Breath cover

Breath - Book Summary

The New Science of a Lost Art

Duration: 25:56
Release Date: November 30, 2023
Book Author: James Nestor
Categories: Science, Health & Nutrition
Duration: 25:56
Release Date: November 30, 2023
Book Author: James Nestor
Categories: Science, Health & Nutrition

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we delve into the pages of "Breath" by James Nestor, a remarkable exploration of the far-reaching impact of the way we breathe on our overall health. Nestor, a seasoned journalist with contributions to Scientific American, Outside Magazine, and The New York Times, draws us into the often underestimated world of breathwork. "Breath" uncovers the science behind breathing techniques and their potential to drastically enhance our well-being.

This episode is perfect for fans of popular science and those seeking accessible avenues to improve their health. It offers fascinating insights for anyone curious about an act as automatic as breathing and its profound effects on our lives. Join us as we take a deep dive into the power of breath and what lies beyond every inhale and exhale, as revealed by James Nestor in his enlightening work.

The remarkable power of mastering your breath.

Have you ever stopped to think about the way you breathe? It's something we all do instinctively, without instruction or deliberate effort. Yet, the way we inhale and exhale can profoundly influence our well-being. It's not just about the oxygen; the manner in which we breathe can reshape our faces, open up our airways, and empower us to conquer ailments ranging from asthma to anxiety. Even more fascinating, certain breathing practices can induce hallucinogenic states or allow us to regulate our heart rate and body temperature as if by magic.

Surprisingly, the significance of breath has been vastly overlooked in Western scientific circles.

Join us as we embark on a journey with the "pulmonauts"—a term coined by author James Nestor for individuals who have dedicated their lives to understanding the extraordinary effects of mindful breathing.

As we dive into this adventure, you'll discover why mouth breathing is a habit to break, the often misunderstood role of carbon dioxide, and the story of a Dutch postal worker who braved the Arctic Circle's cold, running a half-marathon without a shirt—all thanks to the art of controlled breathing.

Nose breathing: Unlocking a hidden gateway to health.

Imagine feeling perpetually exhausted, your heart racing as if it's trying to escape your chest, all while a cold chill takes over your body, leaving you in utter distress. This isn't a scene from a horror film; it was the lived reality of author James Nestor who voluntarily obstructed his nostrils to breathe solely through his mouth. The results? A spike in blood pressure, disrupted sleep, and a sense of overwhelming malaise.

Let's clarify something crucial: Nose breathing is vastly superior to mouth breathing for your health.

You might be surprised to learn that about half of us are primarily mouth breathers due to various factors — from chronic nasal congestion to environmental pollutants and emotional stress. But as Nestor's plugged-up nose experiment illustrates, persisting with mouth breathing can spiral into a host of worsening issues.

After ten torturous days, Nestor liberated his nose, only to contend with a host of problems — blockages, a bacterial infection, and a wreckage of his sleep quality. However, the sheer bliss that flooded over him when he finally drew air through his nose again is indescribable — the pure, refreshing burst of life-giving oxygen his system craved.

The nose is a sophisticated instrument, not merely a passageway for air. It warms, cleanses, and humidifies each breath while secreting beneficial chemicals that help stabilize blood pressure and heart rate — luxuries that mouth breathing doesn't afford.

The nefarious impact of depriving oneself of nasal breathing was harshly demonstrated in a controversial study from the 1970s and '80s. Egil P. Harvold, an orthodontist, experimented on rhesus monkeys by sealing their nasal passages, monitoring the distressing transformation of their dental structure and facial form over periods of up to two years.

The monkeys developed a visibly distorted appearance, with narrowed dental arches and misaligned teeth. Not only did their well-being decline, but so did their physical aesthetics, due to sheer breathing mechanics.

Remarkably, after unblocking the monkeys' noses, their faces reverted to their natural structure within six months. Such dramatic effects underscore the influential, and often underestimated, link between breathing and our overall health and physical development.

How our evolution and diets shape our breathing troubles.

Take a journey through time, all the way back to roughly 1.7 million years ago — meet our ancestors, Homo habilis, and their successors, Homo erectus. These early humans marked the beginning of a culinary revolution, tenderizing and later cooking their food, leading to a surge in caloric intake and hence energy levels. This extra energy was the fuel for brain growth, an evolutionary triumph that would cascade through the millennia as we, Homo sapiens, burgeoned with intellect and gained the gift of speech.

The evolution of bigger brains and a lower larynx conferred survival advantages, allowing intricate thought and complex communication. But progress has its price. Our enlarged brains squeezed our nasal cavities and sinuses, creating a narrower airway. And as for the drop in our larynx — it omitted a design flaw, increasing our risk of choking.

