As I left the M6 and meandered through the narrow country lanes of southern Cumbria, I saw that civilization was being left behind as bar after bar dropped from my mobile signal until the “No Service” sign revealed that a period of digital detoxification had commenced. The valley and hills of Longsleddale was to form a natural and protective barrier from the chaos of a world gone sour, for forty-eight hours at least.
And it was during those forty-eight hours that I found the true meaning of being human, hitherto forgotten by the vast majority of society.
I had been looking forward to my first Wim Hof Weekender for quite some time and for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I had already seen a self-transformation since starting the daily practices over the last few months, and wanted to take it to the next level, and to perhaps get an understanding on whether I wanted to eventually become an instructor. Secondly, I wanted a boost to get me over the hiatus I had experienced this month, due to work pressures and illness. Lastly, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, to hopefully deconstruct who I thought I was by plunging myself into freezing cold waterfalls and have the strength to put myself back together. As it transpired, I got all of those things and much more, more than I could ever have hoped for before setting off from suburbia.
As the valley approached, my GPS decided to quit on me as I reached a crossroads, giving me the opportunity to search deep down in my DNA for residual and ancient wayfaring skills, locked away for situations just as this. Somehow (not sure why) I felt I was going the wrong way so stopped the car, only to see a bloke coming down the road in the opposite direction with hair longer than mine, so taking a punt, I turned around and followed him, my intuition serving me well as we turned into the car park of the outward bounds centre.
Greeting and thanking my erstwhile navigator, we both marvelled at the scene that was painted in front of our eyes, with cloudless skies and a setting sun casting bursts of oranges and yellows on the hills behind us. It felt like something special was about to happen.
The barn house chimney was sending smoke signals our way to beckon us inside to meet with our comrades for the weekend, and over the course of the next couple of hours, our squadron was assembled, as far east as Greece, as far west as Brazil, as far north as Scotland and as far south as Australia, although the vast majority of us were from these green and sometimes pleasant lands.
Our instructor introduced the team for the weekend and shared that there was no structure to the events that were about to transpire, save that we would all get cold, wet, breathe well and eat well, and at the end of proceedings, we may just understand our real selves a little better than before.
One thing that was mentioned from the off was to have an open mind for the weekend, to leave all judgments at the door and try to eradicate the ego where we could, to have open and honest conversations with all participants and listen, truly listen to what was being said and to react where possible without conflict.
The mandatory “creeping death” took place as we all introduced ourselves and shared with the group why we were there and what we hoped to achieve. Brevity is key with these things, so I shared that I hoped to fine tune my practice to take it to the next level, to see whether the path of being a Wim Hof instructor was one I wanted to pursue, and how me and my hippy companions back home hope to build an eco-retreat / wellness centre in North Wales over the coming years, allowing me to leave behind the corporations once and for all.
As an introductory exercise, we each took a partner and sat opposite them, and were instructed to look deep into their eyes and say “Every time I see you I see…” several times over, based on each of our introductions and visual/energetic perceptions. The exercise was meant to put us out of our comfort zone, and clearly it did. I managed it OK but felt that I could have done more, but there would be other opportunities to get to know others more over the weekend.
Next up was to walk around the room staring only at the floor, using our feet to say hello and connect, not looking up. Then it was to move around the room and to look deeply into each other’s eyes and move on when it felt like the right time. The last, was to again look down not knowing who we were opposite, and just use our hands to greet, no touching.
What happened next was special, a true connection. A pair of hands were presented to me, and not knowing who they were attached to, we formed an invisible link, neither compelled to withdraw and move on. We stayed there for minutes, unable to move, the energy freely flowing between both of us. Clearly as one who has gone through rudimentary Reiki training, I understood what was going on, she never. As we raised our heads to see the other, the slight shock on her face turned to a smile, and I explained what had just taken place. Even though she was a yoga instructor, she hadn’t had Reiki before, and I guess she has now, and that special bond would stay with us throughout the weekend.
Our host for the weekend then gave the group some introductory information on the Wim Hof Method and humbly shared her “warts and all” backstory, in her words, from a highly successful corporate player to lowly café plate bearer and world’s worst Wim Hof participant.
