The Lost Art of Breathing | What We're Reading This Month
Breath, The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor is doing the rounds at Inner Atlas HQ at the moment, and it’s given us a lot to think about.
James Nestor suggests that up to 90% of us have lost the ability to breathe correctly, more often than not taking air in through our mouths instead of our noses. This difference may seem trivial, after all, air is air, isn’t it? But unlike our mouth, our nose filters, cleans, moistens and warms air before it enters our body and lungs.
Melding historical, scientific and current practices he takes us way back to a time when things were very different. When our mouths, noses, sinuses and teeth were very different. Nestor explores the idea that when it comes to the practice of breathing, as a species, humans have de-evolved due to stunted bone development in the dental arches and sinus cavity leading to nasal congestion and increased mouth breathing, tracing the cause to our soft diets. 12,000 years ago, when humans began to transition to a farming culture through to processed foods available today, we limited the number of tougher food sources in our diet. Bones require tension and resistance to develop properly, and softer foods have left our jaws and facial bones underworked and smaller than our ancient ancestors.
“Seven books of the Chinese Tao dating back to around 400BC focussed entirely on breathing, how it could kill us or heal us, depending on how we used it. Even earlier, Hindus considered breath and spirit the same thing and described elaborate practices that were meant to balance breathing and preserve both physical and mental health. Then there were the Buddhists, who used breathing not only to lengthen their lives but to reach higher planes of consciousness. Breathing, for all these people, for all these cultures, was powerful medicine.”
Devouring the pages of this book prompted us to reflect on how modern life stops us from breathing well. Stress and being on the go is associated with shallower faster breaths which in turn make us feel even more frazzled. James Nestor raises the point that spending large amounts of time online has also affected our breathing as when we're engaged in technology we’re doing subconscious breath-holds – like concentrating on writing an email or scrolling social media.
As a team, we’ve undergone a bit of a wake-up call when it comes to the art of breath and the good news is the first step to improving breathing is to become aware of it. The biggest practices we’re taking away with us are:
Breathing for Energy & Vitality
Breathing & Exercise
The two main ways our body produces energy is through oxygen and food. Anaerobic energy is generated through the utilisation of carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen. It comes into play when we’re exercising as somewhat of a backup system when our lungs can't put enough oxygen into the bloodstream to keep up with the demands of the muscles for energy. Aerobic energy, or aerobic respiration, kicks in when we’re breathing correctly and running our cells aerobically with oxygen. When you’re working out you might notice movement becomes easier after you're warmed up and a couple of minutes into your exercise. This is because your body has switched from anaerobic to aerobic energy and is beginning to deliver the needed oxygen through the bloodstream.
It may sound simple but a way to stay energy-efficient during exercise is to make sure you’re breathing full, deep breaths. As a guide start with a 4 to 5 second inhale through the nose while you’re working out followed by a 4 – 5 second exhale through the mouth or nose and keep it up for the duration of your movement.
Cordyceps for Energy & Aerobic Support
For further aerobic support, Cordyceps is a great mushie to incorporate into your pre-workout routine. Cordyceps is most notable for its energising effects due to its beta-d-glucans helping support blood flow and deliver oxygen to the body on a cellular level fuelling aerobic capacity and stamina. A 3-week 2016 study on healthy individuals supplementing Cordyceps Militaris showed an improvement in VO2 max, time till exhaustion and ventilatory threshold.
Wim Hof Method
You might have also heard of the Wim Hof Method, derived from Tummo or Inner Fire Meditation which is an ancient breathing and meditation technique practised by Tibetan Buddhist monks used to enter a deep state of meditation and increase their 'inner heat'.
Followers of the Wim Hoff method describe a range of benefits including better sleep, more energy and faster recovery from exercise. We’ve got a couple of Wim Hoff devotees at Inner Atlas HQ which typically involves 3 to 4 rounds. On mornings when we’re pressed for time we might just complete one round - one is better than none!
- Inhale deeply through the nose, pulling in as much air as you can then exhaling fully for 30 to 40 rounds.
- If you can, keep the breaths rolling like a wave from inhale to exhale.
- On your last round, you exhale with ¼ of your last breath still left in your lungs, relax and hold until the body feels the need to breathe.
- Once you’ve reached your breath-hold limit take one last inhale and hold for 15 seconds. Repeat the whole pattern for 3 or 4 rounds.
It’s a pretty simple technique that you can practice unguided lying flat on your back in a quiet place. We use the app, which you can check out in the links below.
Breathing to Centre & Calm
Nadi Shodhana Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi Shodhana is a yogic breath practice, its name translating to ‘subtle energy clearing breathing technique.’ From a yogic perspective, nadis are subtle energy channels that can become blocked. The three main energy channels are pingala, ida and sushumna. Pingala, the right channel is connected with the left brain, the sun channel. Ida the left channel is connected with the right brain, the moon channel. The central channel sushumna represents balance, the sun and moon together. The Nadi Shodhana pranayama is thought to balance both the right and left side of the brain, helping the mind to relax. This technique is also noted to lower the heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic stress, and can be useful before a big day, an important meeting or to relax before bed.
- Sit comfortably in an upright position.
- Place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand in between the eyebrows, the ring finger and little finger on the left nostril, and the thumb on the right nostril.
- Press your thumb down gently on the right nostril and breathe out gently through the left nostril.
- Then breathe in from the left nostril and then press the left nostril gently with the ring finger and little finger. Removing the right thumb from the right nostril, breathe out from the right.
- Breathe in from the right nostril and exhale from the left.
- Continue inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils from 5 to 10 cycles.
You may have heard of the box breathing technique made famous by Navy SEALS to stay calm and focused during intense situations.
It’s as simple as:
- Inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, repeat.
If you’re able, longer exhalations will create a stronger parasympathetic response. This is a great technique to use throughout the day if you need a moment to create a sense of calm.
We absolutely flew through this book. It’s packed with wisdom as well as practical techniques that you can implement right away which we love. If we’ve piqued your interest you can pick up your own copy at your local bookstore or order from retailers like Dymocks. Or if you’ve read it, or have your own breathing practices that you’ve found useful we’d love to hear from you! Drop us a note in the comments below.
 Cordyceps Militaris improves tolerance to high-intensity exercise after acute and chronic supplementation https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5236007/
 Wim Hoff Method https://www.wimhofmethod.com/wim-hof-method-mobile-app
 Breath, James Nestor, Dymocks https://www.dymocks.com.au/book/breath-by-james-nestor-9780241289082