Written by James Nestor


Review by Gunnel Minett

Breathing is essential for all human life. We count a lifetime from a person’s first to their last breath. Still we don’t seem to know much about how to breathe in the best way. We have some basic ideas that breathing ‘correctly’ is good for our wellbeing. There are also a growing number of theories and breathing schools to teach us how to breathe better, many of which seem to contradict each other. But a common assumption for many of them is that most of us aren’t breathing sufficiently and need to breathe more. 

Paradoxically our knowledge of how the breath influences the body’s wellbeing is ancient. It goes back thousands of years. The oldest structured descriptions of breathing techniques are found in Yoga (Pranayama) and Chinese Chi Gong techniques. But somehow much of this knowledge has been lost until recently. When Alexandra David-Néel and other adventurers went to India to learn more about Eastern philosophies, their accounts inspired others to follow. These pioneers brought back a new understanding of the ancient knowledge as to how to improve physical and psychological wellbeing through changes in the breathing pattern. 

In this book James Nestor takes the ideas about optimal breathing a step further. In the first part of the book he describes how he participated in an experiment to establish the differences between nose and mouth breathing. This involved blocking his nose for two weeks so that he only could breathe through the mouth. The result was instant, higher blood pressure and general deterioration of his overall health and wellbeing. As soon as the nose block was removed his body returned to its normal level of wellbeing. Nestor’s conclusion is that nose breathing is by far the better way to breathe, and the most natural way to take in oxygen. 

Another interesting fact is that several of the techniques mentioned focus on breathing less than normal. Some even argue that breathing carbon dioxide has a long-term positive effect, in particular to lower anxiety, even if it may cause temporary discomfort. This is not a view shared by modern medicine.

Nestor goes through a number of techniques aimed at improving wellbeing through breathing, such as  Breathing Coordination, Resonant Breathing, the Buteyko method, Holotropic Breathing, Wim Hof’s version of Tummo Breathing and various forms of Yoga breathing. An interesting aspect of what these techniques have in common is that they all represent slightly different ways of breathing at the same time as they all focus entirely on changes in our normal breathing pattern. And, despite the fact that they are different techniques, they seem to all arrive at the same end result – to improve our overall wellbeing and to enable the body to perform better. 

Nestor also looks at research into the changes which have occurred in the human skull over the centuries, due to our changes in our eating habits. In particular changes to the jaws have impacted our ability to breathe optimally. He describes it as a circular problem where less perfect breathing patterns lead to changes in teeth and bone structure around the nose and mouth, which in turn caused less perfect breathing. The really interesting part of this, he claims, is that by changing the breathing pattern the changes in the face can actually be corrected. This is totally against the common understanding of the body’s ability to heal itself. This indicates that there is a lot to be discovered before we fully understand the power of the breath.  

Given that we need a solution to the current COVID situation, a better understanding of the full potential of the breath may come to play a very significant role. The more we can learn from these different breathing techniques the better. With this in mind, for me personally, I would have liked the book to present more factual background for each technique. The book has a focus on telling the personal story of how Nestor tried these different techniques together with his good friend Anders Olsson. This makes it an entertaining and light-weight read. And it does have references to the various techniques that are mentioned. But it still gives a sense of wanting more hard data and more attempts to present some form of theory as to why and how simple changes in the breathing pattern can have such a strong impact on our wellbeing. 

Having said this, being a light and entertaining read, I can recommend the book and suggest that anyone interested in breathing should follow up the references. A word of caution though; breathing techniques may seem very simple and easy to try. In fact the last chapter offers instructions as to how to try some of them at home. But, as the book describes, they can be very powerful and cause changes both in body and mind, that are best experienced in the company of someone who can assist and guide the breather to a positive end result. 

Penguin Life, 2020, ISBN-13 : 978-0241289075