Breathing ‘Plus’: What Is The Perfect Breath?
James Nestor’s book ‘Breath’ chronicles the new science on the ancient art of better breathing.
“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe better.” — Dr. Andrew Weil
When I first started reading James Nestor’s new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, I was curious but skeptical. Why do I need to learn to breathe better? I’ve been breathing my whole life. It seems like I’ve been doing it pretty well so far. On average about 25,000 times a day. After all, I’m still alive.
Perhaps if you meditate or practice yoga, you are aware of how breathing techniques help you relax and focus. Something as simple as ‘focus on your breath.’ Or as complicated as Sudarshan Kriya.
I also notice that I probably need to work on my cardio if I’m panting after a short jog.
For most of us, though, breathing is something we don’t think about too much. Mostly automatic. Like an on/off switch that we do our best to keep on.
But Nestor’s new book suggests that learning to breathe better is not just good for us. It is the most important thing we can do to improve our health and well-being.
And so far, I’m convinced. After reading this book, I’ll never breathe the same again.
Ancient wisdom has long touted the benefits of better conscious breathing, and modern science is catching up too, revealing in new study after new study just how transformative better breathing can be for our well-being and good health.
Nestor calls this collection of ancient breathing techniques combined with emerging insights from the science of breathing, Breathing +.
The simple power of Breathing+, Nestor shows, lies in its preventative capacity, not just to help us return to balance when we fall into a health rut. But also to stave off serious health issues we will otherwise face in life: everything from sleep apnea to immune disorders.
“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. These little bits of air come from a few feet or several yards away. As they make their way toward you, they’ll twist and spool like the stars in a van Gogh sky, and they’ll keep twisting and spooling and scrolling as they pass into you, traveling at a clip of about five miles per hour.”
How exactly can breathing improve our health?
One way is that conscious breathing can tap into and influence the vagus nerve: a network within the nervous system that connects up to all the major internal organs.
Nestor introduces us to the research of Dr. Stephen Porges, a scientist, and professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.
Porges’ work reveals how “The vagus nerve is the power lever; it’s what turns organs on and off in response to stress,” Nestor says. When we encounter a high-stress situation, the vagus nerve slows organ functions, heart rate, and circulation. This evolutionary adaption enabled animals to ‘play dead,’ Nestor writes, as a survival tool to deflect aggression from predators.
Depending on how sensitive we are to perceiving danger––whether from a tiger or a cockroach––the vagus nerve can trigger fainting in humans, the reptilian equivalent of playing dead. Humans today rarely need to avoid being eaten by large-toothed critters, and generally aren’t that sensitive to danger that would make us faint at every turn. But thanks to the daily stresses of our fast-paced, overworked, and underpaid society, many of us experience constant, low-grade anxiety just dealing. Not to mention the chronic stress people endure from a combination of pandemics, structural racism, and the climate crisis.
In this state of chronic stress, Nestor says, “We’ll spend our days half-asleep and nights half-awake, lolling in a gray zone of half-anxiety. When we do, the vagus nerve stays half-stimulated.” As a consequence, while we can survive like this for a while, the long-term impact on our vagal nervous system can lead to a whole host of bad effects on our overall health: poor immune response, diabetes, rapid heart rate, inflammation, arthritis, sleep apnea, cancer, and the list goes on.
So where does conscious breathing coming in? “Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system,” says Nestor. This is because controlling how we breathe can tap into two aspects of our vagal and autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous systems.
Chill out: The parasympathetic nervous system
On the one hand, breathing techniques that relax us activate the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to chill out. This is the pleasurable feeling we experience after a good massage or the sleepiness we experience after eating too much for dinner. The parasympathetic system stimulates digestion, joyful crying, relaxes our bowels to poop, ‘activates’ us for sex, and pumps ‘happy’ hormones into our bloodstream, like serotonin and oxytocin. This is why some scientists refer to it as the ‘feed and breed’ system.
Stress out: The sympathetic nervous system
On the other hand, breathing techniques that put us into a high-stress state, like breathing fast or holding our breath, stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. Nestor describes how short, fast breaths act like hundreds of mini-911 calls signaling ‘EMERGENCY!’ to our brain. This is beneficial for helping adrenaline kick in, preventing us from bleeding too much if we get injured, and overall put us into a state of fight or flight to handle danger. But human beings aren’t meant to endure being in sympathetic state for very long.
