Our Wise Guide: Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. None of this should be possible, and yet it is.
Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry, and human physiology, Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. You will never breathe the same again.
Key idea 1
It’s far more beneficial to breathe through your nose than your mouth.
The author James Nestor’s blood pressure has risen by an average of 13 points over the past few days, greatly increasing his risk of heart attack or stroke. His pulse has quickened while his body temperature has plummeted, and – worst of all – he feels absolutely terrible.
The cause of his misery? Five days ago, a doctor inserted silicone plugs into his nostrils and taped them shut. Since then, Nestor has been breathing exclusively through his mouth to experience his body’s response. In short? It’s been hell.
The key message here is: It’s far more beneficial to breathe through your nose than your mouth.
Some estimate that around 50 percent of us breathe mostly through our mouths. There are many reasons for this, including medical conditions, pollution, and even stress. The problem is, the more you do it, the worse it gets.
Nestor’s plugs come out after ten days, and his nose is a disaster. It’s horribly blocked, and has to be cleared out with long cotton swabs. It’s also housing a bacterial infection that could have become serious. Tests reveal that mouth breathing has ruined his sleeping patterns – but, well, he knew that already. The worst was just how awful the experience made him feel.
Nestor only managed to take a full breath through his nose hours after his plugs had come out. That first breath was a spectacular burst of freshness and relief.
The nose does far more than you might realize. It doesn’t just take air in, but also cleans it out, heats it, and moistens it. It leads to a release of chemicals that lower blood pressure, regulate the heart rate, and much more. When you take in unprocessed air through your mouth, you get none of these benefits.
A rather cruel experiment in the 1970s and 1980s had even starker results than Nestor’s own experience. Egil P. Harvold, an orthodontist and researcher, took a group of rhesus monkeys and closed their nostrils up with plugs. He monitored them closely, taking photographs, for up to two years.
It’s painful even to look at the photographs. The monkeys’ dental arches narrowed and their teeth grew crooked. It didn’t just affect their health – it affected the whole shape of their heads.
But when the plugs were eventually removed, their faces returned to normal within six months. All because of how they were breathing.
Key idea 2
The human head has developed in ways that are bad for breathing.
Our troubled relationship with breathing goes back long before Homo sapiens evolved – it goes all the way back to 1.7 million years ago, when our distant ancestors Homo habilis, and later Homo erectus, started processing food before eating it.
Even before Homo erectus started to cook food – around 800,000 years ago – Homo habilis had been tenderizing it. Both tenderizing and cooking meant more calories could be digested, drawing more energy from food. With that extra energy, those species’ brains grew ever larger. Later still, about 300,000 years ago, their progeny, Homo sapiens, developed speech, when the larynx descended into the throat.
Bigger brains and lower larynxes had tremendous evolutionary advantages – but they came at a cost. Our expanding brains pushed our sinuses and airways into smaller and smaller spaces, making our noses more prominent. More concerningly, those lower larynxes also left us more susceptible to choking.
But the worst was yet to come.
The key message here is: The human head has developed in ways that are bad for breathing.
For many reasons, then, human heads are uniquely ill-suited to healthy breathing. But for millennia, we managed fairly well. It was only about 300 years ago that serious problems emerged.
In the early eighteenth century, there was a significant change in the human diet in the West. Advances in food processing meant that, overall, our diets became softer. This had knock-on effects for our bodies – particularly facial structure. Because people didn’t have to chew as much, their mouths didn’t grow as big, which caused a huge rise in both orthodontic and breathing problems.
So it’s not just down to evolution. Our modern diets have affected the shape of our heads.
In fact, cultures with different eating habits tend not to suffer as routinely from breathing problems. The American researcher George Catlin documented this in the 1830s, when visiting members of more than 50 indigenous communities across North and South America.
Although these groups showed enormous diversity in cultural practices and diets, a few features were common to all: tall physiques, perfectly straight teeth, a lack of chronic health problems – and a universal understanding of the need to breathe through the nose.
Catlin became convinced of the power of nasal breathing, and found that it cured his own serious respiratory problems. He even wrote a book about it called Breath of Life, imploring readers to “SHUT YOUR MOUTH.”
Sadly, his message didn’t catch on.
