The Will van Zyl interview

by Mark Davies

Why Wim Hof?

I spoke to Will in February 2022, just as storm Eunice forced us to hunker down, terrified of being blown away. Outside my window, the trees jigged and jived, setting a manic background to Will’s easy, laidback demeanour. 

On screen, sun poured through a large window, emphasising the bright whiteness of Will’s distinctly summery short-sleeved shirt. By contrast, your humble writer was wrapped in wool, vainly hoping to ward off the wintery weather.  

It was clear which of us has spent the most time immersed in ice cold water.

“I teach the Wim Hof Method, because it is the simplest, yet most powerful and effective way that I’ve experienced to get to a very calm, pleasant state of mind,” he told me.

Speaking to Will, I quickly realised, is also an effective route to a calm, pleasant state of mind.

“And it has helped me with my own physical challenges with arthritis and arthritic pain in my back,” he continued.

Will described a “lifetime of challenges” with his back, which began around the start of his teens and continues to this day. A misshapen spine was worsened when Will broke his back aged 17. It refused to heal properly, so he underwent an invasive, traumatic spinal fusion, which left him with limited movement and “a lot of wear and tear in different places.” I’ll spare the gory details, but Will’s description left this (admittedly squeamish) man wincing, quite pathetically.

Later in life, Will began to suffer with arthritis in his neck and spine, which caused a lot of pain. As a result, he found himself chewing non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (super strong, highly addictive painkillers to you and I) “like candy.”

Eventually, with the demands of work and family and too much self-neglect, Will’s body decided it had had enough.

“It shouted at me: you’ve got to do something different! And the way it shouted at me was that two discs in the middle of my spine popped out. It was excruciating.”

I winced. Again.

I teach the Wim Hof Method, because it is the simplest, yet most powerful and effective way that I’ve experienced to get to a very calm, pleasant state of mind.

A typical day that changes everything

When his spine popped, Will knew something had to change. So, he started researching. Coincidentally, he also spoke to a friend of his sister-in-law about an ice bath experience they were going to try at the Roundhouse in Camden.

Wim Hof wasn’t entirely new to Will – he’d “been flirting with his stuff online”, so he said, “why not?” and he went along.  

“It was a typical day for me. Pain in the body. Stiff.”

But this typical February evening became a remarkable, life-changing experience. After an hour and a half of extensive, intensive breathwork, Will couldn’t feel his body, let alone any pain.

“And then we did the ice baths, which felt like coming home.”

“Coming home” isn’t how most people would describe an ice bath, but then, unlike most people, Will’s always been comfortable in the cold.

“I said ‘I can do this for longer. I really like this’. And when I left that event, I had no pain in my body. I felt lighter. I felt limber. I thought ‘hang on a second, if this works for me to the point where I literally cannot even feel where there’s a challenge – whereas normally I’m taking pain killers to dull the pain – then I want to explore it more and I want to teach it.”

That was three years ago, and he’s been exploring, practising and teaching the Wim Hof Method ever since.

A perfect match, naturally

As well as being a Wim Hof instructor, Will’s a qualified yoga teacher and a breathwork practitioner, with a focus on wellbeing. He doesn’t concentrate only on physical or mental wellbeing, but on wellbeing across a range of dimensions, as a platform from which to fully engage in life. So, when Mark first got in touch to discuss the possibility of working together, Will was immediately sold.

Wilderness, wellness, nature, 1,000-year legacy. The ability to take multiple generations out of their normal life and into nature and then to start working there to bring about a sense of what is possible to become well and be well in life,” he beamed. “I just said to him ‘I want to be involved’. I didn’t know exactly what it would be – events, whatever, I wanted to be involved.”

As plans took shape, it was clear that the event could be something special.

“We thought, why don’t we make it an “Event”. Make it something meaningful. Something engaging. Something almost transformational. Not quite setting out to do that but having the potential to do that.”

In the end, the Event more than lived up to its potential.

“There was such a profound connection out in the woods, doing the breath work and the ice work under the trees with the flame torches. Then settling around the campfire, sharing and learning and connecting with people.”

After the first event, Will knew he wanted to remain involved with The Wellderness, not only because of the event and the community, but because of Mark and Matt and what they’re building.

