Here’s how breathing techniques, cold therapy and a search for meaning transformed Kym Burls from a TV-bingeing couch potato into a health and wellness guru.
Kym Burls: Cold comfort
As he stood barefoot in the freezing Polish snow, huddled in a circle with complete strangers, Kym Burls knew this was a life-changing moment.
But his sense of elation soon began to shift as the pain of the cold shot up through his body.
“We were all smiling and supporting one another and we stayed out there; stayed out there; stayed out there,” Kym says.
“Then you see everyone’s faces starting to shift, me included, because this is starting to hurt, really hurt, and you think, ‘What the hell have I signed up to here, this is crazy’.”
What Kym had signed up to was a five-day course in the ways of the Wim Hof Method. Dutchman Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman”, is an extreme athlete and global health leader whose philosophy is based on three pillars: breathing, cold therapy and commitment. The aim is to become strong, happy and healthy, reconnecting with yourself and nature through specific breathing techniques and exposure to cold.
For Kym, his first breathing session on day one of the course blew his mind.
“It gave me a sense of peace and calmness that I hadn’t felt in decades,” he says.
“This was day one and our first session. It was incredible; phenomenal. I didn’t even know breath work, other than inhale and exhale. This was an introduction into the power that breathing can have on us.
“I remember thinking, ‘What the heck just happened? How can me doing this breathing thing for 30 minutes give me this deep feeling of calmness?”
The next part of the process involved Kym and the group jumping into an icy river.
“We all put our bathers on and I’m presuming we are going to learn the secret to jumping in,” Kym says.
“We walk down to the river and I’m thinking the secret is coming and then the instructor says, ‘Just jump in’. I thought, but where is the secret, the wisdom behind this?
“I was the last one to jump in and because of everything I had been through in life to that point, the symbolism of letting go and jumping into that water was incredibly powerful and emotional. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it now.
“It was incredible. I didn’t cry because I was too cold, but I won’t lie, it wasn’t fun. I was so cold that I needed someone to help me get changed – I’m talking pulling the bathers off and putting the underpants on. That water was near zero.”
It was the culmination of years of mental health struggles that led Kym to Poland on that cold day in January, 2018.
The 39-year-old, who grew up in Hahndorf, says he had a normal childhood with dad Philip and mum, Josephina, a nurse who emigrated to Australia from The Netherlands.
“I’m an only child so I like to say Mum and Dad stopped at perfection,” Kym jokes.
“Because Mum is Dutch, we went to Europe every four years, so that was an incredibly rewarding experience as a child to see other cultures.
“Mum also raised me bilingual so I am fluent reading, writing and speaking Dutch. That has been a special thing for me.”
The former Cornerstone College student embarked on a career in digital marketing and one of his first jobs was at People’s Choice Credit Union, where he was crowned King of the Christmas pageant in 2013.
Job opportunities soon followed in Sydney and by his mid-30s Kym had carved out a successful career and social life in the harbour city.
“I dived into that sort of lifestyle where I worked long hours, first for a finance company and an HR tech firm,” he says.
“I did things like following LinkedIn groups and I was networking with like-minded professionals, and signing up to marketing newsletters. But, if I look back, I knew there was still something missing.
“Simultaneously, I was always looking at external validation, things like job title, salary, house, clothes, where I ate and drank. I was looking at things like this from a self-worth perspective and I didn’t realise it was super unhealthy.”
The tipping point came when Kym was made redundant in mid-2017 – one day before he was due to sign the contract on his first home.
“I put a lot of happiness and hopes and dreams into that Aussie dream of bricks and mortar,” he says. “When that fell over it knocked the wind out of me.
“So, I ate a lot of pizza, I like to say I single-handedly increased the shares of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream and I streamed a lot of Netflix. I was overweight, unhealthy and not connected with me, feeling lost.
“It’s only when we make the decision, or the decision is made for us, that we stop and put the brakes on and look at what is going on in our lives. I came to the realisation that I was very unhappy in almost every area of my life.”
Kym admits he had suffered depression over the years, as well as an eating disorder as a teenager. Another setback was an accident in his 20s when he had fallen while rock climbing and broken both his feet. While he eventually recovered physically, Kym’s mental health remained fragile. He tried a variety of therapies such as counselling, psychology, mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy.
“I had even tried some strange and interesting holistic treatments, as well as medication, self-medication, and trying to ignore it, all in the name of striving for happiness,” he says.
“By the time I was made redundant I thought, clearly, these small steps of therapy have not made a difference, so let’s make the biggest change I can possibly make and sort of shock the system.
“The idea was to make a 180-degree change in direction in my life and to challenge myself physically, mentally and spiritually.”
So, aged 35, Kym put all his belongings into storage, packed a hand-luggage-sized bag and booked a one-way ticket to Phuket.