Chill out, stress out, chill out, stress out…
Taken together, conscious breathing practitioners often combine breathing techniques to both chill out and stress out our vagal nervous system.
Breathing slowly opens up communication along the vagal network, helping us melt into a state of parasympathetic relaxation. Breathing fast pushes the vagal network in the opposite direction, stressing us out.
But what could possibly be the benefit of activating parasympathy’s stressed out twin, the sympathetic nervous system? Why would we stress out our nervous system intentionally?
Nestor suggests that one reason for this might be that stressing ourselves through the sympathetic nervous system “teaches us to consciously access the autonomic nervous system and control it, to turn on heavy stress specifically so that we can turn it off and spend the rest of our days and nights relaxing and restoring, feeding and breeding.” In other words: know your enemy so you can control them better. Or as Nestor’s breathing instructor Chuck McGee puts it: “You are not the passenger, you are the pilot!”
“To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.”
— James Nestor
A ‘Breathing+’ Starter-Kit: One Principle and One Technique
Through all my travels and travails, there is one lesson, one equation, that I believe is at the root of so much health, happiness, and longevity. I’m a bit embarrassed to say it has taken me a decade to figure this out, and I realize how insignificant it might look on this page. But lest we forget, nature is simple but subtle. The perfect breath is this: Breathe in 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.
When you become a traveler on the journey into breathing+, or what James Nestor calls a ‘pulmonaut,’ there are a few core principles to pack along with you. Nestor provides details a rich foundation of core principles for better breathing, but perhaps the most important one is this:
1 Principle: Shut your mouth
“if I were to endeavour to bequeath to posterity the most important Motto which human language can convey, it should be in three words — Shut-your-mouth.”
— George Catlin (1796–1872)
George Catlin wrote this motto in his 1862 book, The Breath of Life, about the dangers of mouthbreathing and the incredible benefits of nasal breathing. Nestor tells the story of Catlin’s remarkable transition from a disgruntled portrait painter of Philadelphia's wealthy elite, to a chronicler of Native American tribes of the Great Plains.
“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,” Nestor writes. Instead, Catlin learned from his conversations with members of the Pawnee, Omaha, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and many other Native American tribes, that nasal breathing was a pervasive and conscious practice across all tribes, and taught from one generation to the next.
Nestor interviews Dr. Mark Burhenne about his research and work investigating the benefits of nasal breathing. His findings are stunning:
- Mouthbreathing contributes to periodontal disease and bad breath.
- Mouthbreathing is the number one cause of cavities, more damaging than poor hygiene, sugar, or an unhealthy diet.
- Mouthbreathing worsens snoring and sleep apnea.
- Nasal breathing boosts nitric oxide sixfold, a molecule released by the sinuses and that regulates mood, immune function, sexual arousal, blood circulation, and weight.
- Nasal breathing allows us to absorb around 18% more oxygen than mouthbreathing.
- Nasal breathing during sleep can dramatically reduce or even eliminate snoring and sleep apnea.
In sum, shut your mouth, breath through your nose. Catlin realized there was much more to this Native American proverb than he had originally thought: “if you would be wise, open first your Eyes, your Ears next, and last of all, your Mouth, that your words may be words of wisdom, and give no advantage to thine adversary.”
1 Technique: Alternate Nasal Breathing (Pranayama)
Nestor provides a fantastic how-to guide for a variety of breathing techniques in the book. He says it’s hard to go wrong with the ‘5.5' approach he mentions above, or to mix it up, you can Dr. Andrew Weil’s ‘4–7–8 breathing.’ But for me, a helpful and easy breathing technique Nestor describes in his book is alternate nasal breathing, a pranayama (breathing) technique used in yoga. This is a great technique before going to sleep, or to relax before a big meeting or presentation.
- Put your right thumb (softly) over your right nostril, and place your right ring finger over the left nostril (don’t plug them yet). You can rest your index finger and middle finger between your eyebrows.
- Now, close your right nostril with your thumb, then, very slowly, inhale through your left nostril.
- Once you reach your full breath, hold both nostrils closed and pause for a moment.
- Then lift your right thumb so you can exhale through the right nostril.
When you’re at the end of your exhale, hold both nostrils closed for a moment, then inhale through the right nostril.
- Continue like this, alternating breaths through the right, then left, then right nostrils for 5–10 cycles.
“The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the composting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends.”
–David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous