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Back to Stories

Friends of Six Senses with James Nestor: The Art and Science of Breathing

Modern research shows us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance, rejuvenate internal organs, halt snoring, allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disease. Sounds impossible?

Wellness Pioneer Anna Bjurstam talks with James Nestor, the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art about what he discovered traveling the world looking for the answers to how we can breathe well.

(Lightly edited for clarity)

Anna: Tell me about why you wrote the book, Breathe, and the reaction to it?

James: We didn’t know if we were going to put the book out because of the pandemic and my editor said that we should put it out because people need to breathe well right now. The reaction has been great.

I didn’t set out to write a book about breathing. It is something that seems so inconsequential, but as I was researching other subjects like free diving, breathing kept coming up. The free divers I interviewed introduced me to super breathers and the stories seemed unbelievable, but I found out that so many of these stories were true and that breathing could bring us to places that science did not think possible.

Anna: Science has proven that breath is so important for our health, yet we don’t do it well. We breathe but we don’t breathe for our health. Why is that?

James: I think it’s so seemingly innocuous. I mean, air, here’s your medicine today. But when you tell people you need to breathe air differently; they look at you funny. People think they know how to breathe because they’ve been doing it their entire lives but they are often just getting by and that is very different than being healthy.

What I found that is so interesting is that these ideas are not new at all. They’ve been around for thousands and thousands of years. Science is very clear that we take in 30 pounds of air in and out of our bodies every day and how we do that has a huge impact on our well-being.

Anna: Sometimes with science, it has to be more complicated. The answer can’t be as simple as breathing well or getting out in nature.

James: The studies are out there but what I kept hearing from doctors is that the reason we’re not hearing about this is because there is no way to make money from air. Air is free and these practices are free. Even making slight changes to the way we breathe though will have a profound impact on how our bodies and brains operate.

Anna: How should we breathe?

James: You should breathe in line with your metabolic needs. What that means is that you need to take in the right amount of air for what you’re doing. It’s like eating, you don’t want to eat too much or too little. You want to breathe that same way. Most of us breathe over our needs. We think that breathing more will bring in more oxygen so we take big, deep breaths. The opposite is true. When we breathe in line with our needs, more slowly and less, you’re getting more oxygen to your brain. This is so counter-intuitive. It took me months and months to figure out that you get more oxygen by breathing more slowly, lightly, and deeply.

Anna: How can you breathe lightly and more deeply at the same time?

James: By breathing deeply, you are breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs. There’s more blood down there so you get better gas exchange than breathing in your upper lungs. If you breathe 6 breaths per minute instead of 20 breaths, your efficiency goes up 85 percent and that will make a huge difference during the day.

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Anna: What about all these different breath exercises we’re taught in yoga?

James: This confused me when I started my research. I bought all these yoga books. They were all rotating around different umbrella concepts. Some were teaching you to breathe more slowly or to hold your breath or to breathe fast for short amounts of time. If you go into ancient Chinese medicine, they were writing about breath holding, breathing slowly as well. These techniques have all been around for a long time and have well-demonstrated effects on the body. Having all these techniques is just about having more tools in our toolkit.

Anna: What about the Wim Hof method?

James: When I talk about breathing lightly and slowly, these are things you do at rest during the day. If you’re taking a break and doing a special breath practice, it’s like going to the gym and working out. It’s ok for a short time to breathe fast, and then hold your breath like in the Wim Hof Method but he’s clear that when he’s not doing his method, he’s breathing slowly, deeply, lightly.

Anna: Why is mouth-breathing not good for you?

James: When you breathe air through your nose, it goes through the sinuses where the air is filtered, moistened and warmed and lots of other good things happen to the air. We’re meant to breathe through the nose because it’s our first line of defense. Scientists also believe that nose-breathing helps us limit the number of viruses we take in because it’s such a well-designed filtration system, which is important during this current pandemic.

Anna: Many of us may suffer from snoring, how do we address that?

James: People who are overweight will have problems because the layers of fat around the neck can crowd the airwaves. Similarly, very muscular people have a similar problem but it’s the muscles around the neck crowding the airwaves. For the rest of us in the middle, what can we do about it? During the day, you can consciously close your mouth but when you’re sleeping, your mouth can fall open. A trick I learned is to tape my mouth with a small piece of surgical tape and this trains my mouth to gently stay shut during the night. So many people with mild to moderate snoring or sleep apnea no longer suffer from these issues when they do this. It doesn’t work for everyone but it’s worth trying.

Anna: Breath is also about movement and moving in ways that can open up our lungs.

James: Breathing dictates posture and posture dictates breathing. If I’m sitting slouched all day on my computer, I can’t take a deep breath. When I sit up straight, I can inhale fully and my diaphragm can move fully. This is how we should be breathing because when our diaphragm can move more fully, it moves more lymph fluid in our bodies, which is essential for health.

Anna: My final question, what 5 things do you do every day to stay healthy?

James’ Five Ways to Stay Healthy

1. I try to get up and away from my computer every couple of hours.

2. I eat well, I try to focus on my food, I stay away from sugar and carbs. There are so many benefits to eating less carbs.

3. I try to breathe properly. People think since I wrote this book, I’m the best breather but I’m not. I have a long way to go. I go on nasal breathing walks every day and there are so many benefits from it.

4. I try to get good sleep which is obviously so important and before I go to sleep, I tape my mouth. I thought it would become a habit and it hasn’t so I tape my mouth closed every night.

5. I try not to read the news too often. Checking the news all day is not going to make me a better person. Instead of doing that, I’ll read a poem or look at a book at lunch instead of looking at my phone.

To watch the full interview, click here:

BIO

James Nestor is an author and journalist who has written for Scientific American, Outside Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Public Radio, Surfer's Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more.

He has spent the last several years working on a book called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. It was released through Riverhead/Penguin Random House on May 26, 2020 and was an instant New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times, Sunday London Times Top 10 bestseller. Breath will be translated into 30 languages in 2021.

www.mrjamesnestor.com


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