Bio-hack Your Brain with Meditation
I hiked a mountain for the first time in February. It was to be the culmination of a meditation project I’d set for myself about four months prior.
My intention was to hike a mountain in my shorts, in the snow. Much like the guy in this link, Wim Hof, also known as The Ice Man. (not pictured, that dude up there is me)
I’d first heard his story on this episode of The School of Greatness Podcast, and if I’m perfectly honest, it’s what inspired me to begin looking seriously into meditation again. That was back in November 2016, and that’s where this journey started.
If you’re a reader of my blog or a listener of the podcast (thank you), then you know that I do a lot with mindset. Part of this is that when I come up with or come across something that seems interesting, I try to implement it into my life before talking about it. It’s a personal ‘validation’ technique that I find keeps me from doing more than sitting on my couch playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all day
After learning about Wim Hof and his breathing method, I decided to look into it a bit further, and see if I could implement that in my life, and replicate the results that he’s had. Granted, he does have a course teaching his method, and it would have been simpler to enroll in it. I instead went with using what he taught in that youtube video above, read up on pranayama yoga, and drew from prior meditation experience that I’d grown up with.
Before I go into what exactly what exercises I used, I’d say this first: don’t try this yourself. I can’t recommend anyone to just try something after reading about it on the internet. I have over 20-years experience in martial arts that included various forms of meditation. I’m also a little bit weird and don’t mind being a personal guinea pig. I can recommend you take Wim Hof’s course here, though. (not an affiliate link)
That being said, on to the exercises:
The first thing I tried was the experiment with the pushups. In case you didn’t visit the video above, Wim has you do as many pushups as you can. He guides you through a breathing exercise much akin to hyperventilation (a.k.a. pranayama yoga), tells you to hold your breath, and then do as many pushups as you can.
The first time I did this, I did 40 pushups the way I’d normally do them. Afterward, I was a bit winded, and my arms wouldn’t let me do any more than that.
After the breathing exercise, and then while holding my breath, I did 55 push ups. I’m still not sure of the purpose of doing these pushups, or what it might have to do with meditation, but the increase in pushups was a neat side-effect. Who doesn’t want to be able to add more pushups to their workout? Not only did I do more, but I was not winded, and I felt like I could probably do another 30-40 pushups immediately after.
Now with that out of the way, I was curious to see what effect this breathing/meditation would have on my daily performance. Wim couples it with cold exposure, so I decided that I wasn’t going to wear a coat all throughout winter. In fact, I didn’t wear long-sleeves until after my mountain hike.
I don’t have access to any fancy schmancy equipment, but going by my experience and observation, it started with breathing exercises. A few rounds of hyperventilation followed by holding breath.
This is also known as a Kumbhaka. After doing this, I’d go into my usual morning exercise. In the winter this varied between calisthenics and yoga stretches.
Next was cold exposure. I’ve always called myself a winter child. I love looking at snow. The world just feels alright when you’re inside next to a warm fire and holding a cup of hot cocoa while fluffy snow falls from the sky. It creates a nice blanket and, I’ve always thought, makes the world just a bit quieter and more peaceful.
I never much liked actually being cold. Nor did I enjoy cold showers. But, if someone else could do it, then I could too – I thought.
For the most part, I’d proved myself right. This may simply be acclimation, rather than a result of the training I was putting myself through. Day-by-day the cold showers wouldn’t feel as cold. Eventually, I could comfortably take a 10-minute cold shower. That was when I learned that shampooing with ice-cold water wasn’t the most efficient way to wash.
I thought the outdoor walks with short sleeves would be the hardest thing I’d have to do. Interestingly, the first time I’d gone out in 20 Degree Fahrenheit (-6C) weather, it felt warmer than the cold shower. I’d walk outside for about 4-miles and then head back indoors.
The final thing I did to acclimate to cold was taking ice baths.
It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Fill up a bathtub with cold water, and then put ice in it. I did this twice a week with ice for four weeks. The other days were a cold bath but no ice. Each time I’d be in the bath for up to 4 minutes but didn’t go over. I won’t lie, while I could get used to the temperature, as soon as I lost focus, it felt cold. Like, really cold. Like I was taking a bath in a tub full of ice.
