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Slow, deep and from the nose: James Nestor on breathing

The author speaks about his eye-opening book that combines ancient practices, scientific research and stories on healing through breathing

Sports-adventure journalist, James Nestor (Photo courtesy: Julie Floersch); Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art by James Nestor, Penguin Random House, 304 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
Sports-adventure journalist, James Nestor (Photo courtesy: Julie Floersch); Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art by James Nestor, Penguin Random House, 304 pages, 499

In a single breath, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches—trillions and trillions of them, writes science journalist James Nestor in his book Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art. The book draws stories from a number of sources—ancient humans with perfect nasal cavities, indicating they breathed better; free divers who increased their lung capacity to stay underwater longer and study whales; and patients with chronic respiratory problems. Each aspect is tied together with a single truth sacrosanct to journalism: data. “We breathe some 25,000 times a day. If we are struggling to do that, or doing it dysfunctionally, it will wear our bodies down,” says Nestor. His mantra is to breathe slow, deep and always from the nose.

Also read | Can you learn to breathe better?

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview with Mint.

Do you have a breathing practice for writing?

My main breathing practice for writing is not to breathe dysfunctionally. When I sit down and really start focussing, I would (sometimes) stop breathing...I would breathe fast and shallow and then I would stop breathing. One is so stuck in their mind while writing, that our bodies react in this manner. It’s as if we are in the tundra, hiding from something, behind a tree or in a cave, which signals our bodies to do this involuntarily.

To avoid doing so, this is what I do: there’s an app on my phone with a very smooth sound which I switch on and then I breathe in a very slow manner through my nose. Northwestern University found that this rhythmic slow breathing actually coordinates different areas of the brain and stimulates different neurons. This means how we breathe affects how we think. This is not to say I am conscious of my breathing through the entire writing process, but I try.

Your book has research from modern Western medicine and the ancient breathing practices of the East. What is the difference between the two approaches?

Years ago, a researcher told me something that really stuck with me—Eastern medicine is good if you want to live, Western medicine is good if you don’t want to die. Eastern medicine is concerned with how you are breathing and Western medicine is just concerned that you are breathing.

My father-in-law is a pulmonologist. He has been practising for 40 years. When I was doing my research, I asked him—six breaths a minute is considered ideal, what do you think about this? He had no idea. His only job is to keep people breathing. When they have difficulty doing so, they come to him and he fixes them. So, western medicine is focussed on keeping people alive, not so much on how they are living.

Your book was published in May last year, did you learn something more after?

Yes, so much that I have to revise the paperback edition. The one thing that shocks me is that even though I don’t have an academic degree in medicine, there has been tremendous interest in my book from the medical fraternity. I was expecting the opposite: a lot of push-back from doctors. The most shocking experience is that I have spoken at medical schools all over the country now. And, they are starting breathing initiatives.

These include Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins University... some of the best medical institutions in the United States.

Perhaps I was just a filter; as a journalist, I was able to tie these different stories together and now pulmonologists are reading about their own field. And that has been the most wonderful reward.

As far as specific things are concerned—I have learnt more about the connection between breathing and the heart, and how they function very intimately. Then there’s breathing and psychology, breathing and addiction, and breathing and covid-19. This is a respiratory disease and we know that how we breathe will impact how we recover.

Watch | Breathing exercises for post-covid recovery

What is your understanding of breathing and covid-19 recovery?

I want to be very clear—how you breathe is not going to stop you from getting covid-19. But having said that, the Nobel Prize winner and American pharmacologist Louis Ignarro has said that nasal breathing releases nitric oxide.

He won a Nobel Prize for his work on nitric oxide in 1998. Guess what nitric oxide does? It interacts directly with viruses to kill them, which is why there are 11 different clinical trials going on giving covid-19 patients nitric oxide. They did these studies with SARS 15 years ago and found it went incredibly well .

So, there are no negative effects, specially during covid, to breathe through your nose all the time. If you are wearing a mask and breathing through your mouth, you are still exposed to everything out there. So, with or without a mask, breathe through your nose.

You tape your mouth while sleeping to avoid breathing from your mouth. What is mouth taping?

Let me take you back in time. If you compare a modern skull to an ancient skull, we are so messed up. Their teeth and sinus cavities are huge and perfect. More than 90% of us today have problems with our sinuses and noses. Around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts ever discovered, offered a description of how nostrils were supposed to feed air to the heart and lungs, not the mouth.

In my book, I have documented my experience of breathing at an intense Stanford study with Dr. Jayakar Nayak, the chief of rhinology research at Stanford University.

I started understanding and appreciating the power of nasal breathing with him. His colleague Dr Ann Kearney gave me a sleep tape. She said about 60-70% of the modern population breathes through its mouth at night. This is so bad for so many reasons...makes you more vulnerable to cavities, abdominal diseases, sleep apnea, exposes your lungs to eight hours a day to dust and all the other pollutants in the environment.

So, she gave me a tape (like a translucent sellotape) and suggested sticking a little piece (about two-three centimetres) across my lips while sleeping. It might seem weird, but it is not a hostage situation. I can still talk and gently push it with my tongue if there’s discomfort. But, it trains the mouth shut.

It has absolutely changed my life and I know that because I have recorded my sleep over the years. I have heard this from thousands and thousands of people about how it helped them. It’s not going to fix everything for everyone, but for snoring and sleep apnea, it works so well. You are only going to benefit if you breathe through your nose, so why not give it a try?

Watch | A pranayama technique to soothe your body and mind

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