» Articles: Wim Hof ('The Ice Man'), Water-Aceticism and Shugendo

“…The next category of ascesis which is considered indispensable to the acquisition of power is cold water. To stand under a waterfall, preferably between the hours of two and three in the morning and preferably during the period of the Great Cold in midwinter, is believed to be infallible method of empowerment. If no waterfall is conveniently to hand, the practice of mizugori, by which wooden buckets of cold-water are tipped over the head and body at stated intervals of time, is considered almost as efficacious…"
                                                           – Carmen Blacker on the cold water practices found in Shugendo


“When we interact with nature, miraculous things can happen. Whenever you go beyond the rigid patterns of thinking, challenging yourself, you can receive the bounty of experience from hard nature.” 
                                                                                                – Wim Hof



Shugendo utilises a range ascetic practices (修行; shugyo), but it's most famous for those that involve immersion in the cold in powerful places of nature like waterfalls (滝行 takigyo). These practices are associated with empowerment (genriki) as well as purification (harai). Taking freezing cold water, whether it's through standing under waterfalls in the mid winter night, immersion in pools of water or dumping buckets of water over the back is a core feature of Shugendo, with the ritual lasting anywhere between 10 and 40 minutes. Since the popularity boom of Wim Hof I’ve been asked a few times if there is any relation between the Wim Hof method and the 'inner heat' by-product sometimes mentioned in Esoteric-Buddhist  practice.


For those who don’t know, Wim Hof has been a pioneer in spreading the benefits of meditation, cold-water exposure and controlled breathing, and he has made public and scientific what was previously considered supernatural. His mantra of ‘make the cold your warm friend’, his willingness to undergo scientific evaluation and his feats - such as climbing Mt. Everest in a pair of shorts and breaking the world record for submersion in ice-water - have been vehicles to bring his methods into the public spotlight. I recommend watching this short Vice Documentary on Wim.


"Modern life has completely separated us from the depths of our own physiology. We don't live in rhythm with nature, instead we control it through pollution, heating, air-conditioning; If we don't stimulate this depth in us - it atrophies!"
                                                                                                         – Wim Hof


The benefits of disciplined mindset and preparatory exercises combined with cold exposure have been well documented, ranging from improved energy and vitality to reducing chronic inflammation and countering introduced infections. 


Exposing your body to the cold in the right way is associated with a range of health benefits; including the buildup of brown adipose tissue and subsequent fat loss, reduced inflammation to facilitate a fortified immune system, balanced hormone levels and improved sleep quality; heightened oxygen levels reduces stress levels, builds more energy and supports an immune response which can better deal with pathogens.


Wim's methods have been shown to be effective in working with chronic pain and trauma, and highlight the need for modalities which can approach trauma by uniting the mind and body (the heart-mind) and going beyond purely narrative-based therapies. There is a growing movement towards techniques which focus on 'bottom up' somatic approaches to trauma, healing from the body first rather than beginning with the cognitive mind (See the list below for recommended reading).

Scientific inquiry so far is proving to be promising. Professor Peter Pickkers of Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands tested Wim's methods against the introduction of E-Coli, which usually results in fever and other symptoms as the body fights the virus. It was found that Wim's methods increased adrenaline to levels only comparable in extreme sports and shifted the bodies CO2 and oxygen levels, causing the body's immune response to produce high levels of cytokin IL-10. The introduced virus was shown to have no effect. From the study:


"The present study demonstrates that, through practicing techniques learned in a short-term training program, the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced. Healthy volunteers practicing the learned techniques exhibited profound increases in the release of epinephrine, which in turn led to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators and subsequent dampening of the proinflammatory cytokine response elicited by intravenous administration of bacterial endotoxin. This study could have important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases in which therapies that antagonize proinflammatory cytokines have shown great benefit."


During Wim's workshop I looked around the room and saw some remarkable responses during the practice. Some people were crying - howling; some were laughing. Afterwards I spoke to participants who said they felt higher than they had ever felt in their life. One person I spoke to was being consoled; she was coming to grips with a peak spiritual experience, stating that her consciousness had left her body. It is this combination of scientific inquiry and engagement with mystery that has made Wim so appealing. Ofcourse there are always risks with cold water exposure too!

