The ice bath didn’t stress me. The breath-hold underwater with a weighted vest was fine. But running the sand dunes with my cooked hips, now that was a problem.
It was day one of the ‘Calm Under Pressure’ workshop in Piha, an elite mental skills and stress mitigation course. Twenty-three punters had ponied up $1350 to spend two days learning from Dave Wood (more about him later), and I was along for the ride.
The course, spread out across 16 hours over two days, is aimed at the everyman or woman, who has an average level of fitness, and is looking for a tool kit to deal with all the crap in their life: stress, nerves, anxiety, anger and emotional overload. Wood has answers, but you better be prepared to test yourself to get them.
The workshop’s real point of difference is creating stressful situations to test the theory. And for me, that meant running the dunes.
I have chronic arthritis in both hips following a lifetime of thrashing them on the footy field, linked with the hip dysplasia I had as an infant.
Now, 38 years later I’m chasing remedies.
Wood is best known for being Israel Adesanya’s breathing and mindset coach. It’s a relationship that developed organically as word spread around Auckland’s City Kickboxing gym that his teammates were seeing great improvements from Wood’s unique approach to training.
In a recent interview, Adesanya said Wood “opened his eyes” to the power of breathwork and their work together now makes up an integral part of his fight preparations. As Wood’s reputation grew, so did his clientele list.
In the last 12 months, he’s worked with Peter Burling, Blair Tuke, Joseph Parker, the Highlanders, Dan Hooker, Kai Kara-France and a catalogue of elite international athletes.
But his path to mindset and breathing guru was an unlikely one. Wood spent 12 years travelling the world as a lifeguard before returning to New Zealand to re-train as an intensive care paramedic — where he worked in a first response jeep for 11 years.
He battled a debilitating hip injury through this time and it was his failed attempts at rehab through traditional sources — and hitting rock bottom — that lit a drive and desire to figure a solution out on his own.
“I started to invest heavily into understanding what was going on in my hips,” Wood said. “The effect it had on my nervous system, my breathing, my metabolism and sleep. There were all these ripple-on effects. And because I had such a good understanding of the human body and how all these systems interact, I knew it wasn’t just my hips. If there’s dysfunction in one body system, it affects all body systems.
“That’s when I learned about the breathing. When you have pain you tend to breath hold, breath stack or have shallow breathing into your upper chest. That was causing a lot of the pain because it up-regulates your nervous system.
“So I was trying all these things, but every time I would go deep trying one of these things for self-betterment, I would get better, but not enough. And I got to a point where I thought if I bring all these things together — breathing, nervous system regulation, stress mitigation, muscle and tissue work — I would get better in leaps and bounds. And that’s what I did and why I named my business Integrated Training.”
Wood’s greatest asset is his authenticity. He’s a no-frills guy, who walks most places barefoot and is reluctant to even talk about Adesanya or any of the work done with his high-profile clients.
There’s no bullshit with Wood, and his intellect is razor-sharp. He has a mastery of the human body and can break down complicated theory into easy-to-understand concepts. He’s also first to hand out the beers after a hard day’s work.
But there was something else working away behind the scenes with our group at Piha...the collective.
The part I wasn’t expecting was the vulnerability.
The workshop started with a ceremonial hike to the top of a small hill in Piha overlooking the water. After a karakia we introduced ourselves and were asked to explain why we were there.
“My name is Steve, I’m a sports journalist who also hosts a podcast, have three young kids with a fourth on the way in a few weeks and, er, yeah I guess there’s a bit of stress there.
“But about three years ago, I was told by two doctors and a surgeon that I can’t run anymore. Running had been a huge part of my life. We had Dave on our podcast as a guest a few months ago and his story gave me hope. I’m here to learn.”
I felt my voice croak a little bit when I brought up the running. That was weird. Saying out loud, in front of a group of people, something that had weighed me down for a long time, brought out emotion. And it wasn’t just me. As the group, featuring a surgeon, builders, lawyers, physios, coaches and engineers, were all asked to share their biggest weaknesses, the walls came down.
“I can’t stop procrastinating.” “I have an unhealthy relationship with booze.” “I’m not present at home.” “I work too much.” “I can’t communicate how I feel.” A waterfall of vulnerability came cascading down. This was now a safe space.
By the end of the weekend, some in the group revealed it was the first time they’d ever been so open. Its effect was pulling us all together. We became a team. I was in awe of the weekend’s structure.
There were two uniting elements to the workshop: theory, which involved a detailed biological breakdown of what happens to the body and mind when it gets stressed, and practical — creating stressful situations to try out the new tool kit.
