Ok, if there’s 1 book that I recommend in all of 2020 to read, it is ‘Breath: The new science of a lost art’ by James Nestor. This is not a book on food science, but it is such an interesting read, that I just had to add it to my book review section. And trust me, it is well worth your time if you are interested in overall health and well being as most of my readers are.
Why is this such a good read?
My mother has been on my case to make me do pranayama for a long time. You see, I grew with asthma, always carried my inhaler around like a security blanket in my teens, and generally have poor breath control. But, I am also stubborn and hot-headed that – unless I truly understand why I am doing it, I can never do it. You see, my mom operates on faith and I operate on understanding and we are both comfortable with our paths.
So, yes, while I can robotically do alternate nostril breathing, or humming and breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing – my mind was not sold on the reason why…. Until I read this book.
You know, how there is always 1 book that piques your interest in a certain subject and then off you go, reading more information and studies with that interest, right? Example, for me on the topic of food science, it was ‘On Food an Cooking by Harold McGee’; on the topic of cleaning/organization it was Marie Kondo’s ‘The life changing magic of tidying up’. Similarly, with the topic of breathing, ‘Breath’ has opened up a new world for me and I am already reading books, listening to podcasts, videos of other doctors (e.g. Patrick McKeowen) in the field, and actually trying pranayama on my own finally (my poor mom!!:)).
The author explains the science behind breathing
We all know about the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange that happens at the lungs through the alveoli and blood molecules. But here’s the missing piece that I loved: “Everyone always talks about oxygen”, it is quoted in the book….”Whether we breathe 30 times or 5 times a minute, a healthy body will always have enough oxygen.” The author goes on to argue that faster and deeper breaths is not the answer, not more air – but our ability to tolerate our carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
He also cites a rather cruel experiment conducted in the early 1900’s by a scientist names Yandell Henderson using dogs to explain what’s happening inside the body. I don’t want to get into the details; but trust me, after reading that – I finally began to realize why the exhale cycle in pranayama is always longer than the inhale cycle.
The author stresses the importance of nasal breathing
Over and over again, if there is 1 thing the author wants you to remember, it is ‘breathe through your nose, not your mouth’. I never realized how much my mouth was open all the time until now.
He explains, why the nose with its cilial hairs cleans your breath, the mucus moistens it, conditions it before it enters the lungs and how we end up bypassing all these checks and balances by breathing through the mouth to our own health detriment.
The author subjects himself to various experiments
The author starts the book off by subjecting himself to plug his nose temporarily for 10 days and just using his mouth to breathe!! That turns out to be an awful experience and he explains this with insightful observations, yet with wit and humor.
He also subjects himself to carbon dioxide breathing (which made me anxious for him just reading about it).
He also had some fairly disappointing experiences with some ‘breathing’ experiments and notes those down as well.
The author talks about breath-related success stories around the globe (well-documented)
I loved the story of Katharina Schroth, a teenager diagnosed with scoliosis in Germany in 1900’s. At age 16, Schroth began training herself in something called “orthopedic breathing”, spent 5 years doing this, and cured herself of “incurable” scoliosis. She’d breathed her spine straight again. Not just that, she spent the next 60 years bringing her techniques to hospitals throughout Germany.
There is also story of George Catlin, a painter, in 1830’s who documented the lives of different Native Indian tribes by living with them. The tribes attributed their lack of chronic health problems to the “great secret of life” called breathing.
So many stories like that – the Tibetan monks and their ability to increase their body temperature by 17 degree Fahrenheit and stay warm in the cold mountains with just 1 piece of tunic around them was amazing. The story of Carl Stough, who helped emphysema patients in the ’60’s and ’70’s was very interesting too.
The author keeps expectations in check
I like authors who explain the limitations of their approach. Here’s a quote from the book where the author honestly explains: “I’d like to make clear now, breathing, like any therapy or medications can’t do everything. Breathing fast, slow, or not at all can’t make an embolism go away. Breathing through the nose with a big exhale can’t reverse the onset of neuromuscular genetic diseases....These severe problems require urgent medical attention.”
My personal aha moment!!
This is purely anecdotal, but I wanted the reader to know why this book was an important gateway for me. After reading Breath, I was listening to a podcast with a renowned breathing practitioner (quoted in the book), Patrick Mckeown, and he mentioned that those who have asthma problems as children will have difficulty staying awake in classes due to the lack of proper sleep which was connected to poor breathing capabilities of the body.
I was so shocked to hear this. Back in college, when I was suffering my worst asthma symptoms and was constantly on Albuterol, I used to fall asleep in classes often. My teachers used to think I was so disrespectful and it bothered me to no end that no matter, how much I motivated myself, I would fall asleep in the class. Mind you, I was a good student and not a slacker.
I never connected the 2 issues, however, until now – 24 years later. Now, I realize it was not my fault. No big deal, water under the bridge. But imagine if your kid is struggling similarly now. This would save so much guilt and unnecessary self-shame.
I will note right now, that many of you may rightly point out – We knew all about this in India so many thousands of years ago, but you need a western journalist to explain the benefits back to you? It is a fair criticism, but as I said; I cannot operate on pure faith alone or pure “do it because I told you so”…I am not built like that. So, I am thankful to the author to circle me back to the toolkit we have always had and explain which tool does what.
I devoured James Nestor’s book, Breath: The new science of a lost art, in 2 days and thoroughly enjoyed it. This book set me down a path to help me better understand the science and importance of breathing right. I hope you find it useful too.
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