Key idea 3
Breathing in is important – but so is breathing out.
In 1958, the East Orange Veterans Affairs Hospital in New Jersey made a curious appointment. They hired a choir director by the name of Carl Stough to take a look at a group of patients with emphysema – a debilitating, chronic lung disease.
Though he lacked training in medicine, Stough quickly diagnosed the problem. Noting that the patients were taking short, rapid breaths, Stough reasoned that the problem wasn’t inhaling – they were taking in plenty of air. The problem was, in fact, that they weren’t breathing out sufficiently.
Stough encouraged his patients to exhale completely and properly. And the results astounded his medical colleagues.
The key message here is: Breathing in is important – but so is breathing out.
What Stough harnessed was the power of the diaphragm – the muscle sitting underneath the lungs. It drops as we breathe in, expanding the lungs, and rises as we breathe out. Under normal circumstances, adults don’t exercise the full capacity of the diaphragm – and people with breathing problems use even less of it than others.
Stough’s technique involved training his patients’ bodies to exercise their diaphragms properly. With his patients lying flat, he directed them to breathe very slowly, while he massaged and tapped different parts of the chest, neck, and throat. This encouraged them to move more air each time they exhaled.
This simple method, strange though it may have appeared, greatly expanded patients’ lung capacity by gently encouraging the diaphragm back into action.
Stough didn’t cure emphysema – the damage to the patients’ lungs was permanent. But his methods allowed them to access the parts of their lungs that were still healthy. Many patients became able to walk and talk again. One even left the hospital and became a ship’s captain.
Doctors were stunned – it wasn’t thought possible to manipulate the diaphragm that much. The conventional wisdom was that lungs simply got weaker and weaker with age, gradually losing capacity.
But in fact, as Stough’s work showed, it’s surprisingly straightforward to boost the capacity of the lungs. Even just walking and cycling can help expand the lungs by 15 percent.
So what’s really going on here? Why is breathing out so critical? Isn’t it just expelling air that we don’t need? Not quite – and in the next section, we’ll take a look at the science.
Key idea 4
Slow, shallow breathing yields unexpected health benefits.
Before we look at the chemical process that drives breathing, consider this.
Think about the “Om” chant of Jainism, the rosary of Catholicism, the sa ta na ma chant used in Kundalini yoga, and prayers coming from anywhere from Japan to Hawaii to China. How long do you think it takes someone in each of these traditions to breathe while they’re praying or meditating?
Remarkably, they all rely on breaths that take almost exactly the same amount of time – between 5.5 and six seconds.
Calm, slow breaths at this pace are incredibly beneficial, increasing the flow of blood to the brain and improving efficiency throughout our bodies. In this respect, prayer really can be good for your health!
The key message here is: Slow, shallow breathing yields unexpected health benefits.
Why is it better to breathe like this? Let’s zoom in to the molecular level.
Biochemistry documents the exchange process that begins and ends in our lungs. The oxygen molecules in the air we inhale attach themselves to red blood cells, and are transported around the body to be used by our cells. They’re exchanged for carbon dioxide molecules, which in turn travel back to the lungs and are exhaled.
But carbon dioxide is a lot more than a waste product. It plays a crucial role in causing the oxygen to separate from the blood cells. Even more, it helps dilate blood vessels, making them wider so they can transport more blood.
When we breathe heavily, we expel all of our carbon dioxide – which reduces blood flow. That’s why exercise or panic can cause headaches and light-headedness. Breathing slowly, on the other hand, leaves more carbon dioxide in the system – which means more energy and efficiency.
That’s why it’s beneficial to breathe slowly – and less deeply as well. We take in far more air than we need, so even if you’re breathing slowly, there’s very little risk of not breathing in enough oxygen. It might feel weird, but you really don’t have to fill your lungs up to bursting each time.
So give it a go. The ideal breath is 5.5 seconds in, and 5.5 seconds out – totaling 5.5 breaths per minute. Even if you only slow your breath like this for a few minutes each day, it can do wonders – whether or not you’re praying at the same time.
Key idea 5
We can do a lot to improve the shape of our mouths.