“The work they’re doing is just remarkable,” he said. “Those two men have great vision. They have great energy and big hearts.”

He’s not wrong.

Those two men have great vision. They have great energy and big hearts.

Expect to experience euphoria

When it comes to our Wim Hof events, you should expect “an experience.”

“It’s not a lot of talking. It’s not a lot of theory. It’s not a lot of facts and figures. There is a lot of science behind it, but that’s not what this is about. If they let themselves go and they open their minds a little bit and just trust the process and the space we create, they will get into a place of calm, pleasant wellbeing that many people have never accessed.”

The breathwork alone will give you a sense of relaxation and presence, of physical and emotional lightness. If you’re open to it, the occasion and the technique will give you a “sense of community and connection that otherwise might not be.”

“Then they can expect – and this is important – to be given the opportunity to face what, for a lot of people, is quite a significant challenge. But to face that challenge with calmness and support from the connections.”

And that challenge, my friends, is the ice bath.

Bath or barrel? That is the question.

Will was eager to point out that no one is forced or cajoled into the ice. If, when the time comes, you want to take the plunge, you’ll do it with a sense of calm and with the support to do something that might otherwise have felt beyond you.

“The last thing I’ll mention is, if they do the ice bath, they can expect to feel a sense of euphoria and elation, achievement and accomplishment, in a natural environment.”

It sounds amazing and anyone who has been to our Wim Hof Fundamental events will no doubt agree.

If they do the ice bath, they can expect to feel a sense of euphoria and elation, achievement and accomplishment.

Feel the elements

What I wanted to know was, for someone who, say, likes a woolly jumper when it’s a bit blustery, what’s the best way to prepare for an ice bath – other than a short blast of cold water at the end of a lovely warm shower?

“Get out into nature,” Will replied. “Especially in Sussex where there’s so many beautiful woodlands or beach walks.”

Go on, I thought, now you’re talking.

“And do it with gradually less and less clothing.”

Um….

“Take something warm with you if it’s not what you’re accustomed to doing. But get out there on a cold day, even with the wind and the elements really, really, really excited. Go out in some layers and strip off to your lowest layer and just feel the power of those elements on you.”

Try to be present and mindful. Be aware of your response to the cold. Stand still and breathe through it, “nice and deep in, deep out.” As you become accustomed to it, you’ll find that you don’t need to protect yourself as much.

Obviously, don’t rush out in the middle of winter in just a t-shirt – you’ll get hypothermia! If you build up gradually, you’ll develop a tolerance. Then you’ll learn to find the reconnection with nature, which is at the heart of both The Wellderness and the Wim Hof Method.

Connecting with ourselves as part of nature

“We are a fundamental part of nature,” Will pointed out, adding that nature is within us as well. And this connection to ourselves as part of nature is a core element of the Wim Hof Method.

“We go inwards and connect and then go outside and connect.”

“It’s an interesting perspective shift. If you think of the word connection, that means you take something and you put it together. What we need to realise is that we [people and nature] are already one thing. We need to realise that there are no boundaries. At some point, our body is going to be part of the earth again.”

Will went on to say that we come from the earth, we enjoy this bit in the middle called life, then we go back to the earth.

“Because we have this thing called life, we think that it’s separate from nature. It’s not. It’s just a moment in that part of nature.”

Wired into our environment

There was so much more to our conversation, but you don’t have all day to sit around reading blog posts. Besides, the best way to learn about the Wim Hof Method is to take part in one of our workshops. You can find details of all our upcoming events, here.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Will’s final thought on our reconnection with nature.

“Our skin neurology, our psycho-chemistry is wired to connect us into our environment, not separate us from it. It’s a sensory and perceptive system and a neurological, neuro-ceptive system that constantly keeps our body in balance with what is going on around us. We don’t even know that it happens, yet we layer ourselves in anything possible to prevent it happening. If we just take the layers off – both the physical layers and the layers of misinformation or disbelief – we’ll realise that our bodies can respond so much better. And the health you get from that in body, mind and heart is phenomenal.”

If there’s a more compelling argument for an ice bath in the woods, I’m yet to hear it.

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