EVERFIT book Review : Breath - the new science of a lost art by James Nestor
Book Reviews, September 26, 2021
Another ground breaking health book that goes back to the past for simple health tips to save our future
This book enhanced my desire to reengage with the simple act of breathing to improve my wellbeing. Over the past 8 years I have explored the habits that give society true wellness. These habits mostly are free and a little uncomfortable. Some cold, fasting, yoga, cardiovascular training, full body strength exercises, and breath work in the right amounts could save our society from drifting into illness and disease.
The author James Nestor unpacks his own experience with alleviating his own dysfunctional breathing patterns, and combines this with knowledge from experts in the field. Freedivers that dive to incredible depths able to hold their breath for up to 8min - "Their transformation was a matter of training.....tapping their pulmonary capabilities that the rest of us ignore." Ancient writing, teachings, and scripture explaining how breathing can kill us or heal us. The Chinese Tao (the way) at 400BC has detailed instructions on how to regulate breath, hold it, slow it down, and use it to heal. Even earlier the Hindus considered breath and spirit to be the same and talked about balancing breathing to enhance both physical and mental health. Breath work for all these ancient cultures was a simple, powerful tonic for health. Look up anything on yoga and you will come across the work prana - which translates to "life force" or "vital energy". This was first recorded 3000 years ago and become the pillar of health. The Chinese called it ch'i and believed the body had channels that linked organs and tissues with "prana lines". They call thie breath work "qigong". The Japanese have their own name for prana, ki, the Greeks, pneuma, Hebrews, ruah. When we work on correct breathing we literally expand our life force.
"Therefore the scholar who nourishes his life refines the form and nourishes his breath." Ancient Toa text.
You can eat well, do yoga, exercise, and have healthy relationships but if your breathing is not efficient, and dialed in, you will never reach your human potential. One massive missing pillar in our health system is the breath. Over 90% of us (probably you) is breathing incorrectly and this is creating or adding to chronic lifestyle disease. You will take 670 million breaths in your life. Let's start to do it right.
4 billion years our earliest ancestors appeared on some rocks and back then the atmosphere was mostly CO2. Our early selves took in CO2 and breathed out O2. 2.5 billion years ago there was enough O2 in the atmosphere to utilise the O2 (Oxygen produced 16 x more energy than carbon dioxide). Aerobic life forms used this energy boost to evolve - they became plants, trees, birds, and the earliest mammals. Mammals developed noses and throats to humidify and guide air into lungs. 1.7 million years ago the first human ancestor Homo habilis started roaming the eastern shores of Africa. About 800,000 years ago we started processing food in fire (this released an enormous amount of energy - more kcal) Homo Sapiens first appeared 300,000 years ago. In colder climates our noses grew narrow and long to more efficiently heat up the air before it entered our lungs, our skin grew lighter to take in more sunshine to produce Vit D (check out how important Vit D is here (https://everfit.co.nz/articles/vitamin-d-the-super-enhancer). In warmer sunnier climes we adapted wider flatter noses to be more efficient at taking in hot and humid air and our skin would grow darker to protect us against the sun.
We have evolved to take in air THROUGH our NOSE. The nose clears air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption. The nose has been described as the silent warrior, a gatekeeper of our bodies and pharmacist to our minds. Dr. John Douillard has conducted testing over 20 years showing that mouth breathing was not only unhealthy but detrimental to athletic performance. His studies have shown simply breathing through your nose can cut total exertion in half while improving endurance! Mouth breathing actually changes the physical body and transforms airways for the worse. Mouth breathing makes breathing more difficult (soft tissues at the back of the mouth become loose and fall inwards). Nose breathing makes the airways wider and breathing easier - it literally tones up these tissues and muscles to stay opened and wide. This decreases snoring and other nasal issues. For the book the author - James Nestor lived for 10 days mouth breathing and his snoring increased almost 5000% and he suffered 25 apnea events (choking and O2 levels below 85%). Mouth breathing causes the body to lose 40% more water, and weirdly increased the need to urinate (during deep restful sleep stages the pituitary gland secretes hormones that control the release of adrenaline, endorphins, growth hormone, and vasopressin - this directs cells to store more water) If your sleep is poor vasopressin isn't released normally, kidneys release water which triggers the need to urinate and signals to the brain that we need more water.
"The breath inhaled through the mouth is called 'NiCh'i, adverse breath....be careful not to have the breath inhaled through the mouth" Passage from Tao.
Slow breathing goes by another name - Prayer. Buddhists chant mantra's that last 6sec before breathing in for 6sec. The sa ta na ma chant used in Kundalini yoga also uses the 6 sec inhale 6sec exhale. Even the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria has 5.5 breaths per minute (just a little quicker than the Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayers). When breathing at this rate the body becomes balanced - the functions of the heart, circulation, and nervous system are co-ordinated to optimal efficiency. This slow coherent breathing offers the same benefits as meditation for those that don't want to meditate; as yoga for those that don't want to do yoga, and as prayer for those that aren't religious.
