The First Time I have Ever been Taught how to Breathe

Breath, written by journalist James Nestor, explores the overlooked importance of breathing and how doing it sub-optimally has damaging effects to our health. James talks with trusted sources from around the world to discover the magic in breathing, and graciously shares his findings in this book; making it an essential read for anyone who wishes to improve their health.

This book peaked my interest unexpectedly– a book about breathing? Before reading it, I assumed breathing to be as un-interesting as blinking might be, just something that comes naturally. But James Nector reminds me of a glaring fact, there is hardly anything natural about the human experience. Somehow through the chaos of civilisation, we have forgotten how to breathe properly. Breath explores how too often breathing properly has been overlooked and examines how we can change our own physiology, impairments and quality of life just by learning to breathe better. And that’s the clickbaity-anecdote that drew me in to find out more, to find out how to breathe.

The first few chapters of writing are riddled with clever wit as Nector puts himself through harsh breathing experiments that are uncomfortable to even think about. With his Swedish hiker friend, Anders Olsson, he puts himself through 20 days of mouth breathing to discover how it effects the human body.

 Nector takes us through human evolution, explaining how our faces have grown narrow and long, our mouths and lungs smaller, and jaws weaker. All of these slow adjustments (brought on by the ease of civilisation) have led to airway obstruction and pushed some of us to become chronic mouth breathers– when we should be breathing through our nose. 

By this point in the book, there is not a single breath I take that is not conscious.

Picking the brains of nasal doctors and breathing experts, James finds that breathing through the mouth is problematic. After someone becomes a habitual mouth-breather, it becomes harder to breathe through the nose. Mouth breathing is the cause of sleep apnoea, shortness of breath, and even disturbs the oxygen delivered to our brains. Breathing it turns out, is pretty important: “affects our brains, blood, bones, bladders and everything else.” James and Anders’ mouth-breathing experiment shows compelling results that prove that to be true. Describing his 20 days of forced mouth breathing, James puts it like being “trapped in some sad sitcom in which nobody laughs, a Groundhog Day of perpetual and unending misery.” Needless to say, James has put his own wellbeing on the line to uncover some pretty astonishing stuff.

Now I’m really becoming conscious of every breath I take. I’m even starting to consider sleeping with tape over my mouth; something that James now does every night.

The book then goes into exact detail of how we can improve our breathing, looking at many tried and tested ways to get the most out of every inhale and exhale. James’ finds are inspiring. He goes on to learn about how even chewing has a role to play; how a weakened jaw can obstruct our airways. By engaging in jaw exercises, James is able to change the very bones in his face, gaining 5 pennies worth in his eye socket and bridge of his nose. Breath outlines the very boundaries put in place by previous science and breaks them open to show the possibilities of improving our own breathing impairments. And unlike other health crazes; breathing is free to us all. 

There are a few points in the book where the breathing exercises seem a little bit far-fetched, but that may only be because this subject has never been presented in full like this before– at least not to me. In depth discussion about breathing has often been reserved for a particular niche of communities, but James’ work is a hybrid of discussing both ancient breathing techniques and scientific studies (looking at pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry and human physiology). His objectivity as a journalist also makes the topic of breathing easy to engage with; the reader is learning in real time with the author.

While flicking through chapter after chapter about how something as simple as a good, full breath can change our over well-being, one though kept coming back; how is it that I have never been taught this before? In Western society, many of us value our health. We have gym memberships, health food stores, dieting culture and full government campaigns against junk food, yet if we are not breathing properly, how much health can we really achieve from the rest of it?

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who cares about their health in the slightest. While this book is heavy with information and well, a lot of breath talk, James has turned the simplest of things into an interesting and complex subject worth learning about in full. This book has changed my very being, it has changed the way I breathe.

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