WHEN he was constantly sick with sinus problems and on antibiotics all the time, Renaud Cmela just wanted to get better.
A Frenchman who lives in Cork, he was also on prescription drugs to deal with anxiety.
But now Renaud, aged 39, has a new lease of life - all thanks to a health regime that revolves around breathing exercises, mindset and exposure to the cold. He is also a breathing instructor himself.
“I stopped taking the prescription drugs about 15 years ago,” says Renaud of his move towards a healthier lifestyle, “but I was still feeling anxious and had to learn to deal with stress.
“I went online and found a video about the Wim Hof method.”
Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. His recent BBC TV show Freeze The Fear demonstrating his techniques has been a big hit with viewers.
Renaud, who also does sports, says he became passionate about the Wim Hof method.
“It helped me so much. I used to hate cold water. I started having cold showers and now I have them every day.”
It’s all part of keeping the body and mind in its optimal state.
For most of our evolutionary history, a tough environment automatically did this for us. Sub-zero temperatures, strong winds and hungry wolves kept our muscles and veins supple and our minds sharp.
Today, our phones are tiring out our brains and we sit in warm rooms in stiffening chairs. As a result, those natural defences are no longer on high alert. We become ill more easily, we get stressed, lose sleep and wake up unfocused and lacking in energy.
“The thing is,” explains Renaud, “we go into cold water thinking we don’t like it. But there’s no other way around it - it’s cold. But when we know about the benefits of cold water and cold exposure, it helps.
“If you fight cold water, you make your body tense and it won’t do anything to help you. But if you go with the flow and embrace it and are at one with the water, by the time you focus on your breath, you’ll forget about the fact that it’s cold.
“It’s important to take it step by step. I would advise starting slowly.”
Thankfully, Renaud says you don’t have to have an ice-bath to benefit from the cold.
Instead, he says, “you should expose your body to water that is 16 degrees celcius and below. If you go to the beach, it’s usually colder than that in Ireland.”
Starting with 15-seconds sessions, “you can learn to be in control of your breath by doing breathing exercises. It’s fine to do a few hundred hyper ventilation breaths because during the day, we breathe about 20,000 to 25,000 times.”
But most of us breathe the wrong way, says Renaud.
“People usually breathe using the upper chest and the mouth. When we breathe like that, we breathe faster and let a lot more air in. But the mouth has other purposes while the only purpose of the nose is breathing. Less air comes in through the nose so the breath is automatically slowed down.
“The hairs inside the nose filter viruses and bacteria. Breathing through the nose also slows down the heart rate.”
Why do we get it wrong?
“It’s easier to breathe through the mouth,” explains Renaud.
“But when we do that, we exhale more carbon dioxide than when we breathe through the nose.
“Breathing through the mouth, because it increases the heart rate, creates stress. Also, it’s about not getting out of our comfort zone.”
Over-breathing for very short spurts is good for you, he says.
“It creates hormetic stress (the ideal level of exposure to stressors).”
Small doses are key.
So how has the Wim Hof method improved the quality of Renaud’s life?
“My mental health is now very good. I’m much happier. I take things more lightly.
“Mental health is a big problem for people. And cardiovascular issues are the number one cause of death for people around the world.
“By taking ice-baths, you can help with the cardiovascular system by learning to breathe better.
“The exposure to the cold and breathing exercises give us more energy. It helps me with sports also, making me perform better.”
Renaud says that he is more determined now to get out of his comfort zone.
“When you leave your comfort zone and later, go back under the blanket, you enjoy the blanket even more.”
He admits he’s “not a massive fan of cold water but I know its benefits and I know it’s good for me.”
Leaving your comfort zone can involve doing sports or learning a new language.
“You can do things you wouldn’t usually do. I push myself a bit more. It doesn’t have to be ice-water for everyone.”
Renaud says that people often say they don’t have the motivation to step outside their usual routines. “But when you have discipline, motivation will come.”
He hasn’t been unwell since he started the Wim Hof method five years ago, although he admits he could become ill again.
His clients include people who suffer from sleep apnoea or asthma.
“I helped a young man who was in a wheelchair. He had leukaemia and it attacked his brain. He couldn’t speak. I helped him with his breathing.
“When his speech started to come back slowly, I helped him to say complex words so he could start having conversations again.”
Renaud also trains people in the Oxygen Advantage. It focuses on “functional breathing, the way we breathe in everyday life. Watching TV or cooking or being at a meeting, you can do small exercises and nobody will notice what you’re doing.”
There are also exercises that take longer and can be done early in the morning or before going to bed.
To find out about attending breath work sessions, go to Renaud’s website: www.breathinginstinct.com.