Review: “Breath” By James Nestor

August 9, 2020

Review: “Breath” by James Nestor

Every now and then I come across a book that I claim is the most important book I have read this year.
Of course, I sometimes say that two or three times a year. However, one such book is “Breath – The New Science Of A Lost Art”, by James Nestor.

Nestor previously wrote a book titled “Deep”, about free-divers, people who have trained to swim to great depths unaided by breathing equipment. This study kindled his interest in how people breathe, how they can increase breath capacity, and how the body can benefit from ancient breathing techniques.

Nestor begins the book by joining a colleague in a study where they had a supervised test that involved intentionally blocking off the nose from breathing. All breathing was through the mouth only, for days.
Both men were sickened, as they went through various daily tests and charted the damage it did to their bodies.
The conclusion, something well known in ancient times but now recorded scientifically, that mouth-breathing literally kills people.

This is our first lesson; the nose filters, conditions and moistens the breath, preparing it to meet the lungs. Breathing out through the nose is just as important, and here is one reason why: the secret is that the body needs a certain level of carbon dioxide to metabolize the oxygen you breathe in. If a person rapidly expels the breath, too much co2 leaves the body. In this case, it causes vascular constriction, the blood pressure goes up, and less oxygen can actually be metabolized.

It is my understanding this is the reason many ancient breathing methods utilize a slow exhale through the nose, so that a certain level of co2 remains available to the body.

The next startling revelation we discover is that the human mouth has shrunk over our long evolution.
The introduction of soft refined foods decreased our chewing ability. Strong chewing is what stimulates the structure of the mouth, and subsequently the sinus cavity above it.
Weak chewing shrank our mouths, leaving less room for teeth. Modern dentistry then had to extract teeth and use braces to straighten teeth. Nestor actually examined skulls that were hundreds of years old and could confirm that in the past, humans had nearly universally straight teeth, wider faces and stronger jaws. This also means a more developed sinus cavity.
Weak mouths led to more mouth breathing, decreased sinus capacity and nasal blockages.

Correct breathing practice can cure that.

Nestor really puts himself through the wringer, meeting gurus, scientists, therapists, and kooky “Pulmonauts” who were trained or stumbled onto the path of ancient breathing methods.
We meet “The Iceman” Wim Hoff, who besides pioneering cold water therapy, has developed a popular new breathing method. Hoff has used these techniques to achieve near super-human abilities.
We meet Swami Rama, a guru who scientifically proved he can control his autonomic responses, such as slowing or increasing his heartbeat as well as radically changing his body temperature – enough to melt snow. There have been various other western travelers that learned these methods in austere conditions such as monasteries and caves in the high mountains.

I have studied breathing-related techniques in both hard-style and so called “internal” martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan. Many included visualization practice that coordinates with the breathing. However, few of these techniques were explained or understood. They were generally referenced as activating “meridians” in the body.
In “Breath”, Nestor explores the hows and whys of these type of breathing methods, causing me to gain a greater understanding of past learned practice.

Nestor does a masterful job framing the study we are about to enter:

“It will take the average reader about 10,000 breaths to read from here to the end of the book..
..By your thousandth breath, you’ll understand why modern humans are the only species with chronically crooked teeth, and why that’s relevant to breathing..
..By your 3,000th breath, you’ll know the basics of restorative breathing..
..By your 6,000th breath, you’ll have moved into the land of serious conscious breathing..
..By your 8,000th breath, you’ll have pushed even deeper into the body to tap, of all things, the nervous system..”

***

All this is available to the reader if they are willing to put in the hard work. Breath work can be as simple as breathing in to the count of six, and breathing out to the count of six – through the nose.

Other methods appear torturous, and can be a hazard to health if the person is impaired physically.
This is where training by experts is recommended.

In “Breath – The New Science Of A Lost Art”, James Nestor both explains what is wrong and how to fix it. We dive deep into history, science, and ancient esoteric practice, and come out the other side with actual techniques to improve our health and well-being.

And yes, this IS one of the most important books I have read this year.

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