We all have our backstory, and with her sharing hers, looking around the table it was clear that we were all thinking and reflecting on our own, in all likelihood sharing those with some or all of the group by the time the weekend was over.
It was already cold and dark outside and none of us expected to hear the words “get changed into your swimming costumes, we are going for a waterfall plunge”. Say what?! But get changed we did and with a plethora of head torches illuminating the hill, we ascended Stockdale Beck and saw the beautiful twilight waterfall, with semi-shallow pool of cold water, into which each of us immersed ourselves in for around two minutes, which was followed by warming exercises (the horse / warrior stance).
Back to the barn for an evening meal and a warm by the wood burning fire, the cuisine bar was set very high from the off and never dropped throughout the weekend. Simply put, it was some of the best food I have ever tasted, all vegan/vegetarian, fresh, various and made with love from a pair of beautiful souls from northern Italy and Antipodea respectively.
Feeling somewhat energized from the dip and the amazing food, we then took part in protocol / regular Wim Hof breath work as well as power breathing. One thing I noticed almost immediately, was that my practice wasn’t what it should be, but after several rounds of breathing I felt the wave and perfect flow for the first time, the rhythmical movement allowing me to be comfortable in practice. As we bid each other a good night’s sleep ahead, I felt already that the course was worth it.
As we went back to our respective tents, the constellations kept watch over head, the cloudless sky remained and the three-quarters full moon cast spectral shadows on the icy grass. Needless to say, it was the coldest night I’d ever spent in a tent and my sleep wasn’t the greatest, but sleep I did, albeit broken.
No rest for the wicked anyway as a seven-thirty start got us back into the barn to listen to the science behind the Wim Hof method (which I loved) and how nasal breathing allows the body to become more oxygenated, and how protocol breathing (anerobic) and retention allows for better meditation and calmness, whilst power breathing (aerobic) reduces body alkalinity and as a result super changes the cells and gives our bodies a natural immune boost.
I’m always mindful of not taking the body too far, it was to my detriment with ashtanga yoga several years ago when I managed to dislocate my trachea when my ego wanted to put its feet on the floor behind my head, so I’m mindful about the Wim Hof head squeeze with my tinnitus. The last round of power breathing in the morning made my left ear go numb, not deaf, but a dull sound lasting for a couple of minutes. Let the body do what the body can do, but don’t risk illness or injury in the process.
All of that said, the breathing flow was much improved as an individual, but for the first time the power of the group really came to the fore. I felt the draw to pulse my energy to the group and made hand gestures to push my healing energy out to others, and as a collective we all felt completed to do the same thing, which clearly had a profound impact on us all when we reflected on the session.
Clearly we had worked up quite an appetite as we demolished our breakfast, fresh fruits, yoghurts and sitting well in our stomachs, washed down by the most amazing mango lassi I’d ever tasted, better even than Mowgli, my favourite restaurant in Liverpool. I did say to our chef from heaven that I was going to kidnap her and take her home, I do hope she saw the funny side of my veiled yet humorous threat.
Next up was the ice bucket challenge, two minutes of hand plunge into a bucket of ice. New to this was an “om” or “aum” chant during the second minute. As a group, we chanted each other through the cold, which worked incredibly well as the time went superfast, so the same can be adopted at home with the five minute cold showers.
In an effort to breath more through the nose, we had our mouth taped up and walked / jogged up and down the beck, followed by a brief sprint, again our host gave us the science behind it and how she had run a marathon breathing only through her diaphragm / nose and as a result not needing any water.
After a lunch of homemade soup, salad and spiced beans, we took to the road and hiked up the valley to the source of the River Sprint, the scenery absolutely breathtaking. I took the opportunity to talk one-to-one with several other comrades, sharing my deeper backstory of alcoholism and bloated ego which almost lead to the destruction of my marriage ten years ago, the darkest days of my life.
Got some great insights into the reasons why other folks were there too, and that there was a trend going right across the group to leave behind the corporations and transition to being “wellness instructors” in some shape or form (hypnotherapists, psychologists, life coaches, physical trainers). Clearly I was mixing with the right people here.
