Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
by James Nestor
These were my favorite passages from James Nestor’s book on Breath.
“By your 10,000th breath, and the close of this book, you and I will know how the air that enters your lungs affects every moment of your life and how to harness it to its full potential until your final breath.”
“These two energies are made in different muscle fibers throughout the body. Because anaerobic respiration is intended as a backup system, our bodies are built with fewer anaerobic muscle fibers. If we rely on these less developed muscles too often, they eventually break down. More injuries occur during the post–New Year’s rush to gyms than at any other time of the year, because too many people attempt to exercise far over their thresholds. Essentially, anaerobic energy is like a muscle car—it’s fast and responsive for quick trips, but polluting and impractical for long hauls.”
“Catlin realized that nobody really knew about the Mandan, or other Plains tribes, because no one of European descent had bothered to spend time talking to them, researching them, living with them, and learning about their beliefs and traditions.”
“It was a bizarre spectacle, and the grabbing and pushing and deep stroking looked at times like borderline molestation. After my own experience in Martin’s studio for an hour, babbling numbers and having my chest poked and ribs squeezed, it became more clear to me why Stough’s work never caught on. It didn’t matter that saxophonist David Sanborn and asthmatic opera singers, Olympic runners, and hundreds of emphysema survivors praised his treatments as a lifesaver. Stough wasn’t a doctor; he was a self-made pulmonaut, a choir conductor. He was just too far out there. His therapy was just too weird. “Although the process of breathing involves both anatomy and physiology, neither branch of science has claimed it for thorough exploration,” wrote Stough. “It was a little-known territory waiting to be mapped and charted.” Stough made his map over a half-century of constant work. But when he died, that map was lost. As soon as he left the VA wards, so did his therapy.”
“Zátopek never wanted to become a runner. When the management at the shoe factory where he was working elected him for a local race, he tried to refuse. Zátopek told them he was unfit, that he had no interest, that he’d never run in a competition. But he competed anyway and came in second out of 100 contestants. Zátopek saw a brighter future for himself in running, and began to take the sport more seriously. Four years later he broke the Czech national records for the 2,000, 3,000, and 5,000 meters. Zátopek developed his own training methods to give himself an edge. He’d run as fast as he could holding his breath, take a few huffs and puffs and then do it all again. It was an extreme version of Buteyko’s methods, but Zátopek didn’t call it Voluntary Elimination of Deep Breathing. Nobody did. It would become known as hypoventilation training. Hypo, which comes from the Greek for “under” (as in hypodermic needle), is the opposite of hyper, meaning “over.” The concept of hypoventilation training was to breathe less. Over the years, Zátopek’s approach was widely derided and mocked, but he ignored the critics. At the 1952 Olympics, he won gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. On the heels of his success, he decided to compete in the marathon, an event he had neither trained for nor run in his life. He won gold. Zátopek would claim 18 world records, four Olympic golds and a silver over his career. He would later be named the “Greatest Runner of All Time”
“The same story played out no matter where he went. Societies that replaced their traditional diet with modern, processed foods suffered up to ten times more cavities, severely crooked teeth, obstructed airways, and overall poorer health. The modern diets were the same: white flour, white rice, jams, sweetened juices, canned vegetables, and processed meats. The traditional diets were all different.”
“It was the constant stress of chewing that was lacking from our diets—not vitamin A, B, C, or D. Ninety-five percent of the modern, processed diet was soft. Even what’s considered healthy food today—smoothies, nut butters, oatmeal, avocados, whole wheat bread, vegetable soups. It’s all soft. Our ancient ancestors chewed for hours a day, every day. And because they chewed so much, their mouths, teeth, throats, and faces grew to be wide and strong and pronounced. Food in industrialized societies was so processed that it hardly required any chewing at all. This is why so many of those skulls I’d examined in the Paris ossuary had narrow faces and crooked teeth. It’s one of the reasons so many of us snore today, why our noses are stuffed, our airways clogged. Why we need sprays, pills, or surgical drilling just to get a breath of fresh air.”
“By the 1940s, it became standard practice for dentists to extract teeth then crane back the remaining top teeth with headgear, braces, and other orthodontic devices. Fewer teeth were easier to handle and offered more consistent results. By the 1950s, tooth extractions—two, four, even six at a time—and retractive orthodontics were routine in the United States. There was a glaring problem with this approach: removing teeth and pushing remaining teeth backward only made a too-small mouth smaller. A smaller mouth might be easy for dentists to manage, but it also offered less room to breathe.”
