The power of breathing
In early 2020, author James Nestor published his book titled Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Judging by its incredible ratings in such a short time (4.25 out of 5 stars / 6082 reviews on Goodreads; 4.8 out of 5 stars and 3,546 reviews on Amazon), the book seems to have struck a chord. We think this is indicative of a broader surge of interest in breathing as a tool for stress management and positive biofeedback for our nervous system.
In the book, Nestor describes how he encountered the benefits of slow-breathing at a time when he was overstressed and facing health challenges, including two bouts of pneumonia. Per his doctor’s recommendation, he decided to attend a breathing class that set him on a path which ultimately led him to write this book. One breathing class turned his life around.
In his words:
“I thought about getting up and leaving, but I didn’t want to be rude. Then something happened. I wasn’t conscious of any transformation taking place. I never felt myself relax or the swarm of nagging thoughts leave my head. But it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else. It happened in an instant.”
The ensuing improvements in his sleep, stress levels, and overall health were so impactful that Nestor spent the next few years trying to understand what had happened.
The missing science
His search for answers led him to one interesting realization. He had initially assumed that he would find plenty of scientific research that could explain the link between breathing in a certain way and overall health. To his surprise, however, most of the sources he found were not medical studies, but ancient transcripts of Chinese, Hindu, and Buddhist treatises on breathing techniques.
Nestor looked for research in pulmonology,the medical discipline that deals with the lungs and the respiratory tract, but says he found very little. He learned that pulmonologists are mainly focused on understanding specific afflictions of the lungs, such as collapse, cancer, emphysema. As one lung specialist explained to him, “We’re dealing with emergencies. That’s how the system works.”
By contrast, the breathing techniques he found in the eastern traditions are best suited to serve as preventative maintenance. Conscious breathing is a way to regain balance in your body by regulating stress and its related nervous response.
A growing trend
Researchers still have much to learn about the connection between breathing and the regulation of our nervous system and circulatory systems. Luckily, Nestor observes that “since I began researching my book several years ago, attitudes towards the importance of breathing have altered radically.” This has been particularly so since the pandemic, where people’s stress levels and health issues have been exacerbated.
It’s easy and free. Try it for yourself
There is an expanding universe of options to explore breathing techniques in the form of podcasts, videos, and apps. But to get started, Nestor reminds us that “the stripped-down approach is as good as any. It requires no batteries, Wi-Fi, headgear, or smartphones. It costs nothing, takes little time and effort, and you can do it wherever you are and whenever you need.” Worth a try, we think!
Parting tip: the perfect breath
After all that he has learned on conscious breathing, Nestor considers the “perfect” breath to be: inhale for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air. You can practice this “perfect breathing” for a few minutes, or a few hours.
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