Relighting our inner-fire with a Wim Hof Method retreat at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Scotland.

Emma Douglas experiences an extraordinary Wim Hof Method retreat with instructor Allan Brownlie at Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland. Through vigorous breathing workshops, cold dips in local rivers, highland hikes and camaraderie she learns how to control her physiology to reverse the effects that central heating, stressful living and a disconnect with nature can have on us all.

My entire body is tingling with adrenaline and the only sound I can hear is the ringing in my ears.   I have just finished my first Wim Hof breathing workshop and I feel exhilarated, if slightly disorientated.

I’ve come to the magnificent Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands to learn the method developed by world record holder Wim Hof. Known as the ‘Ice Man’, the famous Dutchman has summited Mount Killamanjaro wearing just a pair of shorts and immersed himself in ice for 80 minutes. The winter sun may be out, but I’ll be amazed if I stay immersed in Alladale’s rivers for 80 seconds.

My fellow Wim Hof-ers include a fitness coach, a keen open water swimmer and others with backgrounds ranging from military to fashion design.  We are all lured by the promise of stronger immune systems, greater mental clarity, increased sports performance and better sleep.  For the last month we have all endured a cold shower each day in an effort to prepare ourselves, physically and psychologically, for what we are to experience this weekend.

Instructor Allan Brownlie is a dedicated athlete whose own performance and life have been transformed by the Ice Man’s method. After introducing the three core pillars of breathing, cold exposure and commitment, Allan wastes no time in launching into our first breathing exercises. Our stomachs are still empty from our journey but we’re reassured this is ‘ideal’.

We progress through several rounds of increasingly rapid ‘deep conscious breathing’. At intervals, we hold the breath for one minute, before clenching all our muscles on a final inhale.  In this group setting, the experience feels surreal and almost cult-like.

When we’ve gathered ourselves, we come together to prepare and enjoy our first communal meal and to hear Allan expand on Wim Hof’s core teachings. Put simply, regular breath work and cold exposure enable us to control our own physiology. Central heating and modern comforts have prevented our bodies working effectively, but we can reverse this disconnect with nature. Using a simple technique – now supported by credible scientific research – we can learn to regulate our heart rate and blood pressure, trigger immune responses and increase the alkalinity of our bodies for fast recovery. The technique also produces brown fat (‘good’ fat derived from muscle tissue) that stabilises blood sugar and generates heat by burning energy.

Allan is grinning as we walk to the river for our first cold immersion, reminding us that we are here ‘to have fun in nature’.  I fear this may be Type 2 fun – the kind that is only fun in retrospect. I also fear that stripping to my swimwear in front of a bunch of strangers is the now the least of my worries.

‘At moments, while submerged to my neck, I laugh uncontrollably at this bizarre ritual in which I’m choosing to participate. But I’m soon back on the river bank, feeling invincible and even joyful as I punch the air to regain sensation in my extremities’

Allan’s voice is firm as he instructs us to prepare ourselves, hold our shoulders back and then descend gradually and ‘with intention’ into the water.  Through the cold water shock that ensues, he reminds us to keep breathing and stay focused.   We manage just one minute, before emerging to high-five each other with elation.

Over the course of three days, our breathing workshops become more vigorous and our cold exposures more determined. We incorporate stretches and mobility exercises to ensure the blood is pumping and that our focus is retained when we emerge from the river.  At moments, while submerged to my neck, I laugh uncontrollably at this bizarre ritual in which I’m choosing to participate. But I’m soon back on the river bank, feeling invincible and even joyful as I punch the air to regain sensation in my extremities. On the final day I positively look forward to the river, and stay immersed for 5 long minutes in water that is just 5*C.

The group enjoys other communal experiences, including hikes through snow-capped hills and spectacular valleys where golden eagles are circling above and herds of highland cattle are grazing.  We meditate under open skies and the watchful eye of wild stags, stand barefoot in the morning frost at sunrise and embrace the heat of a log fire at night.

On our final day, Allan leads us in an experiment to test our physical performance following the breathing exercises. We embark on our grand finale of deep conscious breathing, before holding our breath and going straight into a burst of press-ups. I’m astonished to manage 50 in a row, which is far beyond the number I can usually muster.

As I leave Alladale behind me, I realise that the Ice Man’s method has rewarded me with more ‘fun in nature’ than I imagined possible. I’m a Wim Hof convert, and I choose to commit.