The place looked like something out of an old horror film: all paint-chipped walls, dusty windows, and menacing shadows cast by moonlight. I walked through a gate, up a flight of creaking steps, and knocked on the door.
When it swung open, a woman in her 30s with woolly eyebrows and oversize white teeth welcomed me inside. She asked me to take off my shoes, then led me to a cavernous living room, its ceiling painted sky blue with wispy clouds. I took a seat beside a window that rattled in the breeze and watched through jaundiced streetlight as others walked in. A guy with prisoner eyes. A blonde woman with an off-centre bindi on her forehead.
I’d come here on the recommendation of my doctor, who’d told me: “A breathing class could help.” It could help strengthen my failing lungs, calm my frazzled mind, maybe give me perspective.
For the past few months, I’d been going through a rough patch. My job was stressing me out and my 130-year-old house was falling apart. I’d just recovered from pneumonia, which I’d also had the year before, and the year before that. I was spending most of my time at home wheezing, working and eating three meals a day out of the same bowl while hunched over week-old newspapers on the couch. I was in a rut– physically, mentally and otherwise. After a few months of living this way, I took my doctor’s advice and signed up for an introductory course in breathing to learn a technique called Sudarshan Kriya.
At 7pm, the bushy-browed woman locked the front door, sat in the middle of the group, inserted a cassette tape into a beat-up boom box, and pressed play. She told us to close our eyes. The voice instructed us to inhale slowly through our noses, then to exhale slowly. To focus on our breath. I kept breathing, but nothing happened. No calmness swept over me, no tension released from my tight muscles. Nothing. Ten, maybe 20 minutes passed. I started getting annoyed and a bit resentful that I’d chosen to spend my evening inhaling dusty air on the floor of an old Victorian house. I thought about getting up and leaving, but I didn’t want to be rude. Then something happened. I wasn’t conscious of any transformation taking place. I never felt myself relax or the swarm of nagging thoughts leave my head. But it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else. It happened in an instant.
There was something wet on my head. I lifted my hand to wipe it off and noticed my hair was sopping. I ran my hand down my face, felt the sting of sweat in my eyes and tasted salt. I looked down at my torso and noticed sweat blotches on my sweater and jeans. Everyone had been covered in jackets and hoodies to keep warm. But I had somehow sweated through my clothes as if I’d just run a marathon.
The instructor approached and asked if I was OK, if I’d been sick or had a fever. I told her I felt perfectly fine. The next day I felt even better. As advertised, there was a feeling of calm and quiet that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I slept well. The little things in life didn’t bother me as much. The tension was gone from my shoulders and neck. This lasted a few days before the feeling faded out.
What exactly had happened? How did sitting cross- legged in a strange house and breathing for an hour trigger such a profound reaction?
I returned to the breathing class the following week: same experience, fewer waterworks. I didn’t mention any of it to family members or friends. But I worked to understand what had happened, and I spent the next several years trying to figure it out. Over that span of time, I fixed up my house, sorted myself out and got a lead that might answer some of my questions about breathing. I went to Greece to write a story on freediving, the ancient practice of swimming hundreds of feet below the water’s surface on a single breath of air.
“There are as many ways to breathe as there are foods to eat,” said one female instructor who had held her breath for more than 8 minutes and once dived below 300ft. “And each way we breathe will affect our bodies in different ways.” Surely someone had studied the effects of this conscious breathing on landlubbers? I found a library’s worth of material. The problem was, the sources were hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old.
Seven books of the Chinese Tao dating back to around 400BC focussed entirely on breathing, how it could kill us or heal us, depending on how we used it. Even earlier, Hindus considered breath and spirit the same thing and described elaborate practices that were meant to balance breathing and preserve both physical and mental health. Then there were the Buddhists, who used breathing not only to lengthen their lives but to reach higher planes of consciousness. Breathing, for all these people, for all these cultures, was powerful medicine.
I looked for some kind of verification of these claims in more recent research in pulmonology, the medical discipline that deals with the lungs and the respiratory tract, but found next to nothing. According to what I did find, breathing technique wasn’t important. Many doctors, researchers and scientists I interviewed confirmed this position. Twenty times a minute, 10 times, through the mouth, nose or breathing tube, it’s all the same. The point is to get air in and let the body do the rest. But I kept digging and slowly a story began to unfold. As I found out, I was not the only person who’d recently started asking these questions. While I was paging through texts and interviewing freedivers and super-breathers, scientists at Harvard, Stanford and other renowned institutions were confirming some of the wildest stories I’d been hearing.
But their work wasn’t happening in the pulmonology labs. Pulmonologists, I learned, work mainly on specific maladies of the lungs – collapse, cancer, emphysema. “We’re dealing with emergencies,” one veteran pulmonologist told me. “That’s how the system works.”
