Read This | Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Journalist James Nestor explores what it means to breathe and why we seem to have forgotten how...

By: Dave Waller,   1 minute

James Nestor’s story begins with him struggling with a respiratory issue and failing mental health, and his doctor prescribing him a visit to a breathing workshop. Despite Nestor’s initial scepticism – sparked by his co-breathers’ dodgy bindis and “woolly eyebrows” – he has a transcendent experience, which sparks something of a long exhale: a 10-year personal quest to work out what the hell happened in that session and why.

At some point that quest formalised into a book project, in which Nestor, a journalist who has written for the New York Times, Outside Magazine and NPR, covers breathing in all its ins and outs, something the rest of us clever souls are doing every minute of the day without needing to think about it.

Turns out we’ve forgotten how to breathe. Or maybe that should be why.

Nestor knows how to construct a story, turning what could easily have been a bland exercise in nasal gazing into a genuinely enlightening journey, one of shrunken mouths, Himalyan hermits and newly flexible chemoreceptors. We follow him into the catacombs beneath Paris hunting the skulls of humans who hadn’t yet become the ‘worst breathers in the animal kingdom’. Soon he’s learning first-hand what happens if you plug your nose with silicon for a fortnight and breathe exclusively through the mouth. Hint: It’s really rough.

Nestor also leaves you with tons of practical takeaways, whether you’re a runner who could do with a performance boost (breathe through your nose), or a chronic snorer seeking to pull themselves from the depths of sleep apnoea (breathe through your nose).

TL:DR – just breathe through your nose, it’s way better for you.

I figure if there’s ever a time you can justifiably call breathing a hobby, it’s now, given we’re all in lockdown and forced to rediscover the joy of the things we have close at hand. I can now hold my breath for more than three minutes. That’s up from about 30 seconds when I thought I had much better things to do.

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