Breath by James Nestor - coverBreath, the new science of a lost art

James Nestor, Penguin 2020.

Nestor, a science writer, explains in the introduction to Breath that he was alerted to the possibilities of breath-based health therapies (conventional and not) when his doctor sent him to a yoga breathing class to fix up his own chronic poor health. It worked, and sent him on an intermittent quest  (he wrote another book along the way) to learn more.

Over ten years he discovered a broad range of practitioners, many of them Westerners who developed their own theories and practices outside medical science. Others worked within Eastern spiritual traditions – Buddhist meditation, Taoist practices and various forms of yoga. He also spoke to mainstream Western doctors and medical scientists, participating in their research at times.

That gave him far too much material for a single book but he boiled it all down to one standard-size paperback, with comprehensive references to what he had left out. Those references are duplicated and expanded online at Click through to ‘Biblio’ for them and you could spend a week exploring; go to ‘Retreat’ instead, and you find that he is offering a Breath Retreat at a resort in Costa Rica promising

Kundalini • Tummo • Kriyas • Qi Gong • Hypoventilation Athletic Training • Buteyko Breathing Technique • Apnea • Pranayama • Resonant Breathing

Nestor was a convert to breathwork as of his first experience of Kriya yoga, and what he has learned since then is impressive. Valuable, too.

The first half of Breath presents breathing exercises which anyone can do safely without direct teaching. Then there’s a detour to our eating habits, because, he argues, modern diets are responsible for facial malformations which constrict our breathing. Finally, some more extreme breathing techniques, best undertaken with the guidance of a teacher.


At this point I should reveal my own breathwork background so that my opinions have some context.

I suffered chronic breathing problems as a child (bronchitis, hay fever, asthma) and my family doctor suggested to my parents that I should learn a wind instrument ‘to strengthen my lungs’ or words to that effect. Off I went to the local brass band to play (over ten years) cornet, baritone horn and euphonium. As a young adult I switched from brass to woodwinds, playing recorders, clarinets, saxes and flutes before and after training and working as a woodwind teacher for the next twenty-plus years. Along the way, I sang – mainly in choirs. And all of my music demanded close attention, both theoretical and practical, on breathing.

Meanwhile, I developed an ongoing interest in Eastern traditions during that same young-adult period: meditation, yoga, Buddhism, Taoism and (later) Tai chi and Qi gong. My practice was sporadic while I was busy with children and work but I have attended classes regularly for the last 15 years.

And all of the above were good for me and my health.

So (getting back to Mr Nestor) I expected to meet many familiar teachers and techniques in Breath. I did, too: various forms of yoga, Buteyko, tummo, Wim Hof, chanting, etc. He mostly got them right, too, to the best of my knowledge.

But what are we to make of it all?

My first response was, “Yes, this is all really good, and I hope everyone reads the book and applies what’s useful to them.”

After that, in no particular order, I thought:

  • He has the enthusiasm of a convert, claiming breathing will cure everything that ails us. He’s mostly right, but it makes the book a bit unbalanced because exercise will do just as much and so will better diet.
  • He doesn’t even mention music! And singing and wind-instrument playing are wonderful for breathing and also have *bonus!* social benefits.
  • He laments that one health expert after another, for well over a century, has discovered and promoted the advantages of breathwork, getting it accepted as legitimate therapy only for it to be forgotten again a decade or two later. The nearest he comes to an explanation is a single comment to the effect that drug therapies always became dominant again although their success rates were no better. That looks to me like Big Pharma at work, but I may be wrong.
  • He doesn’t seem to know much about, or even be interested in, the religious side of the Asian traditions: he just raids them for breathing techniques. (There are good precedents for that – Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, for instance, is a secularised Buddhist approach – so perhaps we needn’t be too concerned.)
  • If his readers only learn and apply one thing, it should be that nose-breathing is so much better than mouth-breathing that everyone should make it habitual.
  • If they learn a second thing, it should be diaphragm breathing, aka belly breathing and yoga breathing – breathing deep into the lungs.

My last response was almost the same as my first: “Breath has minor faults but I do hope everyone reads it and applies what’s useful to them.”

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