No, this breathing research has been taking place elsewhere: in the muddy digs of ancient burial sites, the easy chairs of dental offices and the safe rooms of mental hospitals. Not the kinds of places where you’d expect to find cutting-edge research into a biological function.
Few of these scientists set out to study breathing. But, somehow, in some way, breathing kept finding them. They discovered that our capacity to breathe has changed through the long processes of human evolution and that the way we breathe has become markedly worse since the dawn of the industrial age. They’d also discovered that with some concerted practice we could restore our breathing and when we did we could take control of certain functions of our nervous and immune systems. The ways in which we took those 25,000 breaths we take each day – some 30lb of air that enters and exits our lungs – was in many ways as important as what we ate, how much we exercised, or whatever genes we’d inherited.
Since I began researching my book several years ago, attitudes towards the importance of breathing have altered radically. Covid-19 has turned us into a planet of breath-obsessed people. We spend our days covering our mouths and noses with masks, our nights anxious that we might be feeling a cough coming on or some tightness in our chests. As hard as it might be to consider right now, there’s a silver lining in all this. How we breathe may help with health and longevity and paying attention to it is long overdue. Several doctors told me recently that respiratory health has been directly correlated to Covid survival rates and they are now prescribing breathing practices to better defend our bodies against this virus as well as help us better overcome it once we start showing symptoms.
A video posted by Dr Sarfaraz Munshi, who is on the frontlines of the pandemic at Queen’s Hospital in London, shows Munshi taking abdominal breaths followed by a short breath-hold, then repeating it five times and ending with a cough. This technique, he suggests, will help purge gunk from the lungs and make for easier breathing. Although there is no scientific evidence to suggest this technique helps coronavirus patients, it is recommended by the director of nursing at the hospital.
What I’d like to make clear is that breathing, like any therapy or medication, can’t do everything. Breathing fast, slow, or not at all, can’t make embolisms go away. No breathing can heal stage IV cancer. These severe problems require urgent medical attention. But, like all eastern medicines, 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. Add to this, researchers still have much to learn about this endlessly expansive field and there should be more in-depth scientific research into the area.
For now, most of us see breathing as a passive action, something that we just do: breathe, live; stop breathing, die. But breathing is not binary. It’s not just that we do it that is so important – how we breathe matters, too. I call this awareness and practice of healthy breathing a “lost art”, because it’s not new at all. Most of the techniques I’ve been exploring are ancient. They were created, documented, forgotten and then discovered again in another culture at another time, then forgotten again. This went on for centuries.
One thing that every pulmonary researcher I’ve talked to over the past few years has agreed on is that we tend to overbreathe. What’s considered normal today is anywhere between a dozen and 20 breaths a minute, with an average intake of about 0.5 litres or more of air per breath. For those on the high end of respiratory rates, that’s about twice at much as it used to be. Breathing too much can raise blood pressure, overwork the heart and lull our nervous systems into a state of stress. For the body to function as peak efficiency we need to breathe as closely in-line with our metabolic needs as possible. For the majority of us that means breathing less. But that’s harder than it sounds. We’ve become conditioned to breathe too much, just as we’ve been conditioned to eat too much. With some effort and training, however, breathing less can become an unconscious habit.
Through my years of travels and travails in respiratory research, there is one lesson, one equation, that I believe is at the root of so much health, happiness and longevity. I’m a bit embarrassed to say it has taken me a decade to figure this out and I realise how insignificant it may seem. But lest we forget, nature is simple but subtle. For me, the perfect breath is this: inhale for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 litres of air. You can practise this perfect breathing for a few minutes, or a few hours. When we breathe like this, breathing practitioners suggest that circulation in the brain and body will increase while the burden on the heart decreases. All the while the diaphragm – that umbrella-shaped muscle in our chests – will drop lower and rise higher, allowing more air to enter the lungs and assisting in pushing blood throughout the body. For this reason, the diaphragm is sometimes referred to as “the second heart”, because it not only beats to its own rhythm but also affects the rate and strength of the heartbeat.
Breathing techniques in the form of classes, videos, books and apps are already an industry. But be aware that the stripped-down approach is as good as any. It requires no batteries, wifi, headgear or smartphones. It costs nothing, takes little time and effort, and you can do it wherever you are, whenever you need. It’s a function our distant ancestors have practised since they crawled out of the sludge 2.5bn years ago, a technique our own species has been perfecting with only our lips, noses and lungs for hundreds of thousands of years.
Most days, I treat it like a stretch, something I do after a long time sitting or stressing, to bring myself back to normal. By the law of averages, you will take 670m breaths over your lifetime. Maybe you’ve already taken half of those. Maybe you’re on breath 669,000,000. Maybe you’d like to take a few million more.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor (Penguin Life, £16.99) is published on 30 July. Buy it for £14.78 from guardianbookshop.com