“Over and over again, the children who’d had teeth removed and had undergone retractive orthodontics suffered from the same stunted mouth and facial growth. As they grew up, and the rest of their bodies and heads grew larger, their mouths were forced to stay the same size. This mismatch created a problem at the center of the face: eyes would droop, cheeks would puff up, and chins would recess. The more teeth these patients had extracted, the longer they wore braces and other devices, the more obstruction seemed to develop in their airways. Mew called the pattern “sadly a common sequel to fixed orthodontic treatment.”
“In a strange twist, he found that the devices invented to fix crooked teeth caused by too-small mouths were making mouths smaller and breathing worse.”
“In ten years, nobody will be using traditional orthodontics,” Gelb told me. “We’ll look back at what we’ve done and be horrified.” This is what Mew had been saying for the past half century. The rebellion within orthodontics eventually led to the formation of a professional organization called the Academy of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy.”
“He returned to New York and was offered a job working on performing artists. These singers, actors, and models needed straight teeth but couldn’t be seen with braces. A colleague introduced him to an old monobloc-like device. After a few months of using it, opera singers began hitting higher notes and chronic snorers slept peacefully for the first time in years. Everyone had straighter teeth and reported breathing better. Some in their 50s and 60s noticed the bones in their mouths and faces growing wider and more pronounced the longer they wore the devices.”
“Chewing. The more we gnaw, the more stem cells release, the more bone density and growth we’ll trigger, the younger we’ll look and the better we’ll breathe. It starts at infancy. The chewing and sucking stress required for breastfeeding exercises the masseter and other facial muscles and stimulates more stem cell growth, stronger bones, and more pronounced airways. Until a few hundred years ago, mothers would breastfeed infants up to two to four years of age, and sometimes to adolescence. The more time infants spent chewing and sucking, the more developed their faces and airways would become, and the better they’d breathe later in life. Dozens of studies in the past two decades have supported this claim. They’ve shown lower incidence of crooked teeth and snoring and sleep apnea in infants who were breastfed longer over those who were bottle-fed.”
“Sure, it took weeks to get used to having a chunk of plastic in my mouth at night. Spit built up, my throat constricted, and my teeth ached. But like most discomforts in life, it got easier and less annoying the longer I did it.”
“Pulmonary medicine has many scary names for what these more extreme techniques can do to the body and mind: respiratory acidosis, alkalosis, hypocapnia, sympathetic nervous system overload, extreme apnea. Under normal circumstances, these conditions are considered damaging and would require medical care. But something else happens when we practice these techniques willingly, when we consciously push our bodies into these states for a few minutes, or hours, a day. In some cases, they can radically transform lives. Collectively, I’m calling these potent techniques Breathing+, because they build on the foundation of practices I described earlier in this book, and because many require extra focus and offer extra rewards. Some involve breathing really fast for a very long time; others require breathing very slow for even longer. A few entail not breathing at all for a few minutes. These methods, too, date back thousands of years, vanished, then were rediscovered again at a different time in a different culture, renamed and redeployed.”
“The first, called the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulates relaxation and restoration. The mellow buzz you get during a long massage or the sleepiness you feel after a big meal happens because the parasympathetic nervous system sends signals to your stomach to digest and to the brain to pump feel-good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin into your bloodstream. Parasympathetic stimulation opens the floodgates in our eyes and makes tears flow at weddings. It prompts salivation before meals, loosens the bowels to eliminate waste, and stimulates the genitals before sex. For these reasons, it’s sometimes called the “feed and breed” system.”
“The second half of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic, has an opposite role. It sends stimulating signals to our organs, telling them to get ready for action. A profusion of the nerves to this system are spread out at the top of the lungs. When we take short, hasty breaths, the molecules of air switch on the sympathetic nerves. These work like 911 calls. The more messages the system gets, the bigger the emergency.”
“Yes!” McGee cheers. “Expression is the opposite of depression! Go for it!” I moan a little louder, wiggle my body, and breathe a little harder. For a moment, I get self-conscious thinking about the EMTs and the ruddy faced drunk nearby, who no doubt are watching the spectacle: the middle-aged city boys hyperventilating on a purple BPA-free yoga mat, both of us sounding like dedicated perverts. This self-expression is an important part of Tummo, McGee said before we started. It reminds me that the stress I’m creating is different from the stress of, say, running late for an important meeting. It is conscious stress. “This is something you are doing to yourself —not something happening to you!” McGee keeps yelling.”
“Few could accept that breathing alone could keep a body warm in freezing temperatures. Fewer believed it could control immune function and heal diseases.”
“Years earlier, Hof’s wife had taken her own life after years of depression. He had sought refuge from his pain by deepening his practice of yoga, meditation, and breathing practices. He unearthed the ancient technique of Tummo, honed it, simplified it, repackaged it for mass consumption, and began promoting its powers in a string of daredevil stunts that would have been quickly discounted if the media hadn’t been around to verify them. Hof submerged himself in a bath filled with ice for an hour and 52 minutes, and he suffered no hypothermia or frostbite. Then he ran a full marathon in the Namib desert in temperatures that reached 104, without ever sipping a drop of water. Over the span of a decade, Hof broke 26 world records, each more baffling than the last. These stunts earned him international fame, and his smiling, frost-covered face soon appeared on dozens of magazine covers, in flashy documentary specials, and in a handful of books.”
