If any of you are in the housing market right now, you know it’s incredibly stressful. There is barely any inventory, and anything worth having will quickly go for well over asking price. In this intense seller’s market, it’s hard to believe that any house tour will turn into an actual acquisition and move. And yet, when I tour a house, I try to suspend my disbelief and picture exactly how my family could use each space. I’ve been surprised at how far this game of mental gymnastics can take me, like how many bathtubs have looked appealing, when I have taken maybe two baths in my adult life. And in one particular house, I felt an irrational draw to the walk-in master closet. When I opened the door, I felt a blast of warm air brush across my face. Unusual, I thought. Closets are usually colder than the main rooms. But then I realized that this house had radiant heat. Even the closet floors would be warm. It was like a combo closet and sauna, and all I wanted to do was close myself inside, lie on my back, and breathe.
Nestor, who has suffered from breathing problems throughout life, sought to learn about proper breathing techniques and how they might make us healthier human beings. In his meandering prose, he suggested that breathing correctly might help me with my anxiety, and that is why I instinctively was drawn to lie down in the closet. He claimed that breathing properly wouldn’t only help asthma, sleep apnea and other pulmonary problems, but also autoimmune diseases, psoriasis and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In his introduction, Nestor discusses the disconnect between the ancient cross-cultural wisdom of breathing properly to ensure a good, long life, and what he feels is a dismissive attitude of modern medicine towards breathing technique. He states that the majority of western doctors he spoke with agreed that it didn’t matter how you breathed -- the point was just to get air in and out of the lungs. Still, he found researchers at credible institutions who thought otherwise. Nestor asserts:
“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 will matter unless we’re breathing correctly. That’s what these researchers discovered. The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there.” (xix)
Nestor’s ten years of research led him to travel thousands of miles in search of the best combination of practices that would ensure healthy living. From interviewing free divers to western scientists, to exploring the catacombs beneath the city of Paris, to visiting a breathing expert in Brazil, Nestor searches for explanations for how our species actually evolved to breathe poorly, and what we can do about it now. He points out that,
“Of the 5,400 different species of mammals on the planet, humans are now the only ones to routinely have misaligned jaws, overbites, underbites, and snaggled teeth, a condition formally called malocclusion.…Why would we evolve to make ourselves sick?” (12)
He notes that, on the evolution of Homo sapiens,
“Strangely, sadly, the same adaptations that would allow our ancestors to outwit, outmaneuver, and outlive other animals -- a mastery of fire and processing food, an enormous brain, and the ability to communicate in a vast range of sounds -- would obstruct our mouths and throats and make it much harder for us to breathe. This recessed growth would, much later, make us prone to choke on our own bodies when we slept: to snore.” (16)
He points out that historically, people across cultures used to value proper breathing technique, and that that meant breathing through the nose. To take the Bible for one example, “Genesis 2:7 described how “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (45-6) Fast forwarding several thousand years to the 1830s, artist and researcher George Catlin documented the dedicated practice of nasal breathing among native tribes of North and South America, noting their tall structure and perfectly straight teeth.
“The Native Americans explained to Catlin that breath inhaled through the mouth sapped the body of strength, deformed the face, and caused stress and disease. On the other hand, breath inhaled through the nose kept the body strong, made the face beautiful, and prevented disease.” (47)
To this end, Nestor describes how native tribes would close their babies’ mouths as they slept, to encourage them to breathe only through the nose. Today, some scientists promote mouth taping in order to ensure nasal breathing, prompting air through the sinuses to release nitric oxide -- “a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells.” (50)
By the end of his book, however, Nestor leaves the reader with hope that the disadvantages of our evolutionary changes perhaps can be reversed:
“That our noses and mouths are not predetermined at birth, childhood, or even in adulthood. We can reverse the clock on much of the damage that’s been done in the past few hundred years by the force of will, with nothing more than proper posture, hard chewing, and perhaps some mewing, [where mewing is repeated tongue thrusts toward the hard palate].” (136)
Sifting through his meandering prose during which he spends thousands of dollars conducting a breathing experiment on himself under the care of a physician at Stanford, I was able to distill Nestor’s recommendations for healthier breathing. He basically proposes the benefits of breathing through the nose, timing inhalations and exhalations to each last 5.5 seconds (which, he points out, is the length of many ritual prayers in different religions), doing occasional other breathing exercises, and chewing gum regularly to preserve or boost facial bone density. He also stresses the overall importance of lung capacity, which he says can be boosted with stretching techniques.
Nestor’s prose is readable, and yet, I had trouble connecting the dots between scientific studies and anecdotes. He spoke of some techniques of being nothing short of miraculous, and yet, the reader begs to know whether such techniques are replicable, or even what the results of these breathing techniques even were. In some sections, Nestor claims that “the results are profound” and yet he fails to define the results. Yet, by the end, I was wondering whether I should sleep with tape on my mouth, or whether I should start chewing gum in order to build bone mass in my face. Perhaps one simple thing I could do, I decided, was to make sure I was breathing as I worked on the computer, to avoid “email apnea” as he described it. (172)
One thing is for sure: reading this book will make you hyper aware of your own breathing. You might wonder the whole time whether you’re doing it right. You might wonder how long these ideas and questions will stay with you. And you might wonder if, for more reasons than one, researcher Catlin’s advice from long ago is particularly fitting for today’s society. By his own assessment, the key to a long healthy life was found in following this simple instruction:
Shut your mouth.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.