The first waterfall dip at the “Buddha cave” was amazing, all of us spending a good few minutes immersing ourselves in the pool and under the waterfall, the group pulling together to keep ourselves connected and supported. The water in the shower at home is now 14.5c so at 6c (taking into account the effective flow) it was a lot colder. Feeling invigorated, we all warmed up with the horse stance manoeuvres and made our way back down the river to the second pool, the infinity pool.
After the second dip a little further down the stream, I was the last and only one in, and I casually glanced towards the end of the pool and saw that it was indeed an infinity pool, that waters edge a single line separating the pool from the valley horizon beyond.
I got out eventually and then took to a rock to do the horse stance, and all of a sudden I had realized that the manoeuvre I had emulated from Wim Hof didn’t really flow for me, and I looked down at what I was doing, and I was making the flow of an infinity sign, next to the infinity pool. Infinity, it seems, beckons…
The long walk back also served as a chance to get to know each other’s backstories a little more, and I was drawn back to my “Reiki partner” who shared her journey from equestrianism to flying solo to northern India to become a yoga instructor, a brave and courageous journey which paid off for both her and her new clients. I went deeper into my story too, sharing in more details the dark days when I was in London, working, partying, drinking heavily whilst my wife carried on up north. I still to this day recall that conversation with her, so vividly haunting and in glorious Technicolor, when she said that I was a great father but the world’s worst husband and that it was over between us. As this blog has uncovered ever since, things worked themselves out in the end.
Having an exposure to life outside the hedonistic paradigm most folks find themselves in these days via practices like Reiki, yoga and meditation and now the Wim Hof Method has kept my wheels from going out of kilter and kept me awake, truly awake to what reality is and how important connections to people are.
Back at base, we undertook some more breathing techniques (outside the Wim Hof Method) to add an extra dimension and perspective on how to breathe in a better way and again through the nose, which finally sank in with me as I could genuinely feel the difference.
Evening meal was another joyous feast, this time offering up the best food this side of Bangalore, with popadums, bhajis, butternut squash curry and rice with a lemon yoghurt pudding, teaching us all how that we could indeed eat a pudding in narrow jars from the arse end of a dessert spoon. Who knew…
I brought in the ukulele from the car boot with every intention of playing badly and embarrassing myself in front of everyone, but after an intense thirteen-hour day, I hit the wall and took to my slightly warmer tent.
I was awakened by the soothing sound of rain on the tent roof, a white noise to settle my ringing ears, and after gathering my thoughts on what was an epic day, got up with a can-do and will-do attitude ready for anything. As the ukulele was still in the barn, I did manage to pluck up the courage to knock out a rendition of All My Loving by The Beatles, my fingers managing to thaw out just enough.
As we all gathered, we were instantly instructed to go back and get our swimwear back on as we were off to the waterfall again (the beck close by) for a six-minute group submersion in the icy water. The look on the faces confirmed my thoughts exactly, “already?!”, but we were ready, very ready as it turned out. We took to the pool which had completely filled up overnight due to the rainfall and formed an aquatic circle, joining hands and using the breathing techniques we had fine turned over the course of the weekend to get us all into the zone.
Quickly we started the group “aum” which was very powerful, closely followed by a haka-type chant (similar to the one Wim adopts for the horse / warrior stance). After a while I felt a sudden drop in energy, so spontaneously broke into a second rendition of All My Loving, thankfully without the awful ukulele playing, so that brought a smile to a few faces and got us through another minute or so. After several wolf-type howls from the youngest member of the clan (which I felt compelled to join in with) the six minutes were over, and we all felt we could have stayed in for longer.
Breakfast never felt so good back at the barn, and soon after it was time for our final breathing session. Again we started with several fringe practices, balloon inflating, candle blow outs and yogic box breathing.
