Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art

Yash Soni / December 11, 2020
8 min read
Book Title

Breath by James Nestor, is part memoir and part exploration of the history and lost science of breathing.

We take the act of breathing for granted and have probably never taken the time to learn if we are doing it correctly. In this book, I feel that you’ll learn more than you can imagine about all the ways we have degraded our ability to breathe and all the ways we can make it better.

The Author experimented on himself to learn about the breath, studied history and evolution, and traveled the world seeking answers from experts on breathing. What he shares in his book is simply astonishing.


Following are the main points from individual chapters listed in the book.

The worst breathers in the Animal Kingdom

Looking back at the skulls of ancient human beings, they are twice as large as today. They had expansive sinus cavities and broad mouths. Fast forward to the homo sapiens from a few hundred years ago, the skull of modern humans had recessed chins, slumped jaws, and shrunken sinuses. These anatomic changes had a major impact on our breathing. Out of the 5400 species of mammals, we are likely the worst breathers of Animal Kingdom. Evolution doesn’t always mean progress. And the anatomic structure of our skull proves this point of dysevolution and helps explain why we’re breathing so poorly.

Mouthbreathing

  • Mouthbreathing, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less overall space and making breathing more difficult.
  • Mouthbreathing causes the body to lose 40 percent more water.
  • You are not using your nose enough. It is designed to breathe and smell. The smell is life’s oldest sense. You should not breathe through your mouth. Keep your mouth closed.

The Lost Art and Science of Breathing#

Nose

  • The nose is a crucial organ because it clears the air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption.
  • Nostrils of every living person pulse to their own rhythm, opening and closing like a flower in response to our moods, mental states, and perhaps even the sun and the moon.
  • Our bodies operate most efficiently in a state of balance and this is influenced by the nasal cycles. This balance can also be gamed with breathing techniques and one of them is Nadi Shodhana.

Exhale

  • Full exhalations are seldom practiced. Most of us engage only a small fraction of our total lung capacity with each breath, requiring us to do more and get less. One of the first steps in healthy breathing is to extend these breaths, to move the diaphragm up and down a bit more, and to get the air out of us before taking a new one in.
  • Deep Breathing can create the role of a Second Heart with help from the Diaphragm. Its main role is to facilitate the respiratory cycle; as, the flexible, muscular tissue drops down, air comes into the lungs and as it moves upwards it is expelled. On average, we use only 10 percent of its capacity. Through deep diaphragmatic breathing from low down in the abdomen, we bring the diaphragm into play far more than when only performing upper chest breathing. This gentle expansion during deep abdominal breathing is what helps to gently push huge amounts of blood throughout the system thereby taking a huge load off the heart.
  • A few minutes of daily bending, stretching and breathing can expand lung capacity. With this extra capacity, we can expand our lives. Studies have shown that Lung size really did relate to longevity. Tibetan Monks have been practicing the 5 Rites for centuries - commonly know as Five Tibetan Rites

Slow

  • The lungs are the weight-regulating system of the body. We lose weight through an exhaled breath. For every 10 pounds of fat loss, 8.5 pounds comes out through the lungs; most of it is CO2 mixed with a bit of water vapor.
  • The perfect breath is to breathe in for about 5.5 seconds and then followed by an exhalation for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air.
  • All the popular mantras and chants last close to six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the mantra or chant starts again. All these cultures and religions had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns.
  • Prayer heals, especially when it’s practiced at 5.5 breaths a minute

Less

  • The biggest obstacle to your health and fitness is a rarely identified problem: ‘chronic over-breathing’. CO2 helps the red blood cells release O2 so that it can be metabolized by the body. When we over-breathe, we exhale too much CO2, which in turn leaves our body gasping for oxygen. On the contrary, slower, longer exhales increase CO2 levels and with this bonus CO2, we can gain higher aerobic endurance.
  • Yoga teachers and meditation practitioners have long preached the benefits of controlled slow breathing. Yogis train themselves to decrease the amount of air they take in at rest, not increase it.
  • Mammals with the lowest heart rates live the longest and it’s no coincidence that these are consistently the same mammals that breathe the slowest. The only way to retain a slow resting heart date is with slow breaths.
  • The optimum amount of air we should take in rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5 seconds inhales and 5.5 second exhales. The perfect breath.

Chew

  • Societies that replaced their traditional diet with modern, processed foods suffered up to ten times more cavities, severely crooked teeth, obstructed airways, and overall poorer health. On the contrary, people from the earlier generation, because they chewed so much, their mouths, teeth, throats, and faces grew to be wide and strong and pronounced.
  • The problem had less to do with what we were eating than how we ate it - lack of chewing.
  • Studies have shown that exercises related to facial restructuring not only improve the aesthetics of the face but helps with sleep apnea, sinusitis and breathing and swallowing problems. One such technique that is popular on social media is Mewing.
  • We can reverse the clock on much of the damage that’s been done in the past few hundred years by force of will, with nothing more than proper posture, hard chewing, and perhaps some mewing.

Breathing+#

Conscious heavy breathing teaches us to be the pilots of our autonomic nervous systems and our bodies, not the passengers. That’s what techniques like Tummo, Sudarshan Kriya, and vigorous pranayamas do. They stress the body on purpose, snapping it out of its funk so that it can properly function during the other 23½ hours a day.

More, on Occasions

  • The autonomic nervous system is a control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions, such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. Per its definition, ANS was supposed to be autonomic as in beyond our control. But breathing techniques and meditation have the unique abilities to stimulate this system at will.
  • The first half of ANS, the parasympathetic nervous system aka “feed and breed” system, stimulates relaxation and restoration in our body. Deep and slow breathing activates the parasympathetic system. This is one of the reasons long and slow breaths are so relaxing.
  • The second half - sympathetic nervous system aka “fight and flight” system, sends simulating signals to our organs, telling them to get ready for action. When we take short, hasty breaths, the molecules of air switch on the sympathetic nerves.

Fast, Slow, and not at all

  • Prana is a Sanskrit word that means life force. When we breathe, we expand our life force.
  • The earliest yoga was a science of holding still and building prana through breathing. Poses were done once and held for an excruciatingly long time. These long postures allowed students to focus entirely on their breathing. Modern yoga is simply a different practice from the one that first originated 5,000 years ago. People now practice this modern form because it makes them feel better and look better and stay more flexible in all the ways stretching and exercise does.
  • The key to Sudarshan Kriya, Tummo, or any other breathing practice rooted in ancient yoga is to learn to be patient, maintain flexibility, and slowly absorb what breathing has to offer.

A Last Gasp

  • Nine out of ten of the top killers, such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are caused by the food we eat, the water we drink, houses we live in, and offices we work in. They are diseases humanity created. Improving diet and exercise and removing toxins and stressors from the home and workplace have a profound and lasting effect on the prevention and treatment of the majority of modern, chronic diseases.
  • Breathing, like any therapy or medication, can’t do everything. Breathing techniques are best suited to serve as preventative maintenance, a way to retain balance in the body so that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues. Should we lose that balance from time to time, breathing can often bring it back.