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Off Duty is a series of lively conversations with influential people, from CEOs to celebrities, on life, work and the art of taking time off.

Last month, the extreme athlete Wim Hof celebrated his birthday as he always does by sitting in a rain barrel filled to the brim with ice.

The eccentric Dutch man turned 64, so in keeping with a tradition he started years ago, he spent the corresponding number of minutes in the freezing water to show his many fans that his passion for the cold – and his belief in its powers to heal the body and mind – is as rock solid as ever.

Hof, who is known as the Iceman, films this birthday ritual on the grounds of the Wim Hof Method Center, a bucolic place on the outskirts of Amsterdam, where he hosts weekend training sessions for people interested in learning the Wim Hof Method, or WHM, a practice that incorporates deep-breathing exercises, paired with exposure to extreme cold, as a way to “take control of your own physiology and accomplish things you never thought possible.”

Although his belief is strong, Hof has said he is not dogmatic about his technique, which is very personal to him. Hof has been doing it for years, ever since he was 17 and decided to take a dip in the frigid waters of the Beatrixpark canal. After his first wife died by suicide in 1995, cold water plunges became his salvation, he says, helping him deal with his grief while also empowering him with the physical and mental acuity to care for his four young children. “I had to survive, I went into the cold, and it healed me,” says Hof, who has since remarried and now has six children, ranging in age from 39 to six.

His technique gave him what he jokingly refers to as “superpowers.” He began pushing himself to do death-defying stunts such as spending nearly two hours submerged in ice water, climbing past the death zone at Everest wearing nothing but shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, and swimming under ice for 66 metres (the latter experience was life-changing, however there was a hitch, his corneas froze).

As word of his feats spread, the wellness guru’s notoriety and popularity grew. His Rolodex is full of famous friends (Oprah, Russell Brand, Justin Bieber) and there’s even a Hollywood film, called The Iceman, in the works with Joseph Fiennes.

Hof talked to The Globe and Mail about his journey from circus act to scientific mystery and now global health leader who remains steadfast in his belief that “cold, hard nature” is the ultimate teacher to create a more resilient body and mind.

Many of your practitioners swear by the benefits of cold water. What does it do for you?

For me it’s like deep meditation. I have always been a searcher of the soul. More than 40 years ago when I first went in, I loved it because it allowed me to connect so deeply with my physiology. The cold knows how to unlock it and I’ve never skipped one day of going into icy water since. Once you become used to doing it, it becomes addictive. In the cold, the adrenaline shoots through your body. What happens is beyond words. You should try it. You don’t know what you’re missing!

That’s probably true, but what if you don’t love the cold? Is there a way to get in touch with our inner power without freezing to death?

Maybe you can find another way, and if you do, I’d love to hear it. My way works because it’s a counter force against our comfortable and consumptive lifestyles, which have disconnected us from the natural environment. Because of this disconnection, our age-old survival mechanisms are no longer triggered. We’ve lost touch with our inner power. To stimulate these deep physiological processes and realize our full potential we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Anyone can reawaken these dormant physiological processes. My motto is ‘what I’m capable of, anyone can learn.’

How does the Wim Hof Method work?

There are three pillars: First, the conscious breathing technique involves taking deep breaths through your nose and then exhaling forcefully through the mouth. It helps increase lung capacity and improve oxygenation. It cleanses the body, makes us let go of irrational fears and breaks down anxiety. Next is the cold therapy, which many scientists have found speeds up metabolism. It also helps reduce inflammation, swelling and sore muscles. That’s why so many athletes use ice baths to speed up recovery. The last pillar is commitment. To be a better version of yourself, you must have will power.

The whole process sounds a bit terrifying. What are the “irrational” fears we should let go of?

Because of the comfort zone we live in, where our breathing is not so deep, irrational fears always come up that threaten to completely shut us down. By that I mean fears of getting sacked, or a partner leaving us, or not getting a promotion at work. Those fears are irrational. They are like a psychosis. Pushing yourself to go into the unknown releases blockages so you can start controlling your fears, instead of letting them control you.

Is there anything you are afraid of? Death, for instance?

No, I am not afraid of dying. I lost that fear after challenging myself to swim under ice. Let me say we are not built to swim under ice like seals. We are not equipped. After about 35 metres of swimming without goggles my cornea froze. I could not see and I kept swimming and swimming, and I missed the hole completely. I tried to go back but I had lost all sense of direction. It was life and death, but I did not feel anxiety, or any pain, I was just shutting down. At that moment a diver took me by the ankle and brought me back. I had that peek into a fearless state of being and I lost my fear of death. The thing I fear is something happening to any of my children. And I fear not having lived fully.

It must be hard for a full-steam-ahead guy like you to relax. What do you do to unwind?

I’m a man on a mission and a man on a mission never sleeps. However, I also am just a simple, relaxed person who likes to paint, draw, make music (I just made an album). I like to sculpt. I am writing a children’s book. I love plants so I can indulge all day in the garden, looking at insects and marvelling at how everything grows. I’m the kind of guy who gets high on my own supply.

Is there a message that you would like to leave with people?

A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away! Try it on and see for yourself. Start with 15 seconds and then every day, add 15 more, until you reach two minutes. I’ve been doing this for 47 years and I’m as flexible as a ballerina and I don’t get sick.

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