Nothing is more essential to our health and well-being than our breath. Yet most of us aren’t breathing correctly. Breath takes us on a fascinating journey to discover that all cultures, geographies, and religions across time discovered an optimal way to breathe through the nose.
Breath notes & quotes
Here are my notes and quotes on Breath by James Nestor. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.
- After spending an hour breathing in and out through my nose, I experienced a feeling of calm and quiet; I slept well; the little things didn’t bother me as much, and the tension was gone from my shoulders and neck.
- The following week I had the same experience.
- What had happened? I spent the next several years trying to figure it out.
- “No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes, how skinny or young or wise we are—none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly. That’s what these researchers discovered. The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there.”
- Most of the techniques in this book have been around for hundreds or thousands of years.
One: The Worst Breathers in the Animal Kingdom
- “Forty percent of today’s population suffers from chronic nasal obstruction, and around half of us are habitual mouth breathers, with females and children suffering the most.”
- “When the nasal cavity gets congested, airflow decreases and bacteria flourish.” This results in breathing through the mouth.
- I set up an experiment at Stanford hospital: ten days of breathing through my mouth only, followed by ten days through my nose only. As you’ll see, the results were astounding.
- Over time, humans’ big brains, our ability to master fire and process food, and our ability to communicate in a vast range of sounds began to obstruct our mouths and throats, making breathing harder.
- A sports researcher found that “Simply training yourself to breathe through your nose, Douillard reports, could cut total exertion in half and offer huge gains in endurance.
- The athletes felt invigorated while nasal breathing rather than exhausted.”
- “The key for exercise, and for the rest of life, is to stay in that energy-efficient, clean-burning, oxygen-eating aerobic zone for the vast majority of time during exercise and at all times during rest.”
- When monkeys (sadly) were forced to breathe only through their mouths, their faces grew long, slack-jawed, and glazed over after just a few months.
- Mouthbreathing changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse.
- Nasal breathing has the opposite effect, all for the better.
- “Mouthbreathing causes the body to lose 40 percent more water.”
- A Japanese study revealed that rats forced to breathe through their mouths developed fewer brain cells and took twice as long to navigate a maze the nasal breathing controls.
- “Ninety percent of children have acquired some degree of deformity in their mouths and noses.”
- “The nose is crucial because it clears air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption.”
- Noses “open and close like flowers throughout the day and night.”
- Noses get erections. The nose's interior contains erectile tissue, the same flesh that covers the penis, clitoris, and nipples and can engorge with blood.
- “The nose is more intimately connected to the genitals than any other organ; when one gets aroused, the other responds.”
- The right nostril is like a gas pedal speeding up circulation, heating the body, and raising cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate. It's connected to the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight,” and feeds blood to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex associated with logic and language.
- The left nostril is like a brake system, connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax side that lowers blood pressure cools the body, and reduces anxiety.
- The left nostril shifts blood to the prefrontal cortex's other side, influencing creativity, mental abstractions, and negative emotions.
- Nadi Shodhana is alternate nostril breathing.
- A man named George Catlin studied 50 Native American tribes and found that everyone breathed exclusively through their noses and had the same superhuman physical characteristics.
- Nasal breathing releases a considerable amount of nitric oxide, a molecule essential for increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells that influences immunity, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function.
- Nasal breathing increases nitric oxide sixfold, thus increasing oxygen absorption by 18%.
- The more nasal breathing we do, the easier it is to breathe through the nose.
- One study has shown that the most significant indicator of longevity was not genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, but lung capacity.
- “Moderate exercise like walking or cycling has been shown to boost lung size by up to 15 percent.”
- “I felt utterly transformed while nasal breathing.”
- Research shows how slow, deep breathing relaxes the body, calms the mind, prevents chronic health problems, improves athletic performance, and extends longevity.
- "Every healthy cell in the body is fueled by oxygen."
- “The way the body loses weight isn't through profusely sweating or ‘burning off.” We lose weight through exhaled breath. For every 10 pounds of fat lost in our bodies, 8 1/2 pounds of it comes out through the lungs; most of it is carbon dioxide mixed with a bit of water vapor. The lungs are the weight-regulating system of the body.”
- Breathing pure oxygen has no benefit whatsoever to a healthy body. Pure oxygen is only helpful for those at altitude or sick.
- While breathing normally, the lungs only absorb about 25% of the available oxygen.
- Longer breaths allow our lungs to soak up more oxygen and fewer breaths.
- Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian cultures and religions all somehow develop the same prayer techniques requiring the same breathing patterns—5.5 seconds on the inhale and 5.5 seconds on the exhale—that calm the mind.
- When people practice these breathing patterns, blood flow to the brain increases and the body enters a state of coherence, where the heart, circulation, and nervous system coordinate at peak efficiency.