Wim’s method involves mindset, preparatory exercises, breathing technique and exposure to the cold. In Shugendo a state of absorbed focus achieved through recitation of mantra, visualisation and mudra (三密) are performed in unison to achieve a similar experience; the pain of the cold giving way to clarity and heat. There are a few interesting links between Wim’s methods and the methods of water asceticism, the first being their origin stories associated with grief. It is commonly cited among practitioners of Shugendo that the intensity of asceticism depends on the intensity of the experience one is carrying, which must be held with care and tempered.

So why hang out in freezing cold water?


At his seminar, Wim offered the heart-breaking story of losing his first wife to suicide. He had to balance the emotional strain of deep sadness and world-shattering grief alongside the responsibility of bringing up his children by himself. The pain and heartache caused him to search for any kind of relief, and his search brought him to cold water. One day he decided to plunge himself into a pool of water in a park. The shock of the piercing cold forced his body to breathe deeply and brought his mind into his body. In the cold there’s no room to think as adrenaline surges around the body. Wim noticed that adrenaline follows a heavy change of breath and used this logic to develop a breathing technique that imitated the response of the body while submerged in cold.


I couldn’t help but notice that this story had some similarities with an origin myth for cold-water practice often cited in the water asceticism of Japan (禊 suigyo/mizugyo /mokuyoku saho), the story of Izanami and Izanagi. In summary it goes like this:


Izanami no Mikoto ('she who invites') died after giving birth to the fire deity and descended to depths of the shadow land of the dead (yomi). Izanagi no Mikoto ('he who invites'), distraught, followed her down there and was determined to track her down and bring her back to the land of the living. When he finally found her he approached and asked her to return with him, but Izanami turned around to reveal herself to be rotting with maggots and decay. The forces of the dead chased Izanagi out to the entrance of Yomi, which he then sealed with a giant boulder. Stricken with grief, he plunged himself into a nearby body of water. His tears bore the sun and the moon and this became the origin of Misogi Harai (ritualistic ablution in water) practice.


Speaking of Misogi and ascetic training, it is worth looking at its components and its place in Shugendo.


Shugen (修験) is an abbreviation of “shugyo- tokken (修行得験)” or “Jisshujikken ( 実修実験).” It means capturing and applying our learnings with our “body” or, in other words, embodying “Shirushi (験)=effects” of one’s learning with one’s own body. This is the meaning of Shugendo practice. We push ourselves to our physical limit as we practice with our bodies, roaming over hills (跋渉=Bassho) and dales (山谷=Sanya). We gain awareness towards various spiritual atmospheres and their effects as we continue these practices. Hiking into mountains, worshiping deities, submerging into waterfalls and meditating are all Shugendo practices. They are all aspects of practical training with our physical bodies. We seek enlightenment by repeating this process, which is not based on reason but on physical acumen gained through our five senses. Therefore, those who capture “Genriki (験力)”— sacred power of nature and supernatural power of our deities— are given the title “Shugenja (修験者)” which means one who captured these powers. It is worth mentioning that practical training of Yamabushi is not limited to the mountains. Shugenja who obtained spiritual power in the mountains operate various activities in their community. This includes Goma (Homa) fire ritual, offering prayers and others, according to needs of the people. Not only actions in the mountains but actions at home—serving the people— is an important part of Shugenja practice.
                                                                                     – Tanaka Riten, previous Head Priest of Kinpusenji


Cold-water practice isn’t unique to Shugendo, it’s found in all aspects of Japanese folk religion and extends into the halls of formal Buddhist practice. In the past takigyo was practiced in secret and in solitude to cleanse the body and mind before group retreats, to build internal power and to commune with the Divine Body of the roaring fall. In the context of Esoteric-Buddhism and Shugendo, these practices are not just done for their efficacy, but as sadhanas are ‘means of realisation’; all (Esoteric-Buddhist) sadhana practice is based on the recognition of the twofold emptiness of self and phenomena as its starting point. These are skillful means for realising this as a felt experience, not just a conceptual one. These practices if performed correctly should cultivate and extend ones boundaries for compassion, empathetic joy and loving kindness, and ground the self in equanimity. The fruition of practice should equate to a more fuller experience -spacious awareness- of being alive; emotionally textured, connected, practically orientated and responsive towards the world. Cold water practice can loosen the tight grip we have on ourselves; we can carry ourselves more lightly, with novelty and humility, and allow our root sense organs to settle in their natural state. Countless people who practice the Wim Hof method report similar kinds of positive transformations taking place.


