Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

by James Nestor

Hardcover, 2020

Call number

613 NES


Riverhead Books (2020), 304 pages


Health & Fitness. Science. Sports & Recreations. Nonfiction. HTML:A New York Times Bestseller A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2020 Named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR   â??A fascinating scientific, cultural, spiritual and evolutionary history of the way humans breatheâ??and how weâ??ve all been doing it wrong for a long, long time.â?ť â??Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic and Eat Pray Love No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how skinny or young or wise you are, none of it matters if youâ??re not breathing properly. There is nothing more essential to our health and well-being than breathing: take air in, let it out, repeat twenty-five thousand times a day. Yet, as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences. Journalist James Nestor travels the world to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The answers arenâ??t found in pulmonology labs, as we might expect, but in the muddy digs of ancient burial sites, secret Soviet facilities, New Jersey choir schools, and the smoggy streets of SĂŁo Paulo. Nestor tracks down men and women exploring the hidden science behind ancient breathing practices like Pranayama, Sudarshan Kriya, and Tummo and teams up with pulmonary tinkerers to scientifically test long-held beliefs about how we breathe. Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. None of this should be possible, and yet it is. Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry, and human physiology, Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. You will never… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Pepperwings
I am tempted to give this five stars, but it had some slower parts, and I'm a little dubious of some of the data presented here, scientifically and statistically I think this is lacking.

Nestor looks at historical practices and some physiological and anthropological sources to come to some
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conclusions that may not be entirely related. He performs some tests on himself and a friend, they experiment, but he also interviews several people who regularly do breathwork--they have anecdotal evidence, and he speaks to a researcher who has findings related to anxiety.

I really enjoyed the journey, his research also looked at spiritual practitioners over a much longer period. I'm more inclined to believe breathwork results of thousands of years; overall I think there's some great stuff in this book, and it's intriguing enough to try.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
It seems many of us today, breathe wrong? A planet of open mouthed breathers that has caused a myriad of health issues. So, the author sets out to find how and when this changed. Melding, the historical, the scientific and current practices he takes us way back to a time when things were very
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different. When our mouths, noses and sinuses, our teeth were very different.

One never knows when picking up a book, that this book could be extremely beneficial to ones own health problems. That is what happened here, as.i both read and tried out the exercises in the book. Due to my severe breathing problems, I own an oximeter and monitor my oxygen levels. After just a short time, doing a few simple breathing exercises, my oxygen level rose quite substantially. I bought the book, the back of the book filled with items, things to do, that can help one strengthen lungs, sinuses and other areas. Aa life changed? We'll see, but right now I'm hopeful.
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LibraryThing member willszal
"Breath" has been a bestseller. Although it was written before the pandemic, it seems to have benefited from all the attention that has being going to breath and breathing in the period since.

Breath is an atheistic book. And by this, I mean that it is all about the "how," or the mechanisms, related
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to breathing. For example, Nestor cites studies that looked at the healing effects of prayer, and chalks this up to the fact that many prayers force us to breath more slowly. Although I'm sure this is the case, it is sort of missing the point. It is sort of like saying that raising a child is good exercise; missing the point that many of us care about the future of our children and the people they are becoming. In other words, it is a book that is oblivious to "effects," in the sense of holistic or systemic outcomes.

That said, being at least partially acculturated in a reductionistic Western world, I can't help but find all the benefits of good breathing that Nestor documents compelling. For example, I've been hearing friends tell me about [[Wim Hof]] for years, but I can't recall what purported benefits his breathing techniques proffer, except that maybe it has something to do with cold? Nestor explores Hof, what he's doing, and how it works.

The basics of the book are intuitive to me. As a child, I recall my father mentioning on many occasions to breath through my nose, and this is something I do, despite chronic mild congestion (which I've never quite been able to diagnose). I was taught various meditation techniques and breathing techniques, some of which are go-to practices for me.

What was most striking to me about this book was its emphasis on the importance of carbon dioxide in our blood, and its effects on metabolism and efficiency. Apparently carbon dioxide is just as essential as oxygen to the function of our cells, and for some reason, no one ever taught me this! A lot of the health benefits of good breathing are actually about higher levels of CO2 in our bloodstreams; not higher (or lower) levels of oxygen.

Although Nestor documents a number of ancient techniques, Dhikr is glaringly omitted. Dhikr, in the Islamic Sufi tradition, is the most remarkable breath technique in which I have participated. Most Dhikr are practiced in community (although a few can be practiced alone), and have a certain violence to them in their gait and fervor. They also have unequivocally consciousness-altering effects. I'm sure there are many other equally remarkable techniques from traditions of which I'm currently unaware.