The narrative doesn't end there, owing to a significant twist in the tale: The shape of the human head being less conducive to breathing.

Now, fast forward to the last few centuries, where a diet shift in Western societies exacerbated an already tricky situation. With the advent of processed foods came softer diets, which led to smaller mouths due to less vigorous chewing. The resulting dental crowding and orthodontic issues have added yet another layer to our increasingly convoluted breathing problems.

Our modern diets aren't just altering our waistlines, they're reshaping our skulls. And this, in turn, is squeezing our airways and sabotaging our ability to breathe with ease.

Interestingly, this isn't a universal predicament. Looking back to American researcher George Catlin in the 1830s, we find insights from his observations of over 50 indigenous groups across the Americas. Despite their varied diets and customs, one thing was unmistakably common amongst them: robust health, straight teeth without the need for braces, and a consistent practice of nose breathing.

Convinced by the evident health benefits he witnessed, Catlin became a nasal breathing advocate, even authoring "Breath of Life" as a testament, with a categorical plea to his readers: "SHUT YOUR MOUTH."

However, in a twist of fate, his fervent advice has largely been overlooked, leaving many in the dark about the crucial link between dietary habits, physical development, and the simple yet vital act of breathing.

Exhaling fully: The forgotten half of the breathing equation.

In the late 1950s, Carl Stough, a choir director, discovered something remarkable about a group of patients suffering from emphysema at East Orange Veterans Affairs Hospital in New Jersey. While Stough had no formal medical training, he possessed a keen understanding of breathing from his experience with singers. What he observed in these patients was a pattern of shallow, hurried breaths — they seemed to have no trouble drawing breath in, yet they were struggling to breathe out effectively.

Stough's insight led to a profound realization: Breathing in is important, but breathing out holds equal, if not greater, significance.

His approach centered on the diaphragm, a powerful muscle situated below the lungs that plays a pivotal role in our respiratory process.

To address the issue, Stough coached the emphysema patients to exhale thoroughly, which was a game-changer.

Essentially, adults often don't use their diaphragm to its full potential, and this is even truer for individuals with respiratory ailments. Stough's exercises involved instructing his patients to practice prolonged exhalations while he applied gentle physical encouragement to their chests, necks, and throats, which stimulated greater diaphragmatic movement.

Through these unconventional methods, patients witnessed a remarkable improvement in their lung capacity, as Stough's technique reactivated their overlooked diaphragm.

Although emphysema remains incurable owing to its permanent lung damage, Stough's strategies enabled patients to make the most of their remaining healthy lung tissue. The results were astonishing — patients regained enough functionality to resume walking, talking, and in one incredible case, a patient recovered to the extent of commanding a ship.

The medical community was floored. The prevailing belief held that the lungs inevitably declined with age, losing their capacity bit by bit. Contrary to this notion, Stough's work illuminated an accessible path to enhancing lung capacity, with something as simple as routine activities like walking or cycling possibly increasing lung volume by up to 15 percent.

But why is a complete exhale such a crucial part of the breathing process? It turns out there's more to exhaling than merely getting rid of unneeded air. The next segment will delve into the underlying science of why fully breathing out is an indispensable component of our respiratory health.

Breathe slower, live better: The surprising science of gentle breaths.

Across the globe, spiritual traditions from Jainism to Catholicism to Kundalini yoga have all independently gravitated toward a mystic harmony in their breathing practices during prayer and meditation. Intriguingly, each tradition includes rituals where breaths align in a rhythmic symphony, timing each inhalation and exhalation to nearly the same duration — between 5.5 and six seconds. It turns out that this slow cadence of breath has profound health benefits, promoting increased blood flow to the brain and enhancing bodily functions. Prayer, in this sense, emerges not just as spiritual nourishment but as a physical tonic as well.

Why does embracing a slower breathing rhythm translate into such significant health advantages? It's about the delicate balance of gases in the body.

Oxygen and carbon dioxide are the key players in our respiratory biochemistry. Oxygen hitchhikes through our body via red blood cells, fueling every cell it encounters, swapping places with carbon dioxide, which is then exhaled. However, carbon dioxide is more than the exhaust of our metabolic engine; it's an essential catalyst facilitating oxygen's release from red blood cells, while also dilating our blood vessels to allow a richer blood flow.

Heavy breathing, the kind that happens during intense physical exertion or moments of anxiety, expels too much carbon dioxide. This rapid loss can constrict blood vessels, causing symptoms like dizziness or headaches. Conversely, slow, measured breathing conserves carbon dioxide which in turn can boost energy and enhance our systemic efficiency.