“Doctors say this is more pseudoscience than science, that there’s no way any of this can be true,” McGee told me. And yet McGee and thousands of other heavy breathers kept showing profound improvements. They kept getting off medications they’d been on for years. They kept heating and healing themselves. “You cannot copyright breathing, that’s part of it, and you can’t fault someone for the way they’ve learned,” said McGee. “All you can do is give information.”
“Repeat the whole pattern three or four rounds and add in some cold exposure (cold shower, ice bath, naked snow angels) a few times a week. This flip-flopping—breathing all-out, then not at all, getting really cold and then hot again—is the key to Tummo’s magic. It forces the body into high stress one minute, a state of extreme relaxation the next. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood crash, then they build back up. Tissues become oxygen deficient and then flooded again. The body becomes more adaptable and flexible and learns that all these physiological responses can come under our control. Conscious heavy breathing, McGee told me, allows us to bend so that we don’t get broken.”
“The human is not only an organism . . . it is also a mind whose strength used wisely can allow us to repair our body when it wobbles,” wrote Daubard. As of this writing, Daubard had just turned 89. He still plays harp, reads without glasses, and leads Tummo retreats in the Italian Alps above Aosta, where students join him in stripping down to underwear and sitting in the snow for an hour, then hike half-naked up mountains, and finish with a dip in an ice-covered alpine lake.”
“We took psychotic people, people nobody else wanted to deal with, people for whom any medicines weren’t working,” said Dr. James Eyerman, a psychiatrist who has used the therapy in his practice for the past 30 years. From 1989 to 2001, Eyerman led more than 11,000 patients at Saint Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis through Holotropic Breathwork. He documented the experiences of 482 manic-depressives, schizophrenics, and others, and found that the therapy had significant and lasting benefits. A 14-year-old patient who’d tried to slit his own throat breathed a few Holotropic breaths and sailed off into an altered state of “pure consciousness.” A 31-year-old woman addicted to several drugs had an out-of-body experience and, afterward, sobered up and went on to lead a 12-step program. Eyerman saw thousands of similar transformations and reported no adverse reactions or side effects. “These patients would get pretty wild, but it worked for them,” he told me. “It worked incredibly well. And the hospital staff just couldn’t figure out why.”
“Sometime later, the hollow electric drums, fake cymbal crashes, and keyboard lutes faded back into my consciousness, and it was over. The group was invited to sit around a table and draw mandalas with crayons on what they’d just experienced. I walked outside into the perfumed evening air and drank a warm beer alone in the passenger seat of my car. On one hand, Holotropic Breathwork was transformative for Ben and Mary, and hundreds of thousands of others who’d experienced it. On the other, there was obviously some psychosomatic influence going on there. I couldn’t help wondering how much of its curative effects were the result of the environment, of the “set and setting,” and how much might be a measurable, physical response to breathing so heavily for so long.”
“Grof believed that at least some visual and introspective experiences were triggered by having less oxygen in the brain.”
“The monkeys all died because they couldn’t recognize which animals were prey and which were predators. They didn’t sense the danger of wading into a rushing river, swinging from a thin branch, or approaching a rival troop. The animals had no sense of fear, because Kling had removed fear from their brains. Specifically, Kling had clipped out the monkeys’ amygdalae, two almond-size nodes at the center of the temporal lobes. The amygdalae help monkeys, humans, and other high-order vertebrates remember, make decisions, and process emotions. These nodes are also believed to be the alarm circuit of fear, signaling threats and initiating a reaction to fight or run away. Without the amygdalae, Kling wrote, all the monkeys “appeared retarded in their ability to foresee and avoid dangerous confrontations.” Without fear, survival was impossible, or, at minimum, extremely precarious.”
“Breath-holding hacks, or, as Feinstein would call them, carbon dioxide therapies, have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Romans prescribed soaking in thermal baths (which contained high levels of carbon dioxide that was absorbed through the skin) as a cure for anything from gout to war wounds. Centuries later, Belle Époque French gathered at thermal springs at Royat in the French Alps to wade in bubbling waters for days at a time.”
“All the while, blends of 30 percent carbon dioxide and 70 percent oxygen became a go-to treatment for anxiety, epilepsy, and even schizophrenia. With a few huffs of the stuff, patients who’d spent months or years in a catatonic state would suddenly come to. They’d open their eyes, look around, and begin calmly talking with doctors and other patients.”
