A few Saturdays ago, in Spain, Tom and I went to the corner store and bought 12 bags of ice. Upstairs, the water in his bathtub chilled as we sat on the floor and flushed our bodies with oxygen in 40 fast breaths. Then, I held my breath for a minute; repeating the breathing, held for 90 seconds; repeat, held for two minutes. I felt relaxed, warm and separated from my thoughts. We did three stretches of pseudo yoga. Finally, we counted three minutes holding a horse stance. I felt lactic acid build in my legs, breathed consciously, and only distantly noticed the discomfort. Time to get into the ice bath.
Months ago I was searching for something kooky, worthwhile, and difficult as a backbone for our first guided peer group test. Circles advisor, Josh Waitzkin, had peaked my curiosity in raving about a 10-week Internet course called “The Wim Hof Method.” Josh testified that Wim’s combination of breathing, yoga, meditation and cold-exposure produced physical surprises, including a surge of energy. Ten weeks of self-induced cold temperatures and thick Dutch accents seemed like the kind of program that would be hard to finish. A good test of Circles? This guy claims to have climbed Everest in a bathing suit, warmed only by his mind. How would it go if a circle tried together?
I invited seven diverse friends who would be comfortable as peers: an architect, a writer, different flavors of entrepreneurs and a CTO. They were all interested in the Wim Hof method. The two women and six men (including me) were available for a common meeting time, even though some were in the US and some in Spain.
At the outset, the test ran into heavy technology friction. The app (I mean website) we’d thrown together to coordinate was so featureless it was eventually forgotten. We used Slack for online chat, which worked for most but failed to engage a couple of people not used to its style of real-time group messaging. Our lightly customized video meeting website capriciously excluded certain participants from entire meetings and crashed a lot. Lucy, our intrepid guide, frequently had to compensate for the skimpiest of a premeditated process.
So what happened?
Three of eight learners never really started the Wim Hof course. One got stung by a jellyfish while swimming in freezing pollution. One who made his way through most of the course cured a longstanding weakness in his immune system. Four finished the course and incorporated some of Wim’s practices into their ongoing, weekly routines. Tom and I even spent ten minutes soaking in The Mediterranean where it was a chilly 57 degrees Fahrenheit. The circle is still going and has moved on to the next theme. Only one learner dropped out.
What did we learn about Circles?
The big picture is encouraging: despite all the friction, the group enjoyed it and is still together as a circle.
Quick Wins: Two early wins overcame the huge technology friction. First, our “joy/pain” jelling exercise surprised and intrigued learners from the very first meeting. It introduced a mood of vulnerability, depth, and emotion that most people encounter rarely. Second, the Wim program gave us a remarkable story as soon as week two, by teaching techniques to hold breath much longer than you can otherwise, and to do more pushups without breathing than you can while breathing.
Light Curriculum: While five of the eight got into the Wim program, the other three still saw benefits - they just developed their own goals. One doubled down on an existing yoga practice, two decided to attack other major life goals.They began to share relevant content on Slack. The “theme” may have catalyzed the 45-minute explorations at the heart of each meeting, but as the discussion got real the group dove into personal, pressing issues. One learner explained it like this:
“Getting to know all of you, and through our conversations, realizing and addressing a few fairly serious personal questions (how to better support people I care about, etc.) - totally overshadowed The Wim Hof experience for me.”
Friction: Nothing was smooth. The meeting website crashed a lot, the app was hard to use, we had only the skimpiest process. We now see a lot of wins to work on for our second revision. But we still have not cracked how to transition the guide role to the team, how to reschedule meetings easily, and how to fully engage between meetings.
Take a look at the responses to our Circles product survey. It helped us better understand what learners thought of the content, activities, and discussions.
What we learned about The Wim Hof Method
Is it bullshit?
Yes and no. First glance of the program’s website I got a whiff of pseudoscience, and maybe even fraud. As my wife points out, the site claims that he climbed Mt. Everest in a bathing suit. But he didn't actually reach the top. Yet there are plenty of MDs, PhDs, a main-stage Ted Talk, some world records and Oprah testifying that the 12,000+ people that have been through the course and joined his Facebook group are not just suckers. Our circle looked into it and concluded that it seems that he did rip-off Tibetan Inner Fire Meditation, also known as Tummo. But the fact that the basic ideas have been around for centuries makes it more credible to me. Wim’s site makes claims about the health benefits of the program and we can only relate the one striking fact that one learner did seem to reverse a chronic immune deficiency.
Is it a good course?
It isn’t well organized. It isn’t well produced. It isn’t great pedagogy. But this is true of so many courses on the market today - old and new. It’s a tempting market opportunity as people explore online learning in droves.
Is it worth it?
Yes, but only if you are willing to put in about 30-45 minutes 4-5 times every week for 10-12 weeks. My personal, private goal was to use the course to establish a regular meditation practice. This combination of hardcore breath work, light yoga and cold worked for me. Going from 30 seconds to 3 minutes breath retention, and from hating to loving cold water reinforced how plastic our minds are. Facing questions about discomfort, focus, regular practice, relaxation, and mood deepened my feel for these ideas and opened a door into the world of mindfulness. Now (along with the rest of the circle) I’m exploring how to deepen the meditation component.
So, ice baths or not, we learned a ton from this circle. And the circle continues. More about the next leg of the journey soon.