As we noted earlier, our modern lifestyle isn’t good for the way we breathe. For the last 300 years, processed food has meant we’ve had to chew much less – which has in turn reduced the size of our mouths, made our teeth crooked, and obstructed our airways. It is a key reason why breathing conditions are so common these days, from snoring to asthma.
But here’s the good news: Because these problems are brought on by our habits, it’s surprisingly easy to reverse the trend. It’s even possible to change the shape of our mouths, as some fascinating advances in orthodontics have shown.
The key message here is: We can do a lot to improve the shape of our mouths.
Traditional orthodontics, however, might not help you much here.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, orthodontists would often remove patients’ teeth and fit them with braces and headgear that forced the remaining teeth into place. This was meant to help with the problems brought on by smaller mouths – but over time, it actually caused further shrinking. Sometimes, patients would even develop new problems as a result, like snoring or sleep apnea.
When the British dentist John Mew noticed this in the late 1950s, his observation met with huge resistance from colleagues. Eventually, he even lost his license to practice dentistry. That was particularly unfortunate, given that his ideas have become mainstream.
Mew’s solution to the problem of shrinking mouths? The simplest is to keep good oral posture. Hold your lips together with your teeth touching slightly, and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth. As long as you’re sitting or standing properly, this can help your airways open up.
There are also specially developed devices to aid the process. The author tried out Theodore Belfor’s Homeoblock – a block that sits inside the mouth and tricks it into thinking it’s chewing more than it really is.
In just a few weeks, the author’s airways widened, his jaw moved into alignment, and he actually grew almost two cubic centimeters of bone around his face.
That’s right – even adults can grow bone, simply by chewing more. Using our back molars leads to the creation of stem cells, which grow new bone all around our mouth and face. That helps to clear our airways. As an added bonus, it makes you look younger!
Key idea 6
Extreme breathing techniques can have incredible effects.
There are many easy fixes you can make, both to open up your airways and to reap the benefits of good breathing habits. But pushing things even farther can lead to results that seem truly superhuman.
Take Swami Rama, a man from northern India who visited a psychiatric clinic in Topeka, Kansas, one day back in 1970. Hooked up to various measuring devices, he stunned doctors by demonstrating his control over his body. Within a minute, he reduced his heart rate from 74 beats per minute to 52; later, he increased it from 60 to 82 within eight seconds. He also made his heart beat at 300 beats per minute, for a full 30 seconds – a rate that would usually be fatal. Rama also controlled his body temperature – he created an 11° temperature gap between his thumb and little finger.
The thing is, Rama wasn’t even truly exceptional. Yogis have been demonstrating these abilities for generations because they know how to harness the power of breathing.
The key message here is: Extreme breathing techniques can have incredible effects.
One well-known controlling technique is Tummo. Meaning “inner fire,” this breathing method was developed by Tibetan Buddhists a millennium ago, and creates such amazing changes in body temperature. It’s practitioners can survive in the freezing heights of the Himalayas in thin clothing, and melt the snow around their bodies with the heat.
It’s not just Tibetan Buddhists who can do this, either. A Dutch former mail carrier named Wim Hof achieved similar feats. He became famous in the 2000s for running a half-marathon in the Arctic Circle without shoes or shirt. In one experiment, scientists injected him with E. coli and monitored as he actively fought off the infection.
How did Hof and the Tummo practitioners achieve all this? Through a careful and rather grueling system of heavy breathing – not the soft, gradual nudge that we’ve been talking about, but an aggressive push of air that forces the body to react.
All that heavy breathing forces us into a state of stress – and in that extreme state, you can “hack” the autonomic nervous system, which governs body functions usually outside of conscious control. Hof’s own simplified method, designed for a Western audience, also involves repeated exposure to extreme cold.
These methods are still controversial, and should not be undertaken lightly. But they stand as testament to the amazing things breathing can do for our bodies.
Key idea 7
Varying our levels of carbon dioxide can unlock visions and alter our consciousness.
Push the heavy breathing methods even farther, and they can affect the mind as well as the body – with effects similar to those of psychedelic drugs.
In 1956, a psychology student, Stanislav Grof, volunteered for a drug trial. A hundred micrograms of a strange new substance caused him to have vibrant, transcendent visions. He was one of the very first to try LSD.
