Breath: the new science of a lost art

Those of you who know me won’t be at all surprised to hear that I’m reading a book about breathing. I’ve studied a whole course on the subject before because of its importance in core and pelvic floor function, relaxation and broader wellness! And in a world with Covid-19 and recommendations starting to surface around breathing practices, it seems more relevant than ever.

Breath: the new science of a lost art is a fascinating book by a journalist and author called James Nestor. Looking at resources from free divers, ancient eastern practices, ancient burial sites, choirs, buddhist monks / prayer / other religions, scientists, dentists, athletes, mavericks and more, he explores how our capacity to breath has changed (for the worse unfortunately) through evolution.

He also provides his own thoughts and data from an experiment he undertook which involved breathing only through his mouth for 10 days straight (his nose was plugged shut), which led to some dramatic changes in his health – notably he developed sleep apnea, suffered from significantly increased blood pressure and stress levels, and generally felt awful.

Whilst some of the examples mentioned in the book (see below) are extraordinary, there are some fascinating ideas to ponder.

  • Katherina Schroth, a teenager with severe scoliosis in Germany in the early 1900s developed a breathing technique to straighten her spine and went on to teach hundreds of people to do the same. She died aged 91 and was eventually awarded a medal by the German medical establishment for her contributions to medicine.
  • Carl Stough, the conductor of a choir in the US developed a deep, diaphragmatic breathing technique to help singers improve their voices. He later used this to develop the atrophied lungs of emphysema patients who were on death’s door and coached the US men’s track & field team to a record medal haul in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 using his technique.
  • A Ukrainian cardiologist seemingly found a breathing technique to reduce or effectively “cure” patients of chronic asthma.

And the list goes on.

What there is consensus on, is that as a society we generally over breathe (ie breathe too fast) and we use our mouths way more than we should. We also know that breathing too much puts strain on our bodies, typically increases blood pressure and puts strain on our nervous systems.

So whether you choose to follow Nestor’s proposed ‘perfect breath’ – an inhale for 5.5 seconds through the nose, followed by an exhale for 5.5. seconds through the nose – or any other breathing strategy, do take a minute to slow down and just breathe.

And if you’re struggling to lengthen your inhale, you might enjoy this little exercise.

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