Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor (on the kindle) – some highlights are cut off because you can only highlight so much at once and not consecutive things, generally
To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation. Respiration, I’m hoping, can also lead to restoration. Starting today, I will attempt to heal whatever damage has been done to my body.
The cavities in our sinuses also worked like an HVAC system, controlling temperature and blood pressure and feeding the brain chemicals to alter our moods, emotions, and sleep states. The right nostril is a gas pedal. When you’re inhaling primarily through this channel, circulation speeds up, your body gets hotter, and cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase. This happens because breathing through the right side of the nose activates…
To gain focus and balance the body and mind, I followed a technique called surya bheda pranayama, which involves taking one breath into the right nostril, then exhaling through the left for several rounds. These exercises felt great. Sitting here after a few rounds, I sense an immediate and potent clarity and relaxation, even a floatiness. As advertised, I’ve been entirely free of any gastroesophageal reflux. I haven’t registered the slightest stomach ache. Alternate nostril breathing appeared to have delivered these benefits, but these techniques, I’d found, were usually fleeting, lasting only 30 minutes or so.
3M Nexcare Durapore “durable cloth” tape, an all-purpose surgical tape with a gentle adhesive. It was comfortable, had no chemical scent, and didn’t leave residue.
In the 1980s, researchers with the Framingham Study, a 70-year longitudinal research program focused on heart disease, attempted to find out if lung size really did correlate to longevity. They gathered two decades of data from 5,200 subjects, crunched the numbers, and discovered that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity. The smaller and less efficient lungs became, the quicker subjects got sick and died. The cause of deterioration didn’t matter. Smaller meant shorter. But larger lungs equaled longer lives. Our ability to breathe full breaths was, according to the researchers, “literally a measure of living capacity.”
In 2000, University of Buffalo researchers ran a similar study, comparing lung capacity in a group of more than a thousand subjects over three decades. The results were the same. What neither of these landmark studies addressed, however, was how a person with deteriorated lungs might heal and strengthen them. There were surgeries to remove diseased tissue and drugs to stem infections, but no advice on how to keep lungs large and healthy throughout life. All the way up to the 1980s, the common belief in Western medicine was that the lungs, like every other internal organ, were immutable. That is, whatever lungs we were born with, we were stuck with. As these organs degraded with age, the only thing we could do was sigh and bear it.
The lungs themselves will lose about 12 percent of capacity from the age of 30 to 50, and will continue declining even faster as we get older, with women faring worse than men. If we make it to 80, we’ll be able to take in 30 percent less air than we did in our 20s. We’re forced to breathe faster and harder. This breathing habit leads to chronic problems like high blood pressure, immune disorders, and anxiety. But what the Tibetans have long known and what Western science is now discovering is that aging doesn’t have to be a one-way path of decline. The internal organs are malleable, and we can change them at nearly any time.
Any regular practice that stretches the lungs and keeps them flexible can retain or increase lung capacity. Moderate exercise like walking or cycling has been shown to boost lung size by up to 15 percent.
Normally, the blood coursing through our arteries and veins at any one time does a full circuit once a minute, an average of 2,000 gallons of blood a day. This regular and consistent blood flow is essential to delivering fresh oxygenated blood to cells and removing waste. What influences much of the speed and strength of this circulation is the thoracic pump, the name for the pressure that builds inside the chest when we breathe. As we inhale, negative pressure draws blood into the heart; as we exhale, blood shoots back out into the body and lungs, where it recirculates. It’s similar to the way the ocean floods into shore, then ebbs out.
What powers the thoracic pump is the diaphragm, the muscle that sits beneath the lungs in the shape of an umbrella. The diaphragm lifts during exhalations, which shrinks the lungs, then it drops back down to expand them during inhalations. This up-and-down movement occurs within us some 50,000 times a day. A typical adult engages as little as 10 percent of the range of the diaphragm when breathing, which overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes a rash of circulatory problems. Extending those breaths to 50 to 70 percent of the diaphragm’s capacity will ease cardiovascular stress and allow the body to work more efficiently. For this reason, the diaphragm is sometimes referred to as “the second heart,” because it not only beats to its own rhythm but also affects the rate and strength of the heartbeat.
…they were extending their diaphragms by only a fraction of what was healthy, taking only a sip of air with each breath. The patients had been sick so long that many of the muscles and joints around their chests had atrophied and stiffened; they had no muscle memory of breathing deep. Over the next two months, Stough reminded them how (to breathe and use their diaphragms).
He’d have them hold their breath and count from one to five as many times in a row as they could. Next, he massaged their necks and throats and lightly coaxed their ribs as he told them to inhale and exhale very slowly, trying to wake the diaphragm from its long slumber. Each of these exercises allowed the patients to let out a little more air so that a little more air could get in.
Before-and-after X-rays showed that Stough’s patients were vastly expanding their lung capacity in only a few weeks. Even more stunning, they were training an involuntary muscle—the diaphragm—to lift higher and drop lower. Administrators told Stough that this was medically impossible; internal organs and muscles cannot be developed, they said.
“I told Carl in no uncertain words that he was mildly demented to say that he could effect a rise in the diaphragm and a descent in the ribs, but then in one patient we got rather spectacular results showing that he did do this,” said Dr. Robert Nims, the chief of pulmonary medicine at the West Haven VA Hospital in Connecticut. “We have shown that he’s able to decrease the volume of the lungs [via deep exhalations] more than any pulmonary man would say it was possible.” Stough hadn’t found a way to reverse emphysema. Lung damage from the disease is permanent. What he’d done is find a way to access the rest of the lungs, the areas that were still functioning, and engage them on a larger level. The “cure” Stough professed was de facto, but it worked.
