the benefits of the method, he is equally careful not to advertise his workshops as a be-all, end-all cure for any health issue out there.
“If it works, great. If it doesn’t, then you simply find another tool,” he said.
What he guarantees, instead, is a reminder of an exceedingly simple truth: that going through any sort of hardship can be an enlightening experience.
“How you come out of it, sets the foundation of what kind of human being you are, and who you are moving forward,” Tan said.
I was quick to dismiss this as the spiel of yet another Instagram-worthy potpourri fad melding healing, wellness, mindfulness, cosmic spirituality et al — at least until we started the breathing exercises.
With participants lying down in a circle, Tan guided us through three sets of 30 rapid, forceful inhale-exhale repetitions, while we held our breath in between rounds for as long as we could.
What started as a light tingling became a comforting heat, one that swelled into a fire that I felt through my body.
Then there was the marked improvement from baseline “tests” we conducted earlier in the day. I went from doing 40 push-ups without breathing, to 60. I could now hold my breath for almost three minutes, up from 43 seconds. In both instances, I felt I could push myself even more.
Put together with my conquest of the ice, there was an overwhelming sense of self-mastery. In the face of being forced to fight an intense discomfort, I found some measure of relief and repose amidst the bluster of a society where too much feels out of control.
And hey, if all it takes to get there is to be a little more conscious of my breathing, a little less scared of the cold, and a little bit of a weirdo… Why not?