“We’re learning to not react, but respond,” said Wood. “Reacting comes from those subconscious patterns of behaviour.
“Someone pulls in front of you in a car — you react.
“Responding is taking a step back. Do a few slow breath cycles, shift yourself back into that para-sympathetic state where all the creativity comes from, where you’re able to focus better.
“That’s the part of the nervous system we want to be able to access in these moments when we just react without thinking.
“The ability to do that, and to start making it an ingrained pattern of behaviour, will change every single facet of your health and performance.”
As the group walked towards the ice baths, where we would be submerged for two minutes at one degree, a nervous participant who had never done an ice-bath before referenced Mike Tyson’s famous quote: “Everyone has a plan til they get punched in the face.”
Some squirmed, some remained calm, some looked like they were having a bath, but everyone completed the challenge. The vibes were good. The team united.
It’s not until someone asks you to relax your shoulders that you realise how tense you are.
And it wasn’t until I’d suffered through two years of chronic pain that I realised how bad my breathing was.
Before the cooked hips, was the cooked back. A CrossFit injury had manifested as a dark cloud that hung over me every day. It was painful to bend over, getting out of the car was a struggle, and picking up the baby was impossible.
But one appointment with a back specialist changed everything. “I want you to think about your breathing,” she said. You’re holding your breath when you move. And you’re breathing from your chest. We need to change that.”
Almost instantly, my pain went away. I spent the next year intensely devouring breathing info. I set a daily breathing practice, I subscribed to Wim Hof’s programme, I read James Nestor’s best-seller ‘Breath’. I was all in. Learning to breathe properly changed my life.
Before the trip to Piha I knew how the breathing had helped me, but it was only afterwards I knew why.
“Breathing imbalance is an adaptation to prolonged exposure to uncontrolled stress, and over time this imbalance becomes the stressor,” said Wood.
“Shallow breathing, into the upper chest and shoulders, is often the default mechanism when in a stressed state, which communicates to the brain to activate the body’s stress response.
“As we have evolved, humans have moved away from the lateral expansive mechanics of breathing and toward a vertical lift, which initiates the stress response over and over again all day. Once we employ proper breathing mechanics, we can use our breathing to intercept this stress cycle.”
Perhaps the most testing element of the workshop for me was the Sunday morning mobility session. When Wood saw me squirm around on the floor attempting to cross my legs or rotate my hips, he saw himself.
“You look just like I used to. In fact I was probably a bit worse. But your range of motion is so much wider than you think it is. There’s no magic pill. You will still likely need a hip operation down the line, but we can make massive improvements on your current situation with mobility training just 20 minutes a day. It just depends how much of a priority it is for you.”
That was the theme of the weekend: prioritising your physical and mental health. Easier said than done, but a lot easier when you know how to effect change.
I revealed to the group that my biggest weakness was being present. My mind is always racing with 100 different tabs open.
Wood’s advice was strong.
“It’s impossible to ‘turn off’ your busy life when you get home. The mind doesn’t work like that. Instead we need to use these tools to calm the mind. Relax it. Clear the clutter.”
The thought of attacking the dunes turned out to be a lot worse than the reality, perhaps a good analogy for life.
It was the most running I’d done in three years, but the sand was soft, forgiving on the joints.
The exertion stressed the system, but I focused on the breathing. I stayed calm and in control. The theory worked.
I wasn’t the only one to be impressed by the quality of information we received over the weekend. I struck up a friendship with a surgeon from Christchurch who works in the public health system and flew in for the weekend.
“I came because I’d been thinking about how to improve my performance when under pressure and am exploring the space between thought and action,” he said. “I want to become much more reflective in that time, rather than reactive to the situation in front of me.
“There are so many things in your work life that are out of your control and it’s easy to become frustrated with them. But having these tools to help pause, reflect and reframe these threats or frustrations as challenges to overcome, and then participate in a positive way, will help me be more engaged in work, in what is a tough time for us.”
Growing as a person is about leaning into areas that make you feel uncomfortable, a concept I’ve become powerfully attached to through my 30s.
What really elevated the workshop was the space Dave and his team created to grow. The participants were open and trusting of the process, and the masterful storytelling along the way created deep connection. In a potpourri of elite wellness, my two nights in Piha turned into part therapy, part breathwork, part goal-setting, part stress-test, part connecting with nature, part classroom and one big adventure with 22 other like-minded battlers searching for solutions. A mind-altering success.
As for the hips, I left Piha with a feeling of empowerment and control over my situation. I’m booking some one on one time with Dave. Solutions are there, it’s all about how hard I’m willing to work.