Breathing is more than getting air into our lungs - it's an intimate connection to our surroundings. Our surroundings are made up of recycled space dust that's been around for 13.8 billion years. To breathe is to absorb our environment, to take in little bits of nature, understand them, and give bits of ourselves back out. Respiratioin is actually an act of reciprocation. The tens of billions of molecules we bring into our system with every breath influences nearly every organ - when to turn on of off, breath effects heart rate, digestion, your mood - it is the power switch to the autonomic nervous system. Breathing is an autonomic function we can consciously control. We don't have to be passengers in our bodies, we can become the pilot.
James Nestor gives many interesting examples of people in the past stumbling across the massive benefits of correct breathing during interaction with indigenous groups. George Catlin in 1830 left his job as a lawyer to become a portrait painter for Philadelphia's elite. He soon got bored of the pomp and polite society and in his failing health he yearned to get into nature and paint more real depictions of humanity. he traveled thousands of miles over the next 6 years and lived and documented the lives of over 50 Native American tribes. The tribes lived in different regions, had different diets, and looked different - yet Catlin noticed they shared one common trait = super human physical characteristics. Most men were 6 foot tall with herculean broad powerful shoulders, the women were tall, striking, and strong. None of them had seen a doctor or dentist yet they were in incredible health and had perfect white, straight teeth. Nobody seemed to suffer from chronic health issues. The tribes attributed their vitality and wellbeing to what Catlin described as 'the great secret of life' - BREATHING. The native Americans talked about the breath inhaled through the mouth "sapped the body of strength, deformed the face, and caused stress and disease....Breath inhaled through the nose kept the body strong, made the face beautiful, and prevented disease"
"The air which enters the lungs is as different from which enters the nostrils as distilled water is different from the water in a frog pond" Native American Indian Proverb
Catlin set off travelling again at 56 years of age to Argentina and Brazil. Every tribe he visited shared the same breathing advice. Catlin went on to write the book "The Breath of Life" (published in 1862). It documented the benefits of nasal breathing and the hazards of mouth breathing. Catlin lived these benefits as he was hampered by respiratory issues. At 30 he snored chronically and had a cough that would sometimes produce blood in his spit. After employing nasal breathing he lived to 76 and credited this to the "great secret of life - always breath through the nose."
Another fascinating story is that of Peter Kelder. In the 1930's he started a conversation with an elderly, hunched, grey army Colonel who talked about a "cure for aging" locked up in the Himalayas. He then hobbled off to travel there and promised to stay in touch with Kelder. Four years later the Colonel turned up at Kelders home looking 20 years later - standing straight, and looking vibrant. He had found the monastery, and learned the restorative habits. He had reversed aging through stretching and breathing. Kelder wrote about the techniques in a slim booklet called "The Eye of Revelation" (published in 1939). Few read it and nobody believed it. The lung expanding exercises are rooted in actual routines that date back to 500 BCE. Breath work won't just help keep you young and vital but will help treat mental health issues. Anxiety disorders and depression are the most common mental health disorders in the western world. In the USA 13% of the population over 12 years of age will use antidepressents - over half of people who take them have little to no benefit. Research shows that meditation can change the structure and function of critical areas of the brain, relieve anxiety, while boosting focus and compassion..
- Nasal breathing helps the sinuses release a boost of nitric oxide (a molecule that delivers oxygen to cells). Weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function are all heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body. Nasal breathing can boost nitric oxide sixfold (which is one way we can absorb 18% more oxygen than when breathing in the mouth)
- The blood in our system does one full circuit in a minute. An average of 7600 L in a day. This regular and consistent blood flow is essential to delivering oxygen and removing waste. The thoracic pump influences the speed and strength of this circulation - the diaphragm (muscle that sits below the lungs) powers the pump. The average adult engages only 10% of the diaphragm when breathing (creating extra work for the heart, elevating blood pressure, and creating circulatory problems). Nasal breathing can engage 50-70% of the diaphragm's capacity allowing the body to work more efficiently. Over time shallow breathing will limit the capacity of our diaphragm, our lung capacity and lead to a high shouldered, hunched, neck extended posture.