A decade later, the substance was banned – so Grof developed his own, legal alternative. He called it Holotropic Breathwork. Several hours of heavy breathing, he discovered, could cause intense hallucinations.
Why? The answer, once again, is carbon dioxide.
The key message here is: Varying our levels of carbon dioxide can unlock visions and alter our consciousness.
As we’ve previously noted, heavy breathing causes our carbon dioxide levels to decrease. The extreme heavy breathing of Holotropic Breathwork has a further effect – it decreases blood flow to the brain, primarily affecting areas responsible for our sense of self and the passage of time. Hence the visions.
It’s still a controversial treatment that hasn’t been widely studied, but some have found Holotropic Breathwork has led to therapeutic breakthroughs.
Remarkably, sending carbon dioxide levels in the other direction can have remarkable effects as well. Neurologist Justin Feinstein has been studying the effect of what he calls “carbon dioxide therapy” for years, exploring an area of research that has been curiously neglected for the past century.
At first, exposing people to a high dose of carbon dioxide causes horrific panic attacks – even in people who generally don’t feel fear at all. That’s because it shocks our chemoreceptors – the neurons in our brain that monitor our carbon dioxide levels – into thinking that something is seriously wrong. But, once the panic has subsided, this sort of treatment can lead to a state of profound calmness.
It’s similar to the state you can reach through the gentle, slow breathing techniques we talked about earlier. But for people who suffer from anxiety, epilepsy, or schizophrenia, it can be difficult to perform those exercises. For them, Feinstein’s treatment is a kind of “shortcut” to attaining a similar state.
That is, if they can withstand the panic attacks. The author tried out this treatment, with a dosage of 35 percent carbon dioxide. He felt like he was suffocating with every single breath.
Key idea 8
The power of breathing is still little known in the West – but elsewhere, it’s ancient wisdom.
Despite the ongoing work of scientists like Justin Feinstein, investigation into the power of breathing and carbon dioxide levels is still in its infancy. Most of the pioneers in this area – people like Carl Stough or John Mew – have been operating well outside Western medical orthodoxy.
Elsewhere in the world, however – as Swami Rama and the practitioners of Tummo show – this wisdom about breathing is mainstream. And these ancient traditions provide a more integrated way of thinking about it.
The key message here is: The power of breathing is still little known in the West – but elsewhere, it’s ancient wisdom.
Some 3,000 years ago, a powerful concept emerged in Asia. The Indians called it prana, and the Chinese called it ch’i. It’s a kind of theory of energy, or life force. Prana, ch’i, or whatever you call, it is swirling around everything in the universe. But it is most concentrated in things that are alive. So, to stay healthy, you need to maintain your prana.
Traditional practices like acupuncture and yoga were developed as ways to keep the flow of prana steady – but the best way of all was simply to breathe it in.
Prana’s relationship with yoga is even deeper than you might expect. The earliest texts we have that discuss yoga are the Yoga Sutras, from around 500 BCE. Perhaps surprisingly to a modern audience, there’s very little in these texts about movement of any kind. They’re actually about keeping still – and building up prana through breathing.
Prana offers an explanation for the amazing effects of heavy breathing, as well. Suddenly building up an excess of prana can shock the body into extreme reactions like hallucinations. That’s not the way a yogi would do it – it’s building the prana up gradually over many years that allows for the greatest effects.
It’s strange to think that modern science still has so much to learn about something as fundamental to us as breathing. But this is one area in which so-called advances in lifestyle haven’t gone hand in hand with advances in healthcare.
The thing is, you don’t need to practice Tummo, or any other extreme method, to harness the power of breathing well. You don’t even have to believe in prana. All you need to do is breathe in for 5.5 seconds, out for 5.5 seconds, and repeat.
The key message in this book: Changing the way you breathe can have extraordinarily powerful effects. By breathing through your nose, slowly and not too deeply, and properly engaging your diaphragm, you can do wonders for your health. It’s possible to push things even farther, and achieve superhuman feats – all through the power of breathing.
Actionable advice: Calm yourself through breathing.
No time for a proper meditation or yoga session? No problem. The simplest thing you can do to calm yourself is simply to think about your breathing. For five or ten minutes each day, take some gentle breaths lasting 5.5 seconds, in and out.