So, the ideal approach to breathing isn't about gulping air till our lungs are at capacity. Far from it; most of us inhale more than enough oxygen even when taking modest breaths.

The secret lies in the art of the 5.5-second breath. Inhaling for 5.5 seconds, then exhaling for the same count adds up to roughly 5.5 breaths per minute — this is the sweet spot for optimal respiration. Embracing this gentle rhythm for just a few minutes each day can yield transformative health benefits — and you don't need to be in the middle of a prayer circle to reap its rewards.

Step into this simple practice and experience the ripple effect of slow, shallow breaths and how they can enhance your well-being, one tranquil inhale and exhale at a time.

Chew on this: Reshaping our mouths for better breathing.

The past 300 years have left an indelible mark on our oral health, with soft, processed foods leading to a domino effect: less chewing, smaller mouths, crowded teeth, and bottlenecked airways. All these have contributed to a rise in respiratory issues such as snoring and asthma. Fortunately, the same habits that led us down this path also offer a glint of hope, showing us that with a shift in our routine, we can turn back the clock on our oral health.

Traditional orthodontic treatments, particularly those from the mid-20th century, ironically exacerbated the very issues they sought to address, often leading to reduced mouth size and breathing complications. But a British dentist named John Mew was onto something in the late 1950s. He faced strong opposition and eventually lost his dental license, yet the ideas he championed are now gaining traction.

What can we do to improve the situation? The answer lies in the subtleties of what Mew termed "good oral posture" — the secret being to maintain a slight touch between the teeth, lips gently sealed, and the tongue resting on the palate. This positioning encourages the opening of the airways, providing a non-invasive boost to our respiratory capabilities.

Beyond postural tweaks, there are now innovative devices designed to mimic the effects of robust chewing. The author himself experimented with the Homeoblock, an invention by Theodore Belfor, which feigns the action of chewing, thereby stimulating the mouth's natural growth mechanisms.

The results were nothing short of extraordinary. In a matter of weeks, the author noted significant structural changes: expanded airways, realigned jaw, and notably, a growth of fresh facial bone — almost two cubic centimeters of it.

It's a revelation that even as adults, our facial bones remain dynamic and responsive, capable of regenerating through something as natural as chewing. Particularly, the use of our molars triggers the production of stem cells, which set to work in crafting new bone structures in and around our mouths. This process not only alleviates breathing troubles but also has a cosmetic perk — a more youthful appearance.

The premise is simple yet powerful: by harnessing our body's natural processes through mindful practices and modern tools, we can reclaim not only the health of our breath but also the youthful vigor of our facial structure.

Unlocking the body's potential with advanced breathing techniques.

Breathing is more than a matter of survival; it's a gateway to extraordinary capabilities. By going beyond simple changes in breathing patterns, we can tap into what might seem like superhuman abilities.

Consider the story of Swami Rama, an Indian yogi who, in the early 1970s, left doctors in Topeka, Kansas, in sheer disbelief. By virtue of his mastery over his breath, Rama showcased the ability to change his heart rate dramatically and even generated a significant temperature differential between two fingers. Swami Rama was no outlier among yogis; for centuries, these practitioners have demonstrated profound control over their physiology through disciplined breathing.

The transformative potential of advanced breathing techniques is nothing short of miraculous.

"Tummo", or "inner fire," is one such technique with roots spanning back a thousand years to Tibetan Buddhist monks. This practice enables its users to withstand the biting cold of the Himalayas with scant clothing, seemingly defying the body's natural responses to extreme temperatures.

In more recent history, Wim Hof of the Netherlands has risen to fame with his ability to endure icy temperatures that would send shivers down anyone's spine. Known for his shirtless run across the Arctic Circle and his remarkable immunity to E. coli bacteria under scientific scrutiny, Hof represents the modern embodiment of ancient breathing techniques.

Both Tummo practitioners and Wim Hof employ a rigorous approach of forceful breathing that differs from the gentle, slow breathing typically recommended for health. This method is designed to induce a stress response, turning up the volume on the body's capacity to adapt and resist. As one 'hacks' into the autonomic nervous system—responsible for involuntary bodily functions—command over the seemingly uncontrollable becomes possible.

Hof refined this concept into a more palatable form for the Western audience, combining breath control with regular exposure to extreme cold.

While the benefits of these advanced practices are captivating, they're not without their critics and should be approached with caution. They illuminate the incredible spectrum of what breath can do for us, offering a glimpse into the untapped capabilities lying dormant within our own physiology.

Exploring consciousness through carbon dioxide: From visions to tranquility.

The journey into the mind can be as profound as the quest to conquer physical extremes — and it turns out that breathing has a map for this terrain too. The impacts of breathing on the body are riveting, but the effects on the mind offer an equally fascinating twist, echoing the altered states induced by psychedelic substances.

