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Breath. The new science of a lost art by James Nestor - book review

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Fresh off the press in September 2020, this book by science journalist James Nestor, ‘Breath. The New Science of a Lost Art’, holds the potential to reach a broader audience given its basis in modern neuroscience. Whilst crucially also recognising the great mystery of breath. And the deeper places we can access in ourselves.

James sojourns many places over many years, on the reader’s behalf, to bring an updated view. In the first two pages alone, the pranayama, sudarshan kriya, is mentioned (yogic breath technique). We are taken into the quite profound experience James has in this first pranayama class. He writes, ‘I’d come here on the recommendation of my doctor, who’d told me, ‘A breathing class could help.’

It is via the ‘pulmonauts’ where James uncovers many curious findings. From Tibetan Buddhists who astound scientists by their ability to sit almost completely naked in snow, melting the snow around them, as they contain heat in their bodies through breath alone. To Norman Kingsley, a dentist and sculptor who in 1859 designed one of the earliest orthodontic devices - with the intention to widen the mouth and open the airways.

James is American. And as with many Americans, he shows that due to poor ‘brown food’ diet and not enough hardy chewing of fibrous vegetables, was propelled into this research through self interest and discovery. Plagued by respiratory issues, stemming from the combination of commercial food since 6 months old, that lead to poor eating habits, his mouth was underdeveloped, making his tongue too big for the space it was in. Creating other facial distortions, and this the perfect snoring storm! A stark reminder of the effects of the industrial age on the jaw and teeth.

So there is story. And that makes the book appealing as he is writing it much more from personal experience. Including the agonising research him and another character Olsen endure. Funding it themselves, they both agree to literally have their noses plugged for 10 days, to force mouth breathing. The results are catastrophic in terms of both measured outcomes such as oxygen levels and blood pressure, and how they feel. Which is terrible. A clever way to demonstrate how not to breathe. Nose breathing is a firm non-negotiable.

And this is where the sleep tape comes in! Yes. Taping up your mouth at night. James goes into greater detail of this. I’ve been doing it. Got my Dad doing it too. Especially if you are a known snorer, this is a great, safe and inexpensive way to begin to resolve the issue. A roll of micropore tape from your pharmacy. Pop a postage stamp sized piece over your mouth, and off to the land of zzzzz you go.

We are introduced to a number of other contemporary breathing experts. A choir conductor, and by all accounts a real trailblazer in his work, Carl Stough. Who realised through working with singers, how the power of the exhale was being overlooked. This ultimately lead to life saving work with people suffering from emphysema. This was back in the 1940s, where Carl got involved by invitation from the chief of tuberculosis management to breath train a group of patients with severe emphysema. The hospital had no idea what to do with these patients. When Carl comes to them, it is a seemingly hopeless vision of very unwell people, lying on gurneys, as if all laid out to die. He says in his book Dr Breath, ‘I foolishly had assumed that everyone at least had a rudimentary knowledge of physiology. Even more foolishly I had assumed that a universal awareness of the importance of breathing existed. Nothing could have been further from the truth.’

For those of you who haven’t yet practised yoga and breathwork, this book will gift you a new found love for your own diaphragm. A very useful appendix covers some of the key breath methods he talks about.

On a personal note, having grown up with yoga and gone on to study and immerse myself in it, in order to share with others. Even then, it wasn’t really until a couple of years ago, meeting Ben Wolff, that it landed more profoundly. How key it is to truly understand our own quality of breath. And in my view, Ben is one of the best breath teachers around. Why many of you that practise with me know, coherent breathing is the mainstay of pranayama (sama vritti) that I share. We are reminded that what is embedded as entirely natural in one, will be a pilgrimage of effort for another. This is one of the many reasons why we can tell so much about ourselves through the quality of our breath. And why it is so key that if we are in a position of teaching, breath for health must be a foundation. Quality of breath is not a standard check in medicine.

There are many ways to breathe. Do you care to know ways that harness health and those that diminish it. Because it matters. Hugely. That you know.

A beautiful intention for 2021, a true step up year, is to cultivate a healthier relationship with your own breath. And you can. Even beginning from now, attuning more to awareness of your own breath. That is a great starting place. Please also know that we all need daily reminders of this! This book is a worthwhile health investment. If it sings to you and you are curious. It is written in a very accessible way.

May we all breathe life back into ourselves, into our communities and into our planet. With so much love as always for a shining 2021.