At the level of storytelling, in the tradition of Michael Pollan, Nestor describes his research through his own story of self-exploration—including excruciating experiments that one wonders if he participated in simple for the shock value (such as blocking his nose with silicone plugs for ten days to try a state of forced mouth breathing). I notice a lot of authors using this style, and it is an easy way to make your work more relatable. Maybe it also grabs attention in a way that is required in our attention-fragmented current day (people put down less voyeuristic books).

To move into epistemology and pedagogy, unfortunately books are one of the poorer ways to teach people about breathing. As breath is such a somatic phenomenon, it is best taught person-to-person, in-person (which is what Nestor did throughout the book). Anyone that takes Nestor's jubilance to heart will need to find ways of actually getting out and practicing what is described in the book.
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LibraryThing member RajivC
I highly recommend this book to everyone. Especially if you live in Delhi; the air is so bad you cannot breathe.

We take breathing for granted, and this is a mistake. There are techniques of breathing we can and must employ if we are to live a healthy life. There is a good companion website to the
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book, which gives a few exercises.

There are many myths he busts in the book. Read it.
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LibraryThing member jpsnow
This book will make you wonder why the basics of breathing gets so little emphasis from the medical profession. There are cleary deep historical roots and growing research that support breath as a foundational, forgotton key to health. The author consulted a diversity of experts and participated in
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a major study of his own. That latter inovolved 10 days each breathing only through the mouth and then only through the nose. This book left me with a number of valuable tips that I plan to try.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
James Nestor calls attention to the art and science of breathing. He traveled extensively and used himself as a subject to study breathing methods. He cites scientific studies that have proven the medical benefits of proper breathing. He sprinkles the narrative with personal anecdotes. Breathing
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exercises are included.

I listened to the audiobook, capably read by the author. Nestor is obviously excited about his topic. He makes a few extraordinary claims, which I plan to investigate further. I probably will not be using a special device to expand the size of my mouth, but I do plan to adopt a few small changes, such as the breathing patterns that facilitate sleeping.
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LibraryThing member AlisonY
The gist of this popular science book is that although breathing is something we instinctively do 25,000 times per day, we've allegedly lost the art of how to breathe correctly. Nestor presents the evidence on what's changed through evolution, the potential grave consequences and what we can do
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about it.

Straight away Nestor cuts to the chase about mouth breathing, and apparently we've much more than bad breath and cavities to worry about. According to the research he's done, at best mouth breathing leads to increased stuffiness / infections in the nasal cavities, and at worst leads to hypertension and the metabolic and cognitive problems that come with sleep apnea. If you regularly get up in the middle of the night for a wee your mouth breathing could be to blame as it also affects kidney regulation.

It's not only breathing through the correct airway that improves our health but also how we breathe (5.5 seconds in and out is optimal, which is probably a lot less breaths per minute than most of us take) and, believe it or not, how we chew. Science has shown that man's change of diet in evolution to softer foods has decreased the size of our mouth cavities to a size which is sub-optimal for allowing room for our teeth and room for an effective airway system. Whilst not everyone is likely to queue up for the type of orthodontic 'widening' device that Nestor tries out (successfully, in terms of his overall sinus function), he provides detail on how new facial bone can be developed at any age through the regular use of certain hard gum (nasty habit - I struggled to get on board with that idea, although the science behind it sounds plausible).

I loved this book. It was interesting and written in a very engaging style, and I took a lot from it in terms of practices I want to start adopting.

4.5 stars - entertaining, fascinating and potentially life transformative. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member Bodagirl
It's incredible how much our breathing effects us. I intend to practice a few of the techniques at the back to see how they work.
LibraryThing member amaraki
Lots of very useful information presented in a lively and interesting manner
LibraryThing member grandpahobo
Fantastic. Everyone should read this. I would guess 90% of people who read it will find something tangible that they can use in their life.
LibraryThing member therem
There are a lot of interesting and well-described breathing techniques in this book that seem like they could help a lot of people. I was a bit disappointed in his lack of research in non-American or European cultures, however. A number of the practices he identifies come from Asia, yet he never
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travels there or interviews any living Indian or Tibetan experts in these techniques. It's a good book, but I wish he had gone deeper.
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LibraryThing member nmarun
The core of the book is to practice slow breathing through the nose. The perils of mouth breathing has been discussed in the book, obviously mentioning the internals of nose and mouth breathing.

