What is mindfulness and why do you need to practice it? Science responds.

Wim Hof is a 60-year-old Dutch man known as “The Iceman” or “The Ice Man” due to a number of impressive achievements: He has 26 Guinness records; he climbed the highest mountain in the world, Everest, wearing only shorts and shoes; He has run marathons in the middle of the desert without drinking a drop of water and in the snow, barefoot and wearing only shorts.

This would be little more than a curious fact if it were not that in recent years extensive scientific research on Wim Hof was conducted and the data obtained was so surprising that it dramatically changed the minds of thousands of people, including myself.

A scientific problem

We all have a natural ability to deviate the mind and resist a little more in adverse conditions. Like when we are very cold, we feel some physical discomfort or we are tired. But when these aversive stimuli are too strong, a primitive part of the brain, known as the amygdala, is activated, sending signals to the hypothalamus, telling it to increase the functions necessary for survival.

Thus, the part in charge of acting rationally, the prefrontal cortex, is canceled for a time and our body emits responses that we are not able to control, such as high heart rate or sweating. Have you ever made a decision without much thought because you were under too much pressure? Perhaps even as much as you wanted to stop and analyze it, it was impossible for you. Most likely you were a victim of this process that seeks something as basic as keeping us alive, even if the problems you faced were not life or death. But this natural process does not seem to work the same way for all people.

A study carried out in 2018 sought to understand how Wim Hof’s impressive ability to resist extreme temperatures without flinching works. While exposing him to the cold, the researchers scanned his brain activity and found that the part that showed the most activity was in charge of reducing pain, rather than the amygdala.

This completely baffled them. Somehow Wim was controlling something that had hitherto been thought to be one hundred percent instinctive. Not only did he maintain his rational thinking, but his consciousness was in an optimal state. That is, despite the fact that he was subjected to an impressive amount of physical stress, he was able to regulate the immediate response of his brain (chills, increased blood pressure, among others) and direct it towards what he considered necessary (controlling discomfort ). In other words, he was completely in control of himself.

A miraculous method

Wim Hof ​​seemed to have found the answer to a question that no one had asked himself so far; not because it was not important, but because it was believed impossible. And he attributed these results to a complex method of meditation that he himself had developed, designed to obtain a level of full consciousness. The researchers were skeptical. They were naturally inclining to conclude that Wim was a unique case, a subject with unique and extraordinary innate abilities. But then it was time to check if his wildest statement was real: he said he was capable of teaching those skills to other people so they could accomplish feats similar to his.

The series of studies that had been carried out on Wim Hof ​​found that not only was he able to resist extreme cold and heat, but he could control his body’s immune response to reduce his propensity to get sick. With this in mind, the researchers designed a test in which Wim and a group of trainees who he would teach his meditation method to would be exposed to a common virus. In the end, they would compare it to a group that had not done that learning. The results seemed drawn from a science fiction story. All of Wim’s students had resisted the virus, while people who had not learned his method were ill.

How is it possible?

Perhaps like researchers you wonder how something like this can be real. Although the answer in scientific terms could be complex or technical, it is possible to attribute everything to one main factor: practice.

When we repeat an activity over and over again, our brain changes to create new neural networks that facilitate access to learned information. It is as if shortcuts are created inside our head and this works with any activity that is done long enough. So when we meditate with mindfulness we are practicing our ability to pay attention and focus on something specific.

This is something simple, but at the same time so powerful that it causes our amygdala (the one in charge of our primitive responses) to reduce its size and that the prefrontal cortex (the one that deals with our reasoning) thickens.

And as Wim Hof ​​demonstrated, this puts us in complete control of ourselves.

We should ask ourselves this question:

What would we be able to achieve if all our actions were guided by our conscience and not by emotions or impulses?

How to apply it in your life

Although the Wim Hof ​​meditation method is much more complex and has different factors, new studies have shown that in just eight weeks of practicing basic mindfulness meditation the size of the amygdala is reduced.

It is such a short period that we can easily incorporate it into our routine and enjoy the results before we know it. To do it properly and easily you can follow these steps.

1 – Define a place and an hour

It is as if your brain enrolled in a gym. You may feel better doing a meditation in the morning, afternoon, or before bed. You can only be sure which one works best for you once you’ve tried it. Also don’t forget that you need a place where you can calm down and no one is going to interrupt you.

2 – Put yourself in a correct position

You should be relaxed, without tensions in the body, but not in a way that encourages you to fall asleep. Preferably seek to sit, either on the floor, on a mat or in a chair, with your back straight and your arms at rest. You can have your eyes open or closed (ideally, throughout a session, if you notice that you start to wander or lose yourself in your thoughts, you change from one way to the other).

3 – Concentrate on your breathing

There is a close relationship between our breathing and our moods. When we are calm we breathe more slowly, while when we are upset our breathing is shaky. So start by being aware of how you are breathing. Follow carefully the path of the air that enters your lungs and then how it leaves your body through the nose or mouth. Although it is not the only way to do it. If it’s easier for you, you can count inspirations, be aware of the movement of your chest or just focus on your nose and mouth. You can choose the one that is easiest for you, as long as it allows you to focus your attention.

4 – Refocus

When you start, it is inevitable that thoughts come to interrupt our concentration. Our minds are so used to the chaotic rhythm of modern life that concerns, memories or ideas will soon come to the fore. At this point, all you have to do is get back to your breathing. The first few times it can be difficult, but that’s why you’re practicing it. Over time, you will be able to let those thoughts pass you by, without interrupting your mindfulness.

As I mentioned earlier, there are different methods to meditate. Some, like Wim Hof’s, are complex and have many specific steps, and others, such as just focusing on your breathing, can be practiced by anyone.

Perhaps you are more interested in one or the other, the important thing is that you are aware that doing so will generate great changes in your brain and that you can trust that meditation is a true tool at your disposal.

Do you dare to try?