Wim’s method mimics aspects of combined shamatha (mindfulness) and vipassana (insight) meditation. In the shock of the cold, you come up against your subconscious gossip, the chattering mind and its thoughts – everything. This retreat into the internal solitude of the mind is the first step; engaging with the depth of our being. And all this is brought back to the awareness of breath as taught by the Buddha. The shock and electricity of being pulled back into the present “a state of neither ecstasy nor of dullness” – is the fundamental awareness of Vipassana.

In the context of Shinto, Shugendo and folk religion, these practices are also tied to seasonal rituals intended to renew and revive the relationships between microcosm and macrocosm. They are never stand-alone practices but are part of a broader cosmology/ontology based on both a personal ritual calendar and on revitalising the the on-going inter-relationship and threads of connectivity with the natural world - with all its plants and animals and the sky with its rain, and snow, stars, moon and sun and the beings that manifest within this interaction.


Norito (祝詞 koshinto sutra/incantations) are considered to capture the essence of kotodama (言霊), the idea that words have 'soul'. Norito speak of nature as a kind of macrocosmic system (of which we are a microcosm) which has the ability to purify and order chaos. In this cosmology of heaven-human-earth, humans bring their obscurations (穢れ/煩悩) to the mountain. In the mountains the Yamabushi perform misogi and takigyo in rivers and waterfalls. The Yama-no-Kami carries these through the valleys via streams and finally to the ocean where they are dispersed and blessed on the ocean floor. Rain is summoned and this water is brought back to the mountains.


In Shugendo the manners for the Takigyo rite are very specific and detailed and must be performed under the guidance of experienced 'Sendatsu' elders. There are specific actions, incantations and visualisations, and aspects of the rite change according to the time of the day, the time of the month (the waxing or waning moon), the purpose of the rite, and the rhythm of the asceticism being undertaken. These aspects also draw on associations with the Two Mandalas of Esoteric Buddhism. Among ascetic practitioners there is frequent reference to medical, psychological and accu-channel theories to explain the efficacy of the practice. The waterfall reminds us of the very origins of life and the major component which makes up our being. The waterfall is the amniotic fluid of gestation within the womb-matrix of the mountain. Near these sites we often find images of Fudo-Myo-o and his transformation as the serpent Kurikara; representations which hint at the power to be encountered in the fall as 'divine body'.


Morita (2006) is worth quoting to give a perspective on water practice in Shinto folk practice:


Shinto regards the power of nature, which generates and regenerates the myriad forms of life, i.e., musubi, as Kami. Shinto holds that nature and human beings are the manifestation of musubi, and they are interconnected through its working and process. 

Shinto concepts of purity and impurity play an important role in the ecological moral sense. From the ecological perspective, impurity or kegare refers to any harmful, exploitative, or destructive actions and behaviors toward nature, or anything which obstructs the process of musubi in nature. In order to maintain the triangular interrelationship between Kami, human beings, and nature, kegare should be removed by the ritual means of purification. Purity, restored by purification, is the basis of communion with Kami and musubi, and of experience of intimacy with nature.

Misogi is the act of lustration with water, and is performed at any place in relation to water such as the sea, rivers, ponds, or waterfalls. Above all, the most powerful form of misogi is practiced by standing under a cascading waterfall. This form of misogi is called misogi gyoho, and it is performed not only as a ritual, but also as an ascetic discipline. Here I use the term misogi to basically refer to this form, misogi gyoho.

On the relationship between purification rituals as an ascetic discipline and “the experience of intimacy with nature,” Shaner (1989) states: To be truly aware of nature is to prepare oneself to be a good listener, as it were. Buddhist and Shinto ritual practices can therefore be appreciated from the perspective of cleansing and polishing oneself in preparation for an encounter with oneself, others, and nature.

The purpose of misogi gyoho performed under the waterfall, according to Picken (2004), “is to commune with the Kami of the fall, to be united with great nature, to touch the cosmos, and to seek renewal though purification…The moment of impact when the water and the participant make contact can generate in some a level of cosmic awareness ... Second, misogi is a primal, pure, and unmediated experience ... It is an invitation to the purity of authentic experience itself... Third, misogi is not in any sense symbolic. It is actual purification that takes place at a physical and emotional level of which participants are profoundly aware. You will not know where your physical existence ends and the flows of the fall begins. For that moment, you and nature, daishizen [Great Nature], the cosmos, are one. Misogi simultaneously creates the awareness and satisfies the longing for the hungry to feel and experience nature in a way that assures and confirms that we are rooted in its life and processes. Standing under the fall, we are part of that process, for that time, an indistinguishable element of it returning to the source of life itself, living water.