And then the magic happened…
We were instructed to use all the techniques shared to finish off with three protocol rounds of breathing and two rounds of power breathing. The waves I formed during the protocol rounds were executed with aplomb, perfect almost, putting me in a meditative state of consciousness, feeling peaceful and at one with everyone in the room. The final two round gave us all the opportunity to supercharge our bodies and the breathing did just that. To get more oxygen in, I held open my nostrils so that which was going in was fully charged. Whilst the power round is not meant to have a breath retention, I decided to break ranks and hold my breath at the end, and it was in that very moment, that something rather incredible happened.
Throughout my journey into esoterica and search for enlightenment, I have always tried very hard (too hard in fact) to “see” things, believing only that visions of alien landscapes, shapes and colours were the only way to validate that there was an “ever after” and that I was awake. Sometimes, one can look too hard for such things, and sometimes, letting go is the answer. So there I was, physically located in a climbers’ barn in Cumbria, but deep inside the physical form of a long-haired lover from Liverpool, a mystical experience was taking place.
All of a sudden, the outside world no longer existed, and I found myself having (what Antony Peake and David Bohm would call) a panoramic life review, but in reverse. I felt myself inside some sort of time vortex travelling back in time, replaying critical events of my life in reverse chronological order. I didn’t see anything, I just experienced it, almost like watching a film with eyes and ears closed, but you somehow knew what was going on upon the silver screen.
Firstly, the most recent reconnection with my mum who I hadn’t seen or spoken to for eight years, the second with my sister who I now have an incredible bond with considering that was abruptly terminated around the same time as my parents. The most profound was yet to come, when I felt myself plunging down a wormhole to my darkest days and the time that my life almost ended with my marriage, and it was at that point that I realized that actually, I had already found enlightenment all of those years ago, and that the old me had actually died back then and a new me was reborn, awakened.
Needless to say, the emotion of that revelation was too much to bear, the tears forced their way through closed eyelids and I began to sob, quietly to myself.
As we brought our attention back to the room and were asked to stand and raise our arms and turn to our left and hug the person to the left, and there was my Reiki partner ready to cradle a sobbing Scouser.
After we reseated ourselves at the table, we individually reflected on the whole weekend and our experiences, and whilst I shared that I felt that I had successfully fine-tuned my Wim Hof Method practice, the true message for me was connection and the power of community.
Notably, all the men found it a very emotional and perhaps cathartic process, with each of us shedding a tear or two as we shared our thoughts with the group. Ask me now what masculine strength is, and I’ll give you a different response. True strength is not how much weight can be lifted, nor how much of a stiff upper lip can be held during adversity, true strength is man’s ability to connect with males and females alike and break down to share their emotions with others, impervious to what society thinks a man should be. Show me an Eddie Hall or a Tyson Fury, and I’ll show you a Greek man training to be a Wim Hof Method instructor, shedding tears and true feelings with what was initially a group of participants who he could now call friends.
Every single one of us, not one person excluded, shed a tear for a lady who had just lost her husband, and such was the bond the group had formed together we grieved collectively for her loss and hopefully took on some of that burden, albeit briefly, to help her on her road to recovery, a sad but truly beautiful moment.
We all came to be taught new things, that was certain, but what we actually learnt was very different. I felt we all came away with the same feelings, that we were not the same people that went into that barn on Friday night, and were all the better for it.
As readers of this blog will know, I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe that the odd things that happen are breadcrumbs placed by invisible hands, giving us a nudge into recognition and action, so it was no surprise to see a butterfly flying around the barn as we left to go our separate ways. We had all gone through a metamorphosis during the weekend, and just like the butterfly, we had now come out of our cocoons (sleeping bags) to carry on with our life journey with a new set of skills to help.
Such was the bond between us all, I shared that I would love to keep in touch with folks and I sincerely hope that happens, I have a good feeling that it will.
Clearly, I’ve shed further tears since, and it’s not been easy writing this missive, but what was apparent, was that I will succeed in my mission to be a “wellness instructor” in whatever shape or form that takes, using whatever methods or practices I choose to adopt.
The cold water immersion gives us that opportunity to realize that anything is possible for the individual, but like the circle of power in the waterfall, if we all work together, we are gestalt, we are greater than the sum of our parts…