“What’s interesting to me is that nobody disproved it,” says Feinstein of carbon dioxide therapy. “The data, the science, still holds today.” He tells me how he’d stumbled upon some obscure studies by Joseph Wolpe, a renowned psychiatrist who rediscovered carbon dioxide therapy as a treatment for anxiety and had written an influential paper about it in the 1980s. Wolpe’s patients shared stunning and long-lasting improvements after just a few huffs. Donald Klein, another renowned psychiatrist and expert in panic and anxiety, suggested years later that the gas might help reset the chemoreceptors in the brain, allowing patients to breathe normally so they could think normally. Since then, few researchers have studied the treatments. (Feinstein estimates there are about five researching it now.) He just kept wondering if the early researchers were right.”
“In the next experiment, Rama shifted his focus from his brain to his heart. He sat motionless, breathed a few times, and then, when given a signal, slowed his heart rate from 74 to 52 beats in less than 60 seconds. Later, he increased his heart rate from 60 to 82 beats within eight seconds. At one point, Rama’s heart rate went to zero, and stayed there for 30 seconds. Green thought Rama had shut off his heart completely, but upon closer inspection of the EKG, he found that Rama had commanded it to beat at 300 beats per minute. Blood can’t move through the chambers when the heart beats this fast. For this reason, the phenomenon, called atrial flutter, usually results in cardiac arrest and death. But Rama seemed unaffected. He claimed that he could maintain this state for a half hour. The results of the experiment were later reported in The New York Times.”
“this “tissue rust.” We call it cancer. And this helps explain why cancers develop and thrive in environments of low oxygen. The best way to keep tissues in the body healthy was to mimic the reactions that evolved in early aerobic life on Earth—specifically, to flood our bodies with a constant presence of that “strong electron acceptor”: oxygen. Breathing slow, less, and through the nose balances the levels of respiratory gases in the body and sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues so that our cells have the maximum amount of electron reactivity.”
“As I breathe a little faster, go a little deeper, the names of all the techniques I’ve explored over the past ten years all come back in a rush. Pranayama. Buteyko. Coherent Breathing. Hypoventilation. Breathing Coordination. Holotropic Breathwork. Adhama. Madhyama. Uttama. Kêvala. Embryonic Breath. Harmonizing Breath. The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. Tummo. Sudarshan Kriya.”
“A few weeks later, a woman seated next to me on a flight noticed photographs of skulls on my laptop. She asked what I was working on. After I told her, she explained how her friend was suffering from a serious eating disorder, osteoporosis, and cancer. No treatments had worked. She asked if I could please prescribe a breathing practice to bring her friend back to health. What I explained to each of these people, and what I’d like to make clear now, is that breathing, like any therapy or medication, can’t do everything. Breathing fast, slow, or not at all can’t make an embolism go away. Breathing through the nose with a big exhale can’t reverse the onset of neuromuscular genetic diseases. No breathing can heal stage IV cancer. These severe problems require urgent medical attention. I wouldn’t be alive without antibiotics, immunizations, and a last-minute rush to the doctor’s office to zap out a lymph node infection. The medical technologies developed over the last century have saved innumerable lives. They have increased the quality of life around the world many times over. But modern medicine, still, has its limitations. “I’m dealing with the walking dead,” said Dr. Michael Gelb, who’d spent 30 years working as a dental surgeon and sleep specialist.”
“Dozens of doctors at Harvard, Stanford, and other institutions told me the same thing. Modern medicine, they said, was amazingly efficient at cutting out and stitching up parts of the body in emergencies, but sadly deficient at treating milder, chronic systemic maladies—the asthma, headaches, stress, and autoimmune issues that most of the modern population contends with.”
Purpose: I create an empowering context for curious and hungry people looking for fulfillment, experiences, and creativity. We do this by developing their growth mindset, introducing self-love, and powerful group experiences. It results in people with strong boundaries, resilient mental health, and practical life skills
People leave with the ability to land their dream job, have autonomy and flexibility with their lifestyle, travel the world, and create from their heart and soul.
Davidson was once broke, insecure, low-confidence, and frustrated by doing all the wrong activities. Addicted to drugs, validation, and wallowing in self-pity. No relationship to family, and at the mercy of other people’s suggestions and opinions.
It was hell.
After spending $100k hiring different coaches, traveling the world doing workshops around the world, reading>1000 books, and through curiosity, have created the most effective system to remove people from that situation. My life’s work is to bring joy and abundance to people who as on a similar path as I was and bring back the joy and abundance of their life.
Through shared experiences and storytelling, I inspire and model behaviors that lead to a richer, more fulfilled life full of joy, experiences, passion, and ecstasy from the richness of relationships and being able to experience the depths of the human experience.