- “Resonant breathing,” or Coherent Breathing, offers some of the same benefits as meditation.
- Whatever you call it, hypoventilation, hypoxic training, or the Buteyko technique all produce the same result: profound improvement in sports performance.
- “A few weeks of training hypoventilation resulted in significantly increased endurance, reduced more “trunk fat,” improved cardiovascular function, and boosted muscle mass compared to normal-breathing exercises.”
- The Papworth Method, a breathing-less technique, has been shown to cut asthma symptoms by a third.
- “Mammals with the lowest resting heart rates live the longest.”
- Slow breaths help us maintain a low resting heart rate.
- The perfect breath: 5.5-second inhales, and 5.5-second exhales.
- Industrialization of farmed foods has caused a tenfold increase in crooked teeth, shrunken jaws, and dental diseases.
- When Weston Price visited traditional cultures across the globe, he found the same: almost always perfect teeth, vast mouths, and broad nasal apertures. They suffered few cavities and minor dental diseases.
- Since our ancestors chewed for hours a day, every day, their mouths, teeth, throats, and faces grew broad and robust.
- Removing teeth makes a too-small mouth even smaller.
- A device called Biobloc has been shown to expand airways by up to 30 percent over six months.
- Mewing is a “health craze” you can look up on the internet.
- The more we chew, the more stem cells are released, the more bone density and growth are triggered, and the younger we look and the better we breathe.
Eight: More, On Occasion
- Sympathetic stress only takes a second to activate but takes an hour or more to return to a state of relaxation and restoration.
- “The vagus nerve is the power lever; it’s what turns organs on and off in response to stress.”
- Tummo breathing has led to some seeing a 40-fold decrease in inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein) with just a few weeks of practice.
Nine: Hold It
- An overreactive amygdalae cause anxiety.
- “Chemoreceptor flexibility is part of what distinguishes good athletes from great ones.”
- They have trained their chemoreceptors to withstand extreme variations in carbon dioxide without panic.
- Eight percent of office workers suffer from continuous partial attention.
Ten: Fast, Slow, and Not at All
- Prana is the Sanskrit word for “life force.” The Chinese had their name for prana, ch’i (or qi), as did the Japanese (ki), the Greeks (pneuma), Hebrews (rush), Iroquois (orenda), and so on.
- “More than 70 independent studies conducted at Harvard Medical School, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and other institutions found that Sudarshan Kriya was a highly effective treatment for various ailments, from chronic stress to joint pain autoimmune diseases.
Epilogue: A Last Gap
- “The bones in the human face don’t stop growing in our 20s, unlike other bones in the body. They can expand and remodel into our 70s and likely beyond.
Appendix: Breathing Methods
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
- This standard pranayama technique improves lung function and lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic stress. It's an effective technique before a meeting, an event, or sleep.
- 1. (Optional) Hand Positioning: Place the thumb of your right hand gently over your right nostril and the ring finger of that same hand on the left nostril. The forefinger and middle finger should rest between the eyebrows.
- 2. Close the right nostril with the thumb and slowly inhale through the left nostril.
- 3. At the top of the breath, pause briefly, holding both nostrils closed, then lift just the thumb to exhale through the right nostril.
- 4. At the natural conclusion of the exhale, hold both nostrils closed for a moment, then inhale through the right nostril.
- 5. Continue alternating breaths through the nostrils for 5 to 10 cycles.
- This technique helps engage more diaphragm movement and increases respiratory efficiency. It should never be forced; each breath should feel soft and enriching.
- 1. Sit up straight so the spine is straight and the chin is perpendicular to the body.
- 2. Take a gentle breath in through the nose. At the top of the breath, begin counting softly aloud from one to 10 over and over (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
- 3. As you reach the natural conclusion of the exhale, keep counting but do so in a whisper, letting the voice softly trail out. Then keep going until only the lips move, and the lungs feel empty.
- 4. Take in another large and soft breath and repeat.
- 5. Continue for anywhere from 10 to 30 or more cycles.
- Once you feel comfortable practicing this technique while sitting, try it while walking or jogging or during another light exercise. For classes and individual coaching, visit www.breathingcoordination.ch/training.
Resonant (Coherent) Breathing
- A calming practice places the heart, lungs, and circulation into a state of coherence, where the body systems work at peak efficiency. There is no more essential technique and none more basic.
- 1. Sit up straight, relax the shoulders and belly, and exhale.
- 2. Inhale softly for 5.5 seconds, expanding the belly as air fills the bottom of the lungs.
- 3. Without pausing, exhale softly for 5.5 seconds, bringing the belly in as the lungs empty. Each breath should feel like a circle.
- 4. Repeat at least 10 times, more if possible.
- Several apps offered timers and visual guides. My favorites are Paced Breathing and My Cardiac Coherence, both of which are free. I try to practice this technique as often as possible.
