Last updated on 24th June 2022
"As you breathe in, cherish yourself. As you breathe out, cherish all beings." Dalai Lama
"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive, to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." Marcus Aurelius
I'm a member of a Book Group. We take turns to choose what book our group will read and subsequently meet to discuss. As you'd expect, usually we choose novels. However, it was my turn to suggest a book recently and I chose James Nestor's 2020 book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. I would like to learn more about breathing and my hope is that this book will be a nudge to explore this area more fully. The book itself is a 280-page paperback. It has three sections: a two-chapter initial part called The Experiment; a five-chapter second part called The Lost Art and Science of Breathing; and a three-chapter plus epilogue third part called Breathing +. There is also an Appendix giving details of a variety of Breathing Methods and a 40-page Notes section.
James is an author and journalist (rather than a scientist or clinician). On his website, he writes: "Breath ... explores the million-year-long history of how the human species has lost the ability to breathe properly and why we’re suffering from a laundry list of maladies — snoring, sleep apnea, asthma, autoimmune disease, allergies — because of it. I ended up traveling the world in an attempt to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The answers, I discovered, weren’t found in pulmonology labs but in the muddy digs of ancient burial sites, secret Soviet facilities, New Jersey choir schools, and the smoggy streets of Sao Paulo. Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry, and human physiology, Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head." I'm intrigued and also cautious. I very much doubt that all autoimmune diseases and allergies are only because we've "lost the ability to breathe properly" and the three-pages of very enthusiastic reviews listed at the start of the book are very largely by other writers rather than by scientists. That's OK, but I am a little cautious as I dip into the book more fully.
The 8-page introduction documents James's own quite startling experiences years ago at a breathing class, his subsequent exploration of freediving documented in his earlier book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves, an exploration of ancient Taoist, Hindu & Buddhist ancient texts, comments about more modern exploratory 'pulmonauts', and an acknowledgement that a huge amount of this territory has still not been adequately explored scientifically. Then the first part of the book - The Experiment - is made up of two chapters The Worst Breathers in the Animal Kingdom and Mouthbreathing. Nestor bravely volunteers himself as a subject for an experiment on the effects of being forced to mouthbreath (with no nosebreathing) for ten days. At the same time as telling this good story, he makes a case for evolutionary changes having contributed to Homo sapiens problems with breathing easily and he mentions a patchwork of research studies that build a concerning picture of reduced nosebreathing and increased mouthbreathing contributing to a wide-ranging set of health problems. It's a scaffolding ... a set of hypotheses with some evidence to support them ... and overall a worrying picture of poor breathing and a wide range of possible associated health problems.
We're then into the second, five chapter, major section of the book - The Lost Art and Science of Breathing - with chapter 3 entitled Nose, chapter 4 Exhale, 5 Slow, 6 Less, and chapter 7 entitled Chew. First, chapter 3 Nose - and it is fascinating. Dr Jayakar Nayak, the Stanford endoscopic nasal & sinus surgeon, who ran Nestor's ten-day mouthbreathing experiment is reported (p.45) as saying rather poetically "The nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our mind, and weather vane to our emotions." Nestor tells some great stories, for example of the "adventurous artist and researcher named George Caitln" who in the early 1800's lived with and painted a whole series of native Americans and who reported on their emphasis of the importance of nose breathing. There's much more besides on this topic and it does inspire me to want to experiment with the rather odd habit of taping one's mouth closed at night! Nestor recommends a small Charlie Chaplin moustache sized piece of 3M Nextcare Durapore 'durable cloth' tape, although I find that standard Micropore horizontally across the mouth works fine too. I'm surprised by how straightforward this is and easy to tolerate (although my wife's giggling can be a little distracting ... but hey what a great side-effect of the technique, to produce happiness in one's partner as well!). The aim is to get an extra big chunk of our 24 hour day breathing entirely through our nose with the many benefits ... including quitting snoring ... that this produces.
Chapter 4 is Exhale.
... more to follow ...