“I wasn’t running away; the context wasn’t an escape,” he says. “It wasn’t, ‘I’ve lost everything and I’m leaving here now’. It was to go and explore and to challenge and look a bit deeper at myself and I think that’s a very important difference.”
He says when he arrived in Phuket his level of fitness was zero but he began going to a local gym twice a day, practising Muay Thai, Thai kickboxing. He also ate well and began doing yoga, meditation and stretching every day. Within eight weeks he says he got to a level of fitness he never thought possible.
Once he felt stronger physically, Kym began investigating ways to build his mental and spiritual fortitude.
An internet search brought up a documentary about “a crazy Dutch guy” who lived in Poland and led “intense breathing sessions, jumping into waterfalls, swimming in near-freezing water and hiking up mountains in horizontal snow”.
The documentary was about Wim Hof, world famous for withstanding freezing temperatures, including attempting to climb Mount Everest in his shorts and open-toed sandals in 2007. Frostbite on his foot sent him home but he still set a “highest ascent in shorts only” record.
The Iceman’s cold therapies are said to help treat a variety of ills, including mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Kym, who was visiting family in Europe after leaving Phuket, booked the next available course. That’s how he found himself leaping into a freezing river in Poland with a bunch of like-minded strangers – a leap of faith that led to a new way of life.
Fortuitously, once Kym had finished his five-day course, it turned out Wim’s business needed an online marketing manager based in Amsterdam.
“So, I thought, number one, that’s what I do, number two, I’m now passionate about the Wim Hof Method and number three I speak Dutch. I think there are a few things lining up here,” Kym says.
He got the job and became further embedded in the Wim Hof Method, eventually moving from marketing into the instructor course, finally reaching a point where he could teach alongside Wim himself.
Today, Kym is the only Wim Hof Method accredited teacher in Adelaide, starting his business here in 2019. His workshops have been selling out “almost from day one”, and Kym says there are plans to do more regional work in 2021, including workshops on the Fleurieu Peninsula and in the Riverland.
His courses include both fundamentals and advanced workshops, covering information on Wim’s background, breathing mechanics and the benefits of cold exposure, finishing off with an ice bath for those who are open to it.
Kym says there is plenty of science to back up the benefits of cold exposure and how it can help combat depression and anxiety and improve focus, mood and attention.
“One of the primary responses by the body to cold is it releases noradrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter, high levels of which have been linked to things such as improved cognition, memory, mood, focus and attention,” he says.
“The scientific hypothesis is that noradrenaline plays a role in decreasing inflammation and inflammation plays a strong role as a cause of depression.”
From a personal perspective, Kym says Wim Hof’s description of the cold as a mirror rings particularly true.
“So, when you get into the cold and into a stressful situation you are not thinking about anything else,” he says. “It sharpens your mind and focus and allows you to take a good, long hard look at where you are at. You are not thinking in the past or the future, you are thinking ‘Where am I at right now; how am I feeling right now?’ and your body responds and your experience changes based on where you are at.
“You learn to listen; if you don’t hear what your body is telling you, you can’t influence it. In this case it’s changing how you breathe to create a physiological change in the body, which then invokes a change in your perception and your response to stress.
“The way I explain it is that all the other therapies I have done are all cognitive where you need to think about this and discuss that. For me, that’s adding an extra layer of thought into an already over-active brain. So, for me, the power comes from learning to change our physiology in order to change the way we perceive a situation, the way we perceive life.”
Kym’s other workshop is called FEAR An Urban Retreat, where he works with local yoga instructor Ellie Johns, tackling the notion of facing fear and discovering the power within.
“When I first started with Wim I thought the way you overcame your fear of the cold was through mental grit and learning to be super hard,” Kym says.
“From the very first moment it was clear I had it wrong. What this is about is surrendering and letting go and learning to be calm in the storm.
“When I talk about cold now, it’s not to overcome it because you’ll never beat mother nature, but the way to be in the cold is to just accept that it is there and to learn to become calm in that stressful, uncomfortable situation through breathing and visual techniques. You are learning to be comfortable in the uncomfortable, finding comfort in discomfort.”
Kym’s life now revolves around sharing his learnings and experiences of the Wim Hof Method, an all-consuming passion that he admits can sometimes see him lack balance in his life.
“I do go hiking with my friends when I can,” he says.
So, four years down the track, has Kym found the metaphysical answers he was seeking?
“Happiness for me is not looking for external factors, I just want to be happy with who I am on the inside, and I am,” he says.
“My goal is to just wake up every day and love the person I am and everything else will flow. That’s what I want to share with people. I feel pretty comfortable that I have found my reason for being here.”
This story first appeared in the February 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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