I had observed that I breathed through only one of my nostrils and that it alternates at "random" times,
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though never paid much attention to it. The book talks about the differences of left and right nostrils. The differences between aerobic and anaerobic methods of energy production also helped me understand the benefits of breathing right.

There are quite a few mentions of yoga exercises to better our overall health. Pranayama, being one of them, has shown significantly improve our health by cleaning/clearing our nasal channels.
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LibraryThing member KatherineGregg
This was an interesting book that delves into the health benefits of breathing through the nose and breathing slowly.
LibraryThing member brett.sovereign
Scattershot claims and descriptions intertwined with a not particularly interesting self-experiment in forced mouth-breathing.
LibraryThing member bhiggs
I enjoyed this way more than I thought I would. I even bought Turkish chewing gum because of it.
LibraryThing member ldallara
Life-Changing, read it, and I guarantee you will want to change the way you breathe!
LibraryThing member 064
The book was enjoyable. He does a great job of weaving his story, others stories, and the science into one quick, but impactful read.

I think Mr Nestor does a great job of introducing the science and history of Breath work. Although, he does not go into any particular work, he does a good job
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highlighting the benefits Breath work without getting stuck on a particular work. I think is what really makes this book very insightful. He does not get tied down something that may have worked for him. Instead he offers up the history and science around the topic.

Part of my interest is my experience with Wim Hof Method and the benefits I’ve seen. I left excited to try other breath work and best of all gain some very interesting insight to how Breath work actually works. Especially the significance of carbon dioxide.

Pros: A beautiful blend of his own story, others, history, and science.

Cons: if you want help with a particular form of breath work.
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LibraryThing member Elizabeth80
I read this as an E-book and then bought a paperback edition. The breathing information and exercises have been very helpful to me. I finished the paperback book on 1-12-2022 after reading ALL the notes; now I want to look through the information / websites listed for additional information.
LibraryThing member DougJ110
Incredibly well researched. Life changing techniques.
LibraryThing member Lindsay_W
Breathe deeply, through your nose. Repeat.
LibraryThing member WellReadSoutherner
He makes some extraordinary claims and details some fascinating science about breathing. You'll definitely quit breathing through your mouth while reading this at least if not pay attention to it elsewhere in your life too. Much of this will be familiar if you have ever done any breathing exercises
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in yoga/meditation classes.
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LibraryThing member debbie13410
As I am writing I am trying to breathe slowly though my nose and exhale slowly through my nose. Honestly, I don't know if the breathing techniques he describes are truly helpful but I hope they are. 2020 was a very bad year for me. I think the stress of it has physically and psychologically hurt my
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body. I am going to give these techniques a try. I loved how he has written the book. I understood and was engaged the whole time. I was even dreading reading it but it was on everyone's reading list so I made myself try something different.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
There is a lot of really fascinating information in this book! Unfortunately, the author tends to jump from topic to topic, and leave a lot of things unresolved. I get that he's trying to build a narrative and create some tension, but in an informational book like this, we don't really need a
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narrative or tension. The narrative he builds is about his own experience of using breath to cure some lifelong health problems and improve his general health. To build tension, he jumps between telling his own story, and telling the stories of how scientists learned what we currently know about breath. Frustratingly, he has a habit to leave some of these stories unfinished. For instance, there's a fascinating section about a yoga guru who could control his heart rate and body temperature with his breath. Nestor describes how scientists hooked this man up to a bunch of measuring equipment and made him do his tricks... but then never tells us what scientists learned from these experiments. There are several other unresolved stories like that.

However, the information about breathing and breath is really fascinating. But maybe I should have just skipped to the end and read the section that describes all the breathing exercises and their benefits.
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LibraryThing member farrhon
good science, mediocre storytelling
LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
One “litmus test” I use for gauging the value of a nonfiction book can be boiled down to one question: Did it spur me to think about something that I previously gave little or no thought to. “Breath” passed this test with flying colors.
I learned so much about a vital function that most of
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us take for granted. The author aptly bills it as an adventure into the lost art of breathing. In an engaging, non-jargon filled way, Nestor demonstrates how making simple changes in the way we breathe can improve our health, create a healthier mindset and help us live longer. The book even includes simple exercises for improving breathing patterns. I’ve tried it several times, then checked my blood pressure. The exercises seem to work!
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