Title: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art | Author: James Nestor
The book tells the story of how everyday people, doctors, researchers, and scientists have studied breathing. From the ancient times in the Indus Valley (what is now geographically India and Pakistan) to the labs at Stanford University, we learn that there is a right and wrong way to breathe. And if done properly, breathing can be a powerful medicine.
Modern medicine and pulmonologists work mainly on maladies of the lungs, but few have really tried to understand how breathing works and how our capacity to breath has changed over time. The author calls the pioneers unlocking the art and science of breathing, pulmonauts. In essence, the book highlights their work. And how even though acceptance of their work has waxed and wained over time, science continues to back up their findings.
The author, James Nestor, has a vested interest in the subject. As someone who has suffered most of his life from breathing-related problems, he shares his experience participating in studies, such as plugging his nose to measure the health effects of mouth-breathing, nasal breathing, and hypoventilation training. The last type of breathing technique relies on shortening inhales and extending the exhales, which increases carbon dioxide in the body. A logic that seems counterintuitive to the mainstream knowledge of breathing, but studies have proven otherwise.
Anatomy: Nose and the Mouth
Anthropologists studying skulls from various human spices show that to make room for our growing brains and eating softer foods took from the “front of our faces”, shrinking our nasal cavity. But all of these anatomical changes doesn’t mean we have lost the ability to breathe properly and suffer the health consequences as a result. Are noses are a marvel!
The nose is crucial because it clears air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption…it can trigger a cavalcade of hormones and chemicals that lower blood pressure, and ease digestion…it regulates our heart rate, opens vessels in our toes, and stores memories…nasal hair helps determine whether you’ll suffer from asthma.
When we breathe through the nose, we filter the air in order for the lungs to extract more oxygen. For this reason, “nasal breathing is far more healthy and efficient than breathing through the mouth.”
The author points out that “we can absorb about 18% more oxygen than by just breathing through the mouth”.
Aside from explaining how our noses, mucus, and all the tiny parts that work together allow us to breath, the author documents his experience participating in a mouth breathing experiment. In just 10 days, his snoring increased by 4,820%. He averaged 25 sleep apnea events. Sleep apnea happens when oxygen levels drop below 90% and person basically chokes in their sleep.
The author can’t stress this enough: breath through your nose.
Breathe Slow, Less, and Focus on the Exhale
Aside from nose breathing, the author explains the perfect breath:
…the optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5 second inhales and 5.5 second exhales. This is the perfect breath.
The average American takes 18 breaths per minute.
It turns out that when breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will absorb only about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air. The majority of that oxygen is exhaled back out. By taking longer breathes, we allow our lungs to soak up more in fewer breaths.
Equal lengths of inhale and exhale works. However, for those who want to take breathing exercises a step further, the author explains the research on the importance of inhaling smaller amounts of air and having more carbon dioxide in our blood stream. This might seem counterintuitive: How could inhaling smaller amounts of air and having more carbon dioxide in our bloodstream increase oxygen in our tissues and organs?
Blood with the most carbon dioxide in it (more acidic) loosened oxygen from hemoglobin…this discovery explained why certain muscles used during exercise received more oxygen than lesser-used muscles. They were producing more carbon dioxide, which attracted more oxygen.
Carbon dioxide also had a profound dilating effect on blood vessels, opening these pathways to carry more oxygen-rich blood to hungry cells. Breathing less allowed animals to produce more energy, more efficiently.
The Health Effects
The author examines the various health problems we typically don’t associate with breathing such as ADHD and depression. But he cautions that “…what I’d like to make clear now, is that breathing, like any therapy or medication, can’t do everything…no breathing can heal stage IV cancer”. He acknowledges advances in modern medicine, be it antibiotics, immunization…
But we know from research, and gleaning from ancient knowledge that breathing affects our autonomic nervous system. This dictates our flight or fight response, and also moments of calmness.
When we find ourselves distracted at work and can’t seem to finish a task, a condition called continuous partial attention, our breathing becomes shallow and erratic. According to the author, up to 80% of workers experience it. It’s when we keep jumping around from one task to another in a loop.
The irony, however, is that some things we do such as braces to fix crooked teeth actually adds more obstruction to our breathing.
From the moment I started reading this book, I started breathing slower and more deliberately. My morning walks with my dog have become not only my source of Vitamin N and reflection, but a chance to do breath work.
I started being more conscious of nasal breathing not just during yoga, but in daily life. The book reminded me that I shouldn’t limit my ujjayi breath during practice. I have to admit that just a few days of consciously not breathing from my mouth has made a difference. My chest feels more open and breathing easier.
It also made me appreciate how yoga taught me how to breathe. Some of the breathing techniques the book mentions such as alternate nostril breathing, placing the tongue on the spot where the front teeth meets the roof of the mouth as a way to relax the mouth, I have learned in yoga. Nowadays, yoga focuses so much on the physical poses. I wonder if the modernization of yoga deprives us of what makes yoga more than just an exercise regimen. The author reminds us that ancient artifacts of yoga centered on stillness and breathing. Maybe studies on the health benefits of yoga has a lot to do with breathing aside from the physical movement.
In yoga philosophy, the breath mirrors our mood and emotions. If we want to change our mood or behavior, we control the breath. The point about work distractions reminds me that not just in situations I consider stressful, but I should use my breath more often to address daily tasks. This allows me to have more control of my time, actions, and possibly gain efficiency.