Most people take breathing for granted. What could be more innate, a more organic part of everyday life? Now, of course, everyday life has ended and the coronavirus has us consciously contemplating this simplest of natural acts — is anyone breathing on me? is my breathing unusually shallow? — while any survivor of COVID-19 deeply appreciates just how precious a good, deep breath can be.
“Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” James Nestor’s new book about how breathing properly can transform your physical and mental health, feels eerily well-timed. It lays out how we breathe incorrectly or at least fail to maximize our potential. These lessons might ease internal tensions in these stressful times but they’re really aimed at changing our daily lives when those resume in some way we’d recognize.
“Breath” is not a self-help book, though it will appeal to readers looking to improve themselves:
“Many modern maladies — asthma, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, psoriasis and more — could either be reduced or reversed simply by changing the way we inhale and exhale,” Nestor explains. “Yes, changing how you breathe will help you live longer.”
Nor is “Breath” a Gladwellian trend book, despite its broad scope and deep dive into the history of breathing practices, with visits to experts such as the dental researcher who shows him various skulls to illuminate how our nasal apertures have evolved. Nestor’s first-person experiences provide an intimate story, while his emphasis on hard scientific data backs up his feelings. (His previous book was “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves.”)
Nestor gets his nose plugged up for a study about the dangers of mouth breathing. “I’ve felt as if I was getting softly choked to death in my sleep and my throat was closing in on itself,” he writes. “Because it is, and because I am.” The experiment made his snoring increase 4,820 percent over 10 days, his systolic blood pressure climb to 142 (stage two hypertension) and caused an average of 25 sleep apnea events nightly, with oxygen levels dropping below 85 percent — and, as we’ve all learned during the pandemic, anything below 90 percent is scary.
Nestor does an excellent job of explaining both the basics — don’t breathe through your mouth, which feels pandemic-relevant — and the more complicated aspects of breathing properly. The book is brisk and detailed, a well-written read that is always entertaining, as he melds the personal, the historical, and the scientific.
His storytelling travels from the Civil War, back 900 years to the birth of something called Inner Fire Meditation among Tibetan Buddhists, then to the early 1900s when an opera singer-turned-anarchist studied that technique, to modern American scientist examining how the nervous system responds to stress. In between all that, we see Nestor himself in a roadside public park, a guinea pig for a treatment. “I’ve hired McGee for the day to help me overload my sympathetic nervous system with overbreathing,” he writes of his experiment. “So far it’s working. My heart is beating violently and it feels like there’s a rodent loose in my chest. I feel anxious and paranoid, sweaty and claustrophobic.”
Most of us won’t go this far (which Nestor readily acknowledges), but his writing is compelling enough that you’ll want to know what happens next. And he mostly focuses on issues we can relate to, such as the notion that we mostly breathe more frequently than we should — taking fewer but deeper breaths will give us more energy and lower our blood pressure — or the concept that chewing soft, processed foods has changed our faces’ bone structure, impairing our breathing, although it is a process some scientists now believe can be reversed.
His journalistic skepticism prompts a raised eyebrow about whether some techniques, like Holotropic Breathwork — which deprives the brain of oxygen and causes hallucinations for some — may actually rely on placebo effect and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Nestor’s goal is not simply for the reader to understand the science behind proper breathing but to plunge in and transform our own lungs and our lives; an appendix provides breathing exercises tied to each chapter, with the offer of video and audio tutorials on his website.
Some drills are easy: chewing Falim, a tough Turkish gum, to “strengthen the jaw and stimulate cell growth.” Others are fun: humming to your favorite songs increases nitric oxide release 15-fold, which widens capillaries and increases oxygenation. (Your loved ones, however, may find this annoying, based on personal experience.) And most are simple enough: inhaling for 5.5 seconds then exhaling for that long (I round up to six), to slow and deepen your breathing.
It’s not easy to make yourself stop every day just to practice breathing, even at a time when we’re all stuck at home, and I can’t say for sure what the long-term impact of all my gum chewing, humming, and breathing will be, but I do feel better after doing the exercises and the 5.5 seconds exercise helps me fall right asleep every night. I’m looking forward to seeing how I feel on the tennis and basketball courts if things ever return to something resembling normal (deep breaths), when things return to normal.
Stuart Miller is the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports” and co-author of “The Other Islands of New York City.”
BREATH: The New Science of a Lost Art
By James Nestor
Riverhead, 304 pp., $28