Book Report: James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

“Here read this,” a choir-director friend of mine said, passing off Nestor’s yellow-covered hardback into my chest like a Heisman trophy nominee. Um, okay. I’d never even remotely heard of this book but it looked pretty at the very least.

“I don’t have time and I told the person who leant it to me that I’d tell them what I thought.” Oh, I see. Aside from adding more evidence to my theory about humans always and forever being stuck in high school frame, now I’m also doing someone else’s homework, which I’ve NEVER done for anyone, for nothing more than the fact that the book was free for me to borrow, upon the promise of a book report. The problem is he knows too much about where all my bodies are buried so, fine, I’ll play the game here. “Okay fine,” I said. “I’ll read your book. This is like the library but worse.”

Secretly, I was thrilled.

You had me at “the new science.”

Ever since I’ve been trying to figure out my own mysterious health issues, I’ve done the deep-dive into all kinds of science and medicine: western, eastern, pseudo, popular, weird, you name it. In among the fringes, I’ve run across a lot of somewhat popular science in “fitness communities” regarding breathing that certainly covers all of the possible bases, if in fact it doesn’t provide much conclusion except for a very passionate promise that breathing differently will change your life. Breathe less, breathe more, use a different posture, hold your breath, exhale and hold your breath—the different techniques seem to number like the stars in a non-light-polluted city sky. But this book is the first I’ve encountered on the topic that seems like it could actually be talking about real, peer-reviewed, tested and re-tested science, written about them from a journalistic standpoint more credible and thorough, perhaps, than the Tik Toks I’ve been watching. Mission accepted.

All your favorite museums in one breath-focused package.

Almost immediately upon opening, I was enraptured. The writing is crisp and clean but not pretentious. Nestor introduces himself and his breathing-obsessed Swedish sidekick as participants in a breath study they’ve essentially commissioned at a pulmonary lab at Stanford to create data on themselves to re-test the sometimes shocking results the labs have been producing regarding the benefits of closed-mouth breathing. This narrative arc provides a satisfying and entertaining contemporary framework for Nestor’s other effort:

to fashion and support the argument that the way we breathe now actually makes us unhealthy.

He tackles this feat (truly, I mean would you ever have considered such a thing?) by visiting all of your favorite museums, charting a course through the worlds of athropology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, physiology, religion, new age spirituality, sports, and ethnic cultures just to name the biggest stand-outs. I’m not even kidding when I say choir plays a relevant role…which at least gives me a clue as to why someone would lend my choir director friend this book.

[mind blown] and also, say what now?

Tuck that chin and shut your mouth.

I can’t more highly recommend the experience of reading this book. Full of Nestor’s travails across the world and through all kinds of ancient, tribal, and religious cultures seeking to understand the breathwork that allows lamas in the Himalayas to sweat rings of melted snow around their barely-clad meditating bodies or deep sea divers the ability to hold their breath without losing consciousness for 7-8 minutes at a time as they submerge. It’s fun and I started to realize that the evidence has always been around us that the way we have come to breathe, primarily through our mouths and with a forward chin position—like the one we’re using right now to read this screen, could really be the end of us.

I’ve literally never thought so much about the most involuntary and most necessary function of the human body and I’m better for it.

Before I go, let me just give you a couple of my favorites collected throughout the reading of this book. Of course, these are based on this investigation and theory, so should be read in that context. Science is on the way to proving them.

Mind-blowing factoids:

  • Humans are the only species whose teeth grow in crooked. (Think about it…and it’s absolutely true.). This is because mouth breathing changes the structure of the bones in your skull to narrow the jaw, leading to crooked-ass teeth. (What!?!)
  • Sleep apnea, often blamed on obesity and a host of other ailments, can all but be cured by closing the mouth during sleep. Western medical doctors will fight you tooth and nail on this but just a little tape over the center of the mouth, closing the lips, during sleep often takes a life-long snorer mere days to almost completely correct the problem. Surgery is almost never actually required.
  • Sinus-infections and and migraines, are symptoms of the increase in mouth-breathing by humans over the last millenium.
  • Many of our modern chronic illnesses including high blood pressure, obesity, burnout, and all stress-related ailments that originate from an over-stimulated parasympathetic nervous system, could be linked to an over-oxygenation caused by mouth breathing. So the theory goes that without the habit of truly fully exhaling, we don’t regularly have enough carbon dioxide in our system that would help to tamp down what is ultimately a chronic para-hyperventilation that gives us too much oxygen. So the theory goes, learning to fully exhale and teaching the body not to panic in an anaerobic state could help to return the body to real stasis.

Conclusion and Findings

Just read the book! As a sociologist, I love any book that questions our knowledge systems. This one raises a magnifying glass to the normative frame of Western medicine that we use as a reflex to understand all of these bodily ills. What if our breathing method, evolved over time in our current states of life, is the real problem? Or at least a real problem. More interesting to me where all of my own reactions that kept saying, “this is crazy!” but at the same time backed by a scientific method I know and trust. Consider it the perspective your lungs might have if they had eyes, an image both disturbing and disgusting but clearly also alternative.

10/10 read this. And think about sleeping with your mouth closed. I know I’m reconsidering everything.

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