Ten years ago, the San Francisco-based journalist took a Sudarshan Kriya class that changed his life. He was in a physical and mental rut, had recently recovered from pneumonia, prompting his doctor to suggest he try a class to learn how to breathe better. The effects of that class were so tremendous, it set him off on a globe-trotting scientific adventure, from freediving sites in Greece to coffee shops in Stockholm to the catacombs of France, seeking answers to his questions on the art of breathing. Along the way, James Nestor discovered a host of breathing pioneers or pulmonauts, “a kind of rogue group… who stumbled on the powers of breathing because nothing else could help them,” and the techniques they advocated, forgotten and rediscovered over the ages, which will help us all breathe easier. As one of the female freediving instructors Nestor interviewed says: “There are as many ways to breathe as there are foods to eat. And each way we breathe will affect our bodies in different ways.” Here are the best practices you need to know.
Why Breathing Is Important
Scientists have discovered that our capacity to breathe has changed through human history, getting rapidly worse since the Industrial Age, so that now almost 90 per cent of humans breathe incorrectly. (This “dysevolution” is a result of our changing diet – the softer and more highly processed food humans began to eat, the less we chewed, the smaller our airways and mouth became). However, the good news is that we can teach ourselves to breathe correctly, and often reverse chronic ailments such as asthma, snoring, anxiety, insomnia and sleep apnea. Nestor writes, “Breathing allows us to hack into our nervous system, control our immune response, and restore our health… No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are – none of it matters unless we’re breathing correctly…The missing pillar in health is breath.”
How to breathe better: An 8-step guide based on James Nestor's seminal book
1. Breathe Through Your Nose (Not Your Mouth)
The book kicks off with an experiment that Nestor conducts on himself as well his Swedish colleague, breathing therapist Anders Olsson, in mouth breathing vs nose breathing. Guided by Dr Jayakar Nayak, a nasal and sinus surgeon and chief of rhinology at Stanford University, Nestor and Olsson plug their nostrils with silicone plugs and surgical tape for ten days, forcing themselves to breathe through their mouths, followed by ten days of nose breathing achieved by taping their mouths. The results are clear: During the mouth breathing phase, Nestor’s blood pressure and snoring consistently increased, while his oxygen levels dropped to 90 per cent and below and his heart rate variability plummeted. While exercising, he tired faster. (Aerobic respiration – with oxygen – is healthier and provides the body with “clean energy”, but when we don’t get enough O2, our body switches to anaerobic respiration – without oxygen – making us feel exhausted more quickly).
The metrics reversed when he breathed through his nose, the body’s first line of defence. The nose is crucial because it clears air, heats it and moistens it for easier absorption. It’s designed to filter out impurities, to trap pollutants through the mucus, and triggers the release of nitric oxide which fights pathogens. Breathing through the nose increases oxygenation by 20 per cent with each breath. None of which the mouth is designed to do. If you’ve mastered nasal breathing at rest; try it when you’re working out/jogging/running as well.
2. Nasal Cycling (To Digest Your Food Faster, And To Relax)
As anyone who’s practised nadi shodhana or alternate nostril breathing knows, our right and left nostrils “cycle” through the day and night, functioning optimally at different times. “When you’re inhaling primarily through the right nostril, your circulation speeds up, your body gets hotter… it also feeds more blood to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, which has been associated with logical decisions, language,” writes Nestor. This is because using the right nostril activates the sympathetic nervous system. The left nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, and when you breathe through that channel, it helps lower blood pressure, cool the body and reduce anxiety. To balance the nervous system, try nadi shodhana; to amp up specific functions, activate the nostril you need.
3. Increase Lung Capacity (Exhale) Slowly
While we naturally lose lung capacity as we age (as the bones in the chest become thinner and muscle fibers surrounding the lungs weaken), even simple exercises like walking and cycling can reverse this. The other trick to ditch shallow breathing is to engage your diaphragm when you breathe, and exhale fully and for longer. (This may be familiar from your yoga class as belly breathing.) The more stale air you expel from your body, the more fresh air you can take in. One method recommended in the book is to take a few deep breaths. On your next exhale, count out loud from 1-10 as many times as you can. When you feel out of breath, whisper the countdown, till you must take the next inhale.
4. Breathe Less
Nestor contends that most of us are overbreathers, taking in more oxygen than we need. What a relatively healthy person should do instead is inhale less, and exhale more (and longer) for greatest efficiency. Gulping air, in fact, puts pressure on all our systems – for example, it increases the heart rate, while exhaling reduces it. Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage is an excellent resource to know more about the relationship between oxygen and the body.
5. Carbon Dioxide Is As Important As Oxygen (Plus, Breathing Properly For Weight Loss)
One of the counter-intuitive discoveries one makes while reading Breath is that the carbon dioxide in our blood is just as important as the amount of oxygen in it. That’s because it’s CO2 that helps to separate the oxygen from the haemoglobin in our red blood cells, and deliver it to the cells and tissues that need it.