- The point of Buteyko techniques is to train the body to breathe in line with its metabolic needs. For the vast majority of us, that means breathing less. Buteyko had an Arsenal of methods, and almost all are based on extending the time between inhalations and exhalations, or breathholding. Here are a few of the simplest.
- Control Pause: Diagnostic tool to gauge general respiratory health and breathing progress.
- 1. Place a watch with a secondhand or mobile phone with a stopwatch close by.
- 2. Sit up with a straight back.
- 3. Pinch both nostrils closed with a thumb and forefinger of the other hand, then exhale softly out your mouth to the natural conclusion.
- 4. Start the stopwatch and hold the breath.
- 5. When you feel the first potent desire to breathe, note the time and take a soft inhale.
- It's essential that the first breath in after the Control Pause is controlled and relaxed; if it's labored or gasping, the breathhold was too long. Wait several minutes and try it again. The Control Pause should only be measured when you're relaxed and breathing normally, never after strenuous exercise or during stressed states. And like all breath restriction techniques, never attempt it while driving, underwater, or in other conditions where you might be injured should you become dizzy.
- A key component of Buteyko breathing is to practice breathing less all the time, which is what this technique trains the body to do. Thousands of Buteyko practitioners, and several medical researchers, swear by it to stave off asthma and anxiety attacks.
- 1. Exhale gently and hold the breath for half the time of the Control Pause. (For instance, if the Control Pause is 40 seconds, the Mini Breathhold would be 20.)
- 2. Repeat from 100 to 500 times a day.
- Setting up timers throughout the day can be helpful reminders every 15 minutes or so.
- Nitric oxide is a powerhouse molecule that widens capillaries, increases oxygenation, and relaxes the smooth muscles. Humming increases the release of nitric oxide in the nasal passages 15-fold. There is the most effective and simple method for increasing this essential gas.
- 1. Breathe normally through the nose and hum any song or sound.
- 2. Practice for at least five minutes a day, more if possible.
- It may sound ridiculous, feel ridiculous, and annoy those nearby, but the effects can be potent.
- Less extreme hypoventilation exercises breath a series (other than the misery I experienced jogging in Golden Gate Park) offer many of the benefits of high-altitude training. They're easy and can be practiced anywhere.
- 1. Walk or run for a minute while breathing normally through the nose.
- 2. Exhale and pinch the nose closed while keeping the same pace.
- When you sense air hunger, release the nose and breathe very gently, at about half of what feels normal, for about 10 to 15 seconds.
- 3. Return to regular breathing for 30 seconds.
- 4. Repeat for about 10 cycles.
- Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage offers detailed instructions and training programs on breathing less. Personalized instruction in Buteyko’s method is available through www.consciousbreathing.com, www.breathingcenter.com, Buteyko Clinic and other certified Buteyko instructors.
- Hard chewing build new bone in the face and opens airways.
- Any gum chewing can strengthen the jar and stimulate stem cell growth, but harder textured varieties offer a more vigorous workout.
- Falim, a Turkish brand, is as tough as shoe leather, and each piece lasts for about an hour. I found the Sugarless Mint to be the most palatable.
- As of this writing, Ted Belfor and his colleague, Scott Simonetti, received FDA clearance for a device called the POD (Preventive Oral Device), a small retainer that fits along the bottom row of teeth and stimulates chewing stress. For more information, see Discover the Pod and Dr. Theodore Belfore.
- Dozens of devices exist to expand the palate and open airways, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Begin by contacting a dental professional who specializes in functional orthodontics.
- Dr. Marianna Evans’s Infinity Dental Specialists on the East Coast and Dr. William Hang’s Face Focused on the West Coast are among the most well-known and respected clinics in the U.S. and are good places to start. Across the pond, Britons can contact Dr. Mike Mew’s clinic.
- There are two forms of Tummo—one that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and another which triggers a parasympathetic response. Both work, but the former, made famous by Wim Hof, is much more accessible.
- It's worth mentioning again that this technique should never be practiced near water, while driving or walking, or in only other circumstances where you might get hurt should you pass out. Consult your doctor if you are pregnant or have a heart condition.
- 1. Find a quiet place in life flat on your back with a pillow under the head. Relax the shoulders, chest, and legs.
- 2. Take 30 very deep, very fast breaths into the pit of the stomach and let it back out. If possible, Bree through the nose; if the nose feels obstructed, try pursed lips. The movement of each insulation should look like a wave, filling up in the stomach and softly moving up through the lungs. Exhales follow the same movement, first emptying the stomach, then the chest as air pours through the nose our pursed lips of the mouth.
- 3. At the end of 30 breaths, exhale to the"natural conclusion,” leaving about a quarter of the air in the lungs. Hold that broke for as long as possible.