Just as we are born by nature good, so we are instinctually capable of living in harmony with our environment. It is not necessary to inculcate, as though for the first time, a sense of oneness with nature and a vision of our interconnectedness with the environment: it is already there, needing only to be uncovered, swept clean of the impurities of civilization and petty ego-desires which have accumulated over the cultural and personal years of living. We are always already ecologically sensitive, at least at the subconscious or ‘deeper’ levels of our existence. Rather than loud shouting designed to bring us to an ecological consciousness, quiet meditation or participation in a ritual of purification might serve us better. We need less teaching and more self-realization, less consciousness raising and more subconsciousness deepening. The discovery is that the waterfall is Kami, and we are united with it as Kami.


I had the chance to meet Wim on the Gold Coast in 2017 and stayed back after the Q&A for a brief exchange. Wim said that he was inspired by the exercises seen performed by water-ascetic practitioners in Japan (‘Tori-Fune’; 鳥船 boat-rowing and 'Tamafuri '降り魂; Spirit Shaking exercises performed to reinvigorate the spirit before entering the water). Wim incorporates martial-art poses, calisthenic exercises and dynamic movements similar to these exercises to amp himself and the crowd up before entering the icy cold water. Wim was accompanied by Bart Biermans, a doctor who accompanies Wim to explain the scientific background of the method. Bart's interest lies in the immune system and how one can influence the autonomic nervous system. Bart said the methods ability to overpower the natural stress response is linked to an increase in adopose tissue (brown fat) and the ability to regulate ones temperature. Bart, who lives in Amsterdam, said that he no longer has to wear a jumper!


Wim said that he was greatly influenced by reading books on the Buddha, Kundalini and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Specifically Wim said he spent time studying the works of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Wim said that he had no formal initiation into the inner heat practices of Tibet (Like Tummo in the Six Yogas of Naropa) but said that he incorporated vase breathing and breath retention techniques into his practice after reading books and sharing information with Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. Wim was also greatly influenced by concepts found in Chinese/Japanese medicine and Yoga, and paraphrased that our vital energy is primarily influenced by the breathe, our ancestors and our diet. Looking at Wim, it is undeniable that he is humble, brimming with vitality and joy, and is eager to share these benefits with others; a great accomplishment. Wim said that one interesting result of his practice is his drastic reduction in the need for food and nourishment; he regularly sticks to one meal a day (usually pasta) - and sometimes a beer.

Perhaps the biggest link between Wim Hof and Shugendo is finding truth directly through nature - through one’s own experience and disciplined mental tenacity- without any mediation. I hope that gives some answer to the question.


If Mahayana Buddhism produced 'mindfulness meditation' as the ‘app’-able form of its practice, then perhaps the Wim Hof Method may be an example of a Tantric Buddhist (Vajrayana) app. Practices with side-effects of increased well-being or shifted energy are increasingly being 'de-sacralized' - that is, removed from their broader sacred context - and subjected to the lenses of materialism, rationalism, scientism and individualism. With all the scandal and violence of religious institutions on the one hand and the violence of modernity on the other it remains to be seen if this process is a good one. With time it will be interesting to see if more and more esoteric methods will be boiled down and repackaged as individual secular practices. For a good discussion of this see David Chapman's article 'A Killer App for Modern Vajrayana'.



Bibliography/Related:

Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory Porges
Waking the Tiger Levine
The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation Porges
Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy Ogden
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness Levine
Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Treleaven
Where are the Kami? Sekimori
Sourcebook in Shinto: Selected Documents Picken

In vivo correlates of thermoregulatory defense in humans
The Catalpa Bow: Shamanic Practices in Japan Blacker
Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans
Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East Gaster
Shinto Rituals for Revering Nature Morita
“Brain over body”–A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure 

The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Some remarks on Shinto Kitagawa
A Killer App for Modern Vajrayana Chapman
Immanent legitimation: Reflections on the “Kami Concept.” Haevens
The Life-long Spiritual Journey of an Apprentice Bonze Shionuma
The System of Ritual and Practice Omiya
Meditation Changes Body Temperature [Harvard Gazette]
Transcending Madness Trungpa
Wim Demonstrating his Technique [Video]
The Power of Ice: Interview with Kiki Bosch on cold-water free-diving, trauma and the Wim Hof Method
Vice Documentary on Wim Hof
Brain Over Body: Hacking the stress system to let your psychology influence your physiology
A Cold Water Cure: My Weekend with Wim Hof



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