American journalist and author James Nestor was in a bad way, stressed at work, recovering from pneumonia for the third time in three years, wheezing terribly, eating badly and living in an old house that was falling apart.
On his doctor’s recommendation, he signed up to a course of Sudarshan Kriya breathing and within twenty minutes of focusing on breathing slowly through his nose in the first session, he writes, “then something happened… it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else. It happened in an instant”. When he put his hand to his forehead, it was dripping in sweat. He was soaked through.
The next day he felt calm and well, having slept better than he had in ages, all the usual aches pains in his neck and shoulders gone. “How did sitting cross-legged in a funky house and breathing for an hour trigger such a profound reaction?” he asks. He went back the following week and the same thing happened again. He wanted to understand what had happened to him and why, and this book, which he wrote after ten years of researching the subject, which included travelling and talking to people all over the world, reading ancient Buddhist manuscripts and a great deal of self-experimentation, is the result.
Simply put, we take 25,000 breaths a day, most of us breathe through our mouths most of the time, and it’s really, really bad for us. We were designed to breath through our nostrils, and our failure to do so – 90 per cent of us, he says, are ‘mouthbreathers’, has resulted in an epidemic of poor health.
Nestor’s curiosity took him all over the place. To Greece, where he interviewed free divers who had trained themselves to be able to hold their breath underwater for minutes at a time. To New York, to meet a woman who had studied with Carl Stough, a choir conductor who discovered that using the diaphragm to maximum capacity to exhale stale air helped not just singers and sprinters, but could cure respiratory diseases such as emphysema and asthma. To Latvia, to talk to a woman suffering from ‘empty nose syndrome’ following invasive surgery in her nose. To São Paulo in Brazil, to interview a yoga expert about yoga and breathing. He learned the story of Katharina Schroth, a German woman who managed to straighten her severely scoliotic spine by repeatedly inhaling into one lung, and went on to help others. He studied breathing techniques going back to 400 BC, talked to dentists about the effect that eating a mushy diet has on the formation of the skull, and experimented ceaselessly on himself.
Crucially he paid a visit to Dr Jayakar Nayak, a nasal and sinus surgeon at Stanford Department of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Centre, who, for a fee of $5,000, inserted a small wire brush deep into his nasal passages to get a sample of his bacteria-laden ‘gunk’ and then put him on a twenty-day breathing ‘regime’. For the first ten days, Nestor had to keep his nostrils plugged so he could only breathe through his mouth. He felt awful, and worse as the days went by. But when he switched over to nasal breathing, sealing his lips shut with a ‘postage stamp-sized’ piece of tape, he began to feel better almost immediately. Within three nights, his snoring time had reduced from 4 hours to ten minutes and the longer he breathed through his nose, the clearer and bigger his nasal cavities became.
Over time Nestor tried and tested different breathing techniques, and while there is no single magic formula – techniques depend on whether you are exercising, relaxing or trying to sleep and so on – the 5.5 seconds to inhale, followed by 5.5 seconds to exhale through the nose turns out to be close to the optimum, as well as being similar to the breathing patterns typically used in religious practices such as chanting Buddhist mantras and reciting the rosary in Latin. Nestor also learned alternate nostril breathing, which banished his reflux, box breathing, and breath hold walking – which sounds excruciating when you begin. But guess what, his health improved dramatically and he is now a self-styled ‘pulmonaut’ on a mission to help us all breathe better. The techniques are described in detail at the end of the book, along with a list of helpful apps and Youtube tutorials, not to mention his own website.
In the past few years, there have been several potentially life-changing books, from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and Shane O’ Mara’s In Praise of Walking, to Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing. Breath deserves a place alongside such volumes. It is already a bestseller in the US. Read it, and I guarantee you will want to change the way you breathe.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor (Penguin Life, £16.99), buy it here.