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Rebalancing the body: Meet Samuel Whiting, Wim Hof Method instructor

  • After a few cycles of deep breathing exercises, Samuel Whiting takes a cold-water bath in the Mill River. In the river, he breathes slowly and methodically to maintain his body’s warm temperature. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • By controlling his body through meditation and deep breathing techniques, Samuel Whiting, a Wim Hof Method instructor, is able to endure grueling physical challenges like cold-water immersion and barefooted hiking. During breathing sessions, he takes 30 deep breaths. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Once out of the cold water, Samuel Whiting goes through a series of movements designed to restore blood circulation to capillaries in his extremities. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Samuel Whiting prepares to submerge in cold water as part of the Wim Hof Method in Northampton. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Samuel Whiting floats in the cold Mill River and controls his breathing as part of the Wim Hof Method. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Samuel Whiting prepares to submerge in cold water as part of the Wim Hof Method in Northampton. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Samuel Whiting floats in a cold river and controls his breathing as part of the Wim Hof Method in Northampton. For The Recorder/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Samuel Whiting’s Wim Hof Method training group in a lake in Colorado. Contributed photo

  • Contributed photo Contributed photo

  • Samuel Whiting teaches breathing techniques as part of a Wim Hof Method workshop at the Warfield House Inn in Charlemont on May 17. Contributed photo



For the Recorder
Saturday, June 09, 2018

Floating in the Mill River last week, Samuel Whiting of Florence inhaled deeply and relaxed into the chilly water, extending his arms overhead in meditation. He rested for a minute, half-submerged, basking in afternoon sunlight.

Then he slowly exhaled, paused, and took another breath.

Three seconds in, seven seconds out, Whiting, 28, continued to breathe as the cold water — flowing down from Williamsburg’s hills into Northampton — rapidly cooled his body. In response, the arteries in his extremities constricted, shunting warm blood to his lungs and brain to maintain his core body temperature.

Through such cold water baths and focused breathing techniques, Whiting has learned to control his body. The practice, he said, has increased his energy, heightened his determination and reduced his stress. It’s called the Wim Hof Method, based on meditative practices developed by Dutch athlete Wim Hof.

After 10 minutes in the river, Whiting was unfazed. With temperatures in the mid-80s, staying in the river’s cold water for that long was hardly a feat for him. The Mill River’s relatively tepid tributary is a far cry from the frigid ice baths Whiting subjected himself to during the Wim Hof Method’s yearlong training program, which he continues to take regularly. Hof, an extreme athlete, holds 26 world records, including one for the longest ice bath, a few minutes shy of two hours, and another for running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle in Finland, barefoot and wearing only shorts. Later, in only shorts and shoes, Hof, who is known as “the iceman,” climbed 22,000 feet up Mount Everest. And in 2011, he ran a full marathon through the Namib Desert without water under a doctor’s close supervision.

The point of all of this, ultimately, is for practitioners to learn to regulate bodily functions through breathing to overcome difficult physical challenges, and, in doing so, to become healthier overall, Whiting said.

Hof claimed in a 2017 Rolling Stone article that his method can strengthen the body’s immune system and help cure multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, fear, depression, anxiety, pain, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and cancer. Over the years, he has subjected himself to scientific experiments in order to prove that his methods work, according to the Wim Hof Method’s website. To that end, Hof’s followers, like Whiting, regularly intentionally put themselves into uncomfortable situations, usually in nature to build mental fortitude.

“You are the conscious master, as Wim would say, of your physiology and your life,” Whiting said. “I like to call (the Wim Hof Method) a universal set of tools that consists of breathing exercises, cold exposure, and mindset focus. It can get really spiritual and philosophical, or it can be simple, and that’s something that I like about it.”

Becoming calm

Typically, a Wim Hof Method practice session consists of cycles of breathing exercises, cold-water immersion, and a movement-based activity to get blood back into the extremities, rebalancing the body’s systems, Whiting said. Every practice is different and carries no set time frame.

Based on ongoing scientific studies at universities — including Stanford, Harvard, Wayne State in Michigan, Australia’s RMIT University, Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, Netherlands and The Amsterdam Medical Centre — it’s been found the method can strengthen the body’s immune system, increase metabolic and brain activity and decrease inflammation, pain and stress levels, Whiting said.

Whiting’s Wim Hof 10-week training, a little more than year ago, was guided mostly online, but ended with a weeklong instructional session taught by Hof in Colorado. It culminated in a three-hour hike to a remote part of Colorado, where his group spent 10-minutes in a lake in which the water temperature was measured at 27 degrees.