All the while doing that cold exposure training, I was practicing pranayama yoga daily. I was exercising daily. I was increasing my cold tolerance daily.
So what result did I see through following this routine?
This was one that I’d been hoping I would see. Given that meditation was a key aspect of the training regimen, I figured I’d see some results in my brain. What I didn’t expect, was that I would notice results in as little as four or five minutes. I’ve read that pranayama exercises can affect the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the stress hormone.
This means that things such as digestion, immune function, heart rate, and other physical responses are impacted. Through the breathing exercises, I immediately saw less stress. Interestingly, things that would normally stress me out during the day (i.e. problems at work, issues within relationships, not meeting goals) no longer did so. Other results from the pranayama exercises that I’d noticed include a greater sense of calm and mental flexibility.
I wholeheartedly believe that mental flexibility is a key to having a powerful mindset. Many guests in the podcast have alluded to similar themes, so I was absolutely satisfied with this result.
This one is a little more dubious, but I’ll throw it in anyways. I don’t typically get sick often, unless everyone around me is sick. This results in a typical once or twice a year common cold.
While I was maintaining this routine, I didn’t catch a cold all winter. Despite my ice baths and short sleeves in below freezing weather, I didn’t catch a cold. Even when everyone in my household caught the flu, twice, I didn’t catch a cold.
HOWEVER, after my mountain hike, I let up on the intensity of my routine, and began to get into workaholic mode. I noticed my stress levels go up, my sleep go down, and two weeks later I did, in fact, catch a cold. Nothing major, some congestion, and a light cough. But I wasn’t bulletproof. I’ve since begun to practice daily again, but will likely need to wait until next winter to see if it holds up.
That was my experience, though. I give it a pass-ish.
Maybe that’s the significance of that pushup exercise? I never do pushups in sets of less than 50 now. I’d been exercising regularly for years, and for whatever reason, that has always been a struggle. Now I can do 50, and it’s easy. I didn’t have to struggle to get to that number, and I’m not wheezing when I’m done.
In addition, for my first mountain hike, from the bottom to the top was about a 5000ft (1524 meters) increase in elevation over 5.5 miles (8.8km). I made it to the top in about 2.5 hours. I don’t have any other hikes to compare it to, though; a more experienced hiker could tell me if that’s just average or if it’s notable.
It felt notable to me, so I’m giving it a pass as a measurable result.
To wrap up the training, I wanted to do a snow-mountain hike. I felt that would be something interesting enough to write about. I had originally planned to make that the subject of my post-experiment essay.
Unfortunately for me, the weather was impeccable when I had gone. I did my best to arrive during a snow-storm or something. I’d called the ranger a few days in advance to check the weather, and the best response I got was “we can never predict the weather on the mountain.” So I made my best guess and headed over.
There was snow! But no cold, unfortunately. Still got a good hike, but I’ll have to train up again next year and head to a more snow-guaranteed mountain.
Can pranayama yoga pass for biohacking? If you continually practice it and work it into your life, then yes, I feel it can. However, it’s not something that you do once, and experience life-long results.
Much like martial arts, if you stop practicing, your skills will eventually get rusty. You may have some lingering reflexes, but unless you maintain the practice, you’ll lose the skills you’ve built up.
The results that I’ve experienced from the practice are worth it though. I definitely felt like my immune system was bullet-proofed while practicing daily in the dead of winter.
My mindset was overall positive, and had begun to default to more optimistism whereas it typically goes to more “realistic” places. Mental fog was a non-issue. If I ever felt unclear, I could do a round two of breathing, and it would clear up and I could get going again.
I’d used it in mood-hacking as well. If I felt stressed or felt down, and didn’t want to feel that way. Or if my mind was racing around a less than positive subject, I could do a few rounds of breathing and meditation and my brain chemistry would feel more normalized. As a person who had struggled with depression for many years, this result alone was well worth the effort.
If you’d like to try a routine similar to what I’d did, I’ll be writing up a short post for mental clarity in a bit. It’ll outline the exercises that I’d used that were most effective for clearing away mental fog and runaway thought-trains, and leave space for creativity and awesome sauce.