- 4. Once you've reached your absolute breathhold limit, take one huge inhale and hold it for another 15 seconds. Very gently, move that fresh breath around the chest into the shoulders, exhale, and start the heavy breathing again.
- 5. Repeat the entire pattern at least three times.
- Tummo takes practice, and learning it from written instructions can be confusing and complicated. Chuck McGee, the Wim Hof Method instructor, offers free online sessions every Monday night at 9:00 Pacific Time.
- This is the most powerful technique I've learned and one of the most involved and challenging to get through. Sudarshan Kriya consists of four phases: Om chants, breath restriction (inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, exhaling for 6, then holding for 2), and, finally, 40 minutes of very heavy breathing.
- A few YouTube tutorials are available, but deeper instruction is highly recommended to get the motions correct. The Art of Living offers weekend workshops to guide new students through the practice. See Art of Living.
Yogic Breathing (Three-Part)
The standard technique for any aspiring pranayama student.
- 1. Sit in a chair or cross-legged and upright on the floor and relax the shoulders.
- 2. Place one hand over the naval and slowly breathe into the belly. You should feel the belly expand with each breath in and deflate with each breath out. Practice this a few times.
- 3. Next, move the hand up a few inches to cover the bottom of the rib cage. Focus the breath into the location of the hand, expanding the ribs with each inhale and retracting them with each exhale. Practice this for about 3 to 5 breaths.
- 4. Move the hand to just below the collarbone. Breathe deeply into this area and imagine the chest spreading out and withdrawing with each exhale. Do this for a few breaths.
- Connect all these motions into one breath, inhaling into the stomach, lower rib cage, then chest.
- 1. Exhale in the opposite direction, emptying the chest, the rib cage, and the stomach.
- 2. Feel free to use a hand and feel each area as you breathe in and out of it.
- 3. Continue the same sequence for about a dozen rounds.
- These emotions will initially feel awkward, but after a few breaths, they get easier.
- Navy SEALs use this technique to stay calm and focused in intense situations. It's simple.
- 1. Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 4; hold 4. Repeat.
- 2. Longer exhalations will elicit a more robust parasympathetic response. A variation of
- Box Breathing to more deeply relax the body that is incredibly effective before sleeping is as follows:
- 1. Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 6; hold 2. Repeat.
- 2. Try at least six rounds, more if necessary.
- Anders Olsson uses this technique to increase carbon dioxide and, thus, increase circulation in his body. It's not much fun, but the benefits, Olsson told me, are many.
- 1. Go to a grassy park, beach, or anywhere where the ground is soft.
- 2. Exhale all the breath, then walk slowly, counting each step.
- 3. Once you feel a powerful sense of air hunger, stop counting and take a few very calm breaths through the nose while still walking. Breathe normally for at least a minute, then repeat the sequence.
- The more you practice this technique, the higher the count.
- This technique, made famous by Dr. Andrew Weil, places the body into a state of deep relaxation. I use it on long flights to help me fall asleep.
- 1. Take a breath in, then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound.
- 2. Close the mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
3. Hold for a count of seven.
- 4. Exhale completely through your mouth, with a whoosh, to the count of eight.
- 5. Repeat the cycle for at least four breaths.
- Weil offers step-by-step instructions on YouTube, which has been viewed more than 4 million times. .
Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in Breath, which might be helpful for further learning.
- Dr. Jahakar Nayak
- Anders Olsson
- Dr. Marianna Evans
- Dr. Kevin Boyd
- Daniel Lieberman
- Dr. John Douillard
- Phil Maffetone
- Egil P. Harvold
- Patrick McKeown
- Levinus Lemnius
- Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani
- Richard Kayser
- Ebers Papyrus
- George Catlin
- Mark Burhenne
- Anne Kearney
- Peter Kelder
- Lynn Martin
- Carl Stough
- Christian Bohr
- Patricia Gerbarg & Richard Brown
- Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko
- Emil Zátopek
- James Counsilman
- Dr. Xavier Woorons
- David Wiebe
- Dr. Ira Packman
- B.K.S. Iyengar
- Weston Price
- Earnest Hooton
- James Sim Wallace
- Chuck McGee III
- Dr. Stephen Porgies
- Andrew Huberman
- Maurice Daubard
- Stanislav Grof
- Dr. James Eyerman
- Dr. Arthur Kling
- Dr. Justin Feinstein
- Dr. David Anderson and Dr. Margaret Chesney
- Yandell Henderson
- Alicia Meuret
- Alvares DeRose
- Swami Rama
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Sri Aurobindo
- Thérèse Brosse
- M.A. Wenger
- Albert Szent-Györgyi
- Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Books and Publications
- The Eye of Revelation by Peter Kelder
- The Breath of Life by George Catlin
- Dr. Breath by Carl Stough
- Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price
- My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel
- A Book on Breath by the Master Great Nothing of Sung-Shan
- The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown