Learning how to breathe again


I just finished a fascinating book by journalist James Nestor entitled ‘Breath: The new science of a lost art’.

As you can probably imagine, it is about breathing.

I’m not very good at book reviews, but I will give this one a crack.

At the core of this book is the idea that breathing, like sleep, nutrition and movement is central to our health and wellbeing. Furthermore, many of us have lost an appreciation of the importance of breathing or how to breathe correctly. Driving this is the fact that much of the wisdom about the power of the breath is tied up in traditions outside of modern science and medicine (like yoga) and is only being rediscovered now.

What is being learned is that significant improvements in health and performance can be achieved using relatively simple shifts in how we breath.

For example, nasal breathing (versus mouth breathing) has implications for snoring and sleep apnoea. Buteyko breathing methods have implications for asthma and respiratory disorders. Controlled breathing methods (diaphragmatic breathing) have implications for improvements in mental health. Ancient breathing techniques (Tummo) can result in dramatic strength and physical resilience increases (check out Wim Hof as someone who has breathing as central to his capacity to perform amazing feats of endurance).

Each chapter of this book represents James’ exploration of some hidden corner of the field of knowledge about breathing. Yet the end result isn’t something wildly controversial or expensive. The end result is a call for all of us to take more seriously the process of how we inhale and exhale. Nestor isn’t selling a ‘fix-all’ solution to all health problems, but he is outlining that significant benefits might be obtained from introducing a few simple breathing techniques into everyday life.

There are some moments in the book where Nestor appears to head off on some significant tangents (e.g. visiting ancient burial sites in France, challenging the orthodoxy of modern orthodontics), but these tangents ultimately reveal that humans have been changing physically over the last 500 years, changes that have made it harder to breathe properly. The result is bad breathing habits which can have pretty disastrous consequences.

Nestor illustrates this by experimenting on himself (and a fellow breathing-interested participant) by blocking his nose for 10 days, forcing him to breathe through his mouth. Over those 10 days he accumulates a range of negative health implications: snoring, apnoea episodes, high blood pressure, infection and more, which resolve when he is able to return to nose breathing.

Readers of this book will get a pretty good insight into the mechanics and chemistry of breathing, as well as the role that disciplined breathing (of various types) plays in many religious and spiritual and sports and performance and mental health treatment areas.

As with any book of this sort, that sits on the edge of almost being medical advice, one needs to exercise some caution. Most of the breathing techniques discussed in the book (and there are many) aren’t controversial or dangerous. But some are. Some of the breathing techniques can elicit significant changes in physiology and psychology (e.g. holotropic breathing), with little formal evidence of their benefit. Generally I think Nestor handles this well. He doesn’t come across as wanting to sell you on any particular program. He just wants you to read the book and share in the many things he found fascinating in his research process.

If you aren’t in a position to get his book, his interview with Joe Rogan is pretty good:

If you just want to get a feel for some of the breathing techniques that get discussed in the book, you can check out the ‘breathing videos’ page on his website – https://www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath-vids

This overview of the book and some of the breathing techniques related to mental health and anxiety is a good one.

I’m off now to follow-up one of the people he referenced quite a bit in the book – Patrick McKeown – https://oxygenadvantage.com/


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