“Maybe you feel the cold in your bones, knives diving into your skin. Or you could feel really invigorated, and a lot of fire. Everybody is different,” Whiting said before he took his dip in the Mill River. He sat cross-legged on the grass near the Smith College track while he talked. Growing up, Whiting said, he struggled with depression and struggled to fit in at school. Today, he continued, he mostly feels calm, a state he attributes to practicing Hof’s method.

Since his training, Whiting has completed his own cold- weather feats locally, such as hiking Mount Monadnock barefooted and in the cold, and traversing Mount Greylock last winter wearing only shorts and boots. Last weekend, he swam in the ocean off Wellfleet on Cape Cod, taking five minute breaks in between five minute dips.

He acknowledges that he takes an extreme approach to the practice. Others, he said, can receive physical benefits from doing lesser activities such as simple breathing exercises followed by cold showers. He noted ongoing work by researchers to adapt the method’s principles — breathing exercises, meditation and cold therapy — to help elders and hospital patients.

A disclaimer on the Wim Hof Method’s website warns practitioners to always do breathing exercises on the floor to prevent injury from passing out, and to take an ice bath somewhere safe, also in case of losing consciousness. Participants are advised to build up their tolerance to the cold over time, and anyone with a health condition, particularly those with cardiovascular ailments, should contact a doctor before trying it out.

Usually, Whiting, who is also a trained yoga instructor, practices deep breathing for an hour every morning, hikes barefooted later in the day, and takes a cold-water bath a few times each week.

All of this, he said, has given him a deeper appreciation of life.

First came yoga

Whiting’s interest in the Wim Hof Method came through yoga, which he began practicing weekly about six years ago.

While in high school at Northampton High, he said, he enjoyed competitive skiing and tennis. But during college at the University of New Hampshire, where he studied accounting and finance, he sought a physical outlet that meshed better with his work schedule.

“(Yoga) was a new spark for me,” he said. Initially, he particularly liked yoga’s focus on breathing. During classes, it “sounds like the ocean, waves crashing on the shore.”

Whiting eventually moved on to Shiva Shakti Power Yoga in Northampton, characterized by a sequence of postures aimed at strengthening the mind-body connection. Over the years he earned a yoga teaching license there. In 2014, he moved to Boston for a job at State Street Bank in the mutual fund bank loans servicing department. Outside of work, he taught yoga at Baptiste Power Yoga Boston, an offshoot of Shiva Shakti in Northampton.

He discovered the Wim Hof Method one evening while browsing videos online. He was intrigued, he said, by its focus on breathing and the physical challenges it incorporates.

Full-time pursuit

These days, having left his job at the bank, Whiting combines his yoga experience with the Wim Hof Method by leading training sessions full-time for beginners and yoga instructors, alike. Most recently, a few weeks ago, he led a workshop at the Warfield House Inn in Charlemont.

“People came from Maine, people came from New Hampshire, people came from Vermont. There were some local people, as well as others from Boston,” Whiting said.

His instruction covered deep-breathing techniques he said are needed to endure physical challenges. At the Mill River, he demonstrated those methods.

In preparation for submersion in cold water, Whiting’s breathing includes intentionally hyperventilating to increase the amount of alkaline in his blood and to blow off C02, fundamentally changing his body’s chemistry, he said. Without controlled breathing, the body’s natural response is panic and rapid breathing, he said.

Before going into the river, Whiting took 30 long and slow breathes, and then held his breath for a few minutes, before continuing another cycle. He felt light-headed, he said, which is normal. After the second cycle his attention is focused, triggered by adrenaline, Whiting said, preparing him for immersion in the cold water.

After meditating in the river, he stood up into a crouch, with feet wide apart, and moved his arms in rhythmic and flowing movements.

“Once you get out of the water, it’s ‘horse dance,’” he said. “Activation of the thighs activates the adrenal axis.”

By contracting and flexing specific muscles like the intercostal muscles in the chest, Whiting said, he directs warm blood to his extremities. By controlling his body, including its blood flow and chemistry, Whiting said he’s become more connected with nature, and has learned to regulate his emotions.

“You align yourself with nature. You can find stillness — peace, perhaps,” he said. “Using cold water and breathing can access the soul.”

How to connect

This month, Samuel Whiting is kicking off a series of instructional classes in the Wim Hof Method, intended for beginners. For more information and to find when the next workshop is, visit samuelwhiting.com. To find out more about Wim Hof and his method, visit wimhofmethod.com. To reach Whiting directly, email contact@samuelwhiting.com.