Imagine standing at the frontier of consciousness in 1956 as psychology student Stanislav Grof underwent an extraordinary experiment, ingesting LSD for the first time and being thrust into a kaleidoscope of vivid, transformative visions. When LSD later crossed into the realm of the prohibited, Grof pursued a legal avenue to replicate these mind-altering experiences: Holotropic Breathwork. Discovered through intense bouts of heavy breathing, this technique could unlock hallucinogenic visuals without a drop of the drug.

The transformative factor here revolves around carbon dioxide levels in the body.

Fast-paced, deep breaths significantly lower carbon dioxide, and practicing an extreme version of this, as with Holotropic Breathwork, restricts blood flow to the brain, particularly affecting areas tied to our identity and temporal awareness, hence the hallucinatory experiences.

While it has not become a mainstream practice and remains contentious, Holotropic Breathwork tantalized some with its potential for therapeutic progress.

On the flip side of the spectrum, increasing carbon dioxide concentration has its own set of profound effects. Neurologist Justin Feinstein has delved into so-called "carbon dioxide therapy," investigating a curiously overlooked domain. The immediate response to a concentrated hit of carbon dioxide can be a surge of panic, activating the brain's chemoreceptors to signal distress. However, as the initial shock wanes, what follows can be a deep sense of stillness and serenity.

This can provide a shortcut to the tranquil state commonly achieved through slow, steady breathing — a particularly helpful alternative for those grappling with anxiety, epilepsy, or schizophrenia who may struggle with traditional breathing exercises.

Enduring this method is a trial by fire, as it were, requiring one to face intense panic head-on. The author's own encounter with a 35 percent carbon dioxide blend led to an overwhelming sensation of suffocation, a testament to the profound influence controlled breathing can exert on our inner world.

Rediscovering breath: Ancient practices meet modern curiosity.

In Western science, the exploration of breath's potential is only beginning to unfold, with research into breath and carbon dioxide still considered to be in its nascent stage. Most of the pioneering figures, like Carl Stough or John Mew, were seen as mavericks, their work existing on the fringes of mainstream medicinal practices.

However, the wisdom of breath has long been a cornerstone in other parts of the world. Individuals like Swami Rama or the Tummo practitioners are not anomalies but rather custodians of a time-honored knowledge that has been passed down through centuries.

The profound understanding of breath finds its roots in ancient Asian philosophies — 3,000 years ago, the concept of life energy emerged with names like prana in India and ch’i in China. This energy, believed to permeate the universe, was considered most potent in living beings. Traditional Asian practices have long sought to harness and balance this vital force, with acupuncture and yoga as prime examples.

Breath, as the most accessible means of channeling prana, held a sacred status in these practices. The ancient Yoga Sutras, dating back to 500 BCE, might surprise contemporary followers of yoga with their focus. Less concerned with physical postures, these teachings emphasized stillness and the accumulation of prana through deliberate breathing.

This same idea lends insight into the potent effects of intense breathwork. Sudden influxes of prana through aggressive methods can jolt the body into astonishing states, from visions to altered awareness. Yet, the traditional yogic approach advocates a more patient cultivation of this energy over years, unlocking its fullest potential gradually.

In an era where lifestyle progress often seems synonymous with health advancement, the foundational aspect of breath is curiously overlooked. Yet, the allure of enhanced breathing techniques need not require extremities, nor belief in the actual concept of prana.

Anyone can access this power: Simply breathe in for 5.5 seconds, exhale for the same, and repeat. This simple rhythm is a timeless key to wellbeing, connecting us to ancient practices that have long understood the profound effects controlled breath can have on the body and mind.

Embrace the transformative power of breath.

The act of breathing, often taken for granted, hides within it the potential to revolutionize our health and unlock extraordinary capabilities. Adopting the simple habit of nasal breathing, slowing down our intake of air, and utilizing our diaphragm effectively can profoundly enhance our well-being. Breath is a remarkable tool, one that can conduct a symphony of physiological benefits from the cellular level to the entirety of our body systems.

By tapping into the depth of breathing, not only can we improve everyday health, but we also have the potential to access what appear to be superhuman abilities. The myriad techniques of breath control, from the gentle to the intense, serve as a testament to the incredible adaptability and resilience of the human body.

In summary, the key to unlocking the myriad benefits of breath lies in our willingness to alter longstanding habits and to recognize the latent power that lies in every inhale and exhale. By harnessing this innate yet underutilized capacity, each of us can sow the seeds for a healthier, more vibrant life.

Breath Quotes by James Nestor

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