Science is slowly catching up. The Framingham study (a 70 year longitudinal research study on heart disease) found that the greatest indicator of life span was LUNG CAPACITY. Our ability to breath full breaths was 'literally a measure of living capacity". What ancient cultures knew and science is slowly catching up with is aging doesn't have to be a one way path of decline. The internal organs can be changed with habits. Look at freedivers - Herbert Nitsch (world record free diver) has a lung capacity of 14 L double that of a normal male (check out my book review of NZ freediving champion William Truebridge https://everfit.co.nz/articles/everfit-book-review-oxygen)
"What the bodily form depends on is breath (chi) and what breath relies upon is form.....when the breath is perfect, the form is perfect." Ancient Chinese saying from 700 AD
A run breathing session that I gleamed from the book was progressive inhale-exhale length. So start with 3sec inhale and 4sec exhale and progress the exhale to 5,6, and 7 second count as the run progresses. The slower longer exhales result in higher carbon dioxide levels which increases aerobic endurance. Training the system to breath less increases VO2 max. The god father of the 'less is more' was Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, born outside Kiev (now Ukraine) in 1923 he came to view the world as a mechanism and everything within it as a collection of important parts working together to form a greater whole. As a young Dr. he noticed that patients in the worst health all seemed to breathe too much. He felt that often overbreathing wasn't the result of hypertension and headaches but the cause. He was convinced that breathing too much was the cause behind several chronic diseases. He experimented with asthma, hypertension, and other patients with respiratory aliments - the one thing in common they breathed too much - inhaling and exhaling through their mouths they were packing in 15L of air per minute -they had plenty of O2 in their blood but less CO2 (4%). The healthy patients breathed less, about 10 breaths a minute with 5-6L of air with 6-8% CO2 in their breath. He called his training Voluntary elimination of deep breathing. One study at the Mater hospital in Brisbane found that asthmatics following Buteyko's methods decreased their air intake by a 1/3, symptoms of breathlessness decreased by 70% and need for reliever medication dropped by 90%.
Around this time Emil Zatoek was training with his own breath restriction techniques. He would do his own form of hypoventilation training (breathing less) with running as fast as he could while holding his breath. He was mocked by everyone. Larry Snyder (track coach at Ohio state) stated "He does everything wrong, but win". He would claim 18 world records and win 3 x Olympic golds at the 1952 games in the 5000, 10000, and marathon.
A US swim coach James Counsilman used a lot of hypoventilation with 9 stroke breath hold swimming. He believed over time the swimmers would utilise O2 more efficiently and swim faster. He trained the USA swim team for the Montreal Olympics - they won 13 gold, 14 silver, and 7 bronze, and set records in 11 events. The greatest performance by an American swim team in history.
In the early 2000's a French physiologist at Paris Uni reinforced the hypoxic training. Dr. Xavier Woorons showed that breathing less over several weeks allowed muscles to adapt to more lactate accumulation, boosted red blood cell numbers literally producing more energy with each breath. It helps the body do more with less.
The Bhagavad Gita (Hindu spiritual text) written around 2000 years ago translated the breathing practice of pranayama to mean "trance induced by stopping all breathing". Breath holding when stressed or when sleeping is NOT good for us, it happens when we are unconscious. Breath holding practiced by the ancients and 'crazy' athletes looking for an edge is conscious and can help improve health and performance.
- Shut your mouth - the mouth is a back up ventilation system. Chronic mouth breathing is unhealthy.
- Inhale though your nose - The nose filters, humidifies air. It helps with better O2 extraction from air and improves performance.
- Exhale - Throw in full exhalations in your breathing work to take the diaphram through it's full range, and help reset the system.
- Chew - The bones in our face don't stop growing like others in our body at 20. They can expand and remodel into our 70's. Eat foods that are not overly processed and force you to chew. This will improve your ability to breath.
- Over breathe and hold your breath now and then.
- Breath in for 5.5 sec and out for 5.5sec. This is the simple root of health, happiness, and longevity.
- Resonant (coherant) breathing - this calms the system and puts the heart, lungs, and circulation into harmony. Inhale softly for 5.5sec into your belly, exhale without pausing for 5.5sec bringing the belly in and the lungs empty and the diaphragm rises. Repeat 10 x or more.
- Tummo brathing - this stimulates the sympathetic system, made famous by Wim Hof. Lie on back, take 30 fast breaths into base of stomach and let out. Try to breath in your nose. At end of 30 breaths exhale to "natural conclusion" leaving a 1/4 of air in lungs. HOLD that breath for as long as possible, then take a huge inhale and hold for 15sec - exhale and start the 30 deep, fast breaths again. Repeat 3 x.
- Box breathing - Navy Seals use this to stay calm in tense situations. LONGER exhalations will stimulate a stronger parasympathetic response. Inhale for 4sec - hold for 4sec, exhale for 4sec, hold for 4 sec REPEAT.
- 4.7.8 breathing. This technique is made famous by Dr. Andrew Weil and puts the system into deep relaxation. It's great if you are having trouble sleeping. Inhale through nose with a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, exhale comletely through your mouth with a whooshing sound for a count of 8. Repeat this 3-4 x.
Breathing efficiently helps enhance our lung function, boost blood, correct posture, synchronise mind and body, sleep better, run faster, swim deeper, live longer, and evolve into better versions that humanity needs. So what are you waiting for?
To read about more expansive habits to shift you and the world towards true health check out my book 'Holistic Human' available on Amazon and my site (NZ and AUS only) https://everfit.co.nz/Store/holistic-human-book