I drew soft and long breaths deep into my gut while Martin helped loosen my rib cage, trying to coax at least 50 percent of my maximum diaphragm movement with each inhale and exhale. Breathing this way wasn’t necessary, Martin told me. Our bodies can survive on short and clipped breaths for decades, and many of us do. That doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Over time, shallow breathing will limit the range of our diaphragms and lung capacity and can lead to the high-shouldered, chest-out, neck-extended posture common in those with emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory problems.
After several rounds of deep breaths to open my rib cage, Martin asked me to start counting from one to ten over and over with every exhale. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10—then keep repeating it,” she said. At the end of the exhale, when I was so out of breath I couldn’t vocalize anymore, I was to keep counting, but to do so silently, letting my voice trail down into a “sub-whisper.” I ran through a few rounds, counting quickly and loudly, then silently mouthing the numbers. At the end of each breath, it felt like my chest had been plastic-wrapped and my abs had just gone through a brutal workout. “Keep going!” Martin said. The strain of the counting exercise is equivalent to the strain on the lungs during physical exertion. This was what made the exercise so effective for Stough’s bedridden patients.
The point was to get the diaphragm accustomed to this wider range so that deep and easy breathing became unconscious. “Keep moving your lips!” Martin egged me on. “Get out the last little molecule of air!” After a few more minutes of counting, silent and otherwise, I stopped and took a break and felt my diaphragm chugging away like a piston in slow motion, radiating fresh blood from the center of my body. This is the feeling of what Stough called “Breathing Coordination,” when the respiratory and circulatory systems enter a state of equilibrium, when the amount of air that enters us equals the amount that leaves, and our bodies are able perform all their essential functions with the least exertion.
…the athletes were so excited that they hung a poster on the bulletin board outside: Dr. Breath Is Here Today! Stough had expected these elite athletes to have exemplary breathing habits. Instead, he found that they suffered from the same “respiratory weakness” as everyone else: they got the same colds and flus and lung infections. Most of them breathed way too often, high in their chests. Sprinters were the worst off. The short and violent breaths they took during runs put too much pressure on delicate tissues and bronchial tubes. As a result, they suffered from asthma and other respiratory ailments. At the finish line, they coughed and sometimes vomited and collapsed, wheezing in pain. “I had observed that in recovering from performance, athletes tended to adopt the same breathing characteristics as those the emphysema patients exhibited,”
After only a few sessions, all the runners reported feeling better and breathing better. “I never felt so relaxed in my life,” one sprinter said. They took half the time to recover between races and were soon breaking personal bests and edging toward world records. On the heels of the Yale success, Stough moved to South Lake Tahoe to train runners preparing for the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Same therapy, same success. A decathlete went out to the track and broke his previous record. Another broke his lifetime record. A runner named Rick Sloan broke his two life records for three events. “Through my work with Dr. Stough, I knew I had to exhale,” said Lee Evans, an Olympic sprinter. “You know, I exhale, which kept my energy up. I didn’t get tired. . . . But after the game, I found that this was for my life.”
The Americans were the only runners to not use oxygen before or after a race, which was unheard of at the time. They didn’t need to. Stough had taught them the art of breathing coordination, and the power of harnessing a full exhalation.
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.
There were bronchodilators, steroids, and antibiotics. There was supplemental oxygen and surgery and something called pulmonary rehabilitation, which included assistance to quit smoking, exercise planning, nutrition counseling, and some pursed-lip breathing techniques. But there was no mention of Stough, or the “second heart” of the diaphragm, or the importance of a full exhalation. No mention of how expanding the lungs and breathing properly had effectively reversed the disease or lengthened lives. Emphysema was still listed as an incurable condition.
Olsson found what I’d found, but years earlier: that there was a gap in our knowledge about the science of breathing and its role in our bodies. He discovered that we’d done a good job of examining what causes breathing problems but done little to explore how they first develop and how we might prevent them. Olsson was in good company. Doctors had been complaining about this for decades. “The field of respiratory physiology is expanding in all directions, yet so preoccupied have most physiologists been with lung volumes, ventilation, circulation, gas exchange, the mechanics of breathing, the metabolic cost of breathing and the control of breathing that few have paid much attention to the muscles that actually do the breathing,” one physician wrote in 1958.
…these muscles have been increasingly neglected, lying as they do in a no-man’s land between anatomy and physiology.” What many of these doctors found, and what Olsson would discover much later, was that the best way to prevent many chronic health problems, improve athletic performance, and extend longevity was to focus on how we breathed, specifically to balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. To do this, we’d need to learn how to inhale and exhale slowly.
Blue light has a shorter, stronger wavelength than other colors, which is also why the ocean and sky appear blue at a distance.
Every healthy cell in the body is fueled by oxygen, and this is how it’s delivered. The entire cruise takes about a minute, and the overall numbers are staggering. Inside each of our 25 trillion red blood cells are 270 million hemoglobin, each of which has room for four oxygen molecules. That’s a billion molecules of oxygen boarding and disembarking within each red blood cell cruise ship.
That carbon dioxide in every exhale has weight, and we exhale more weight than we inhale. And the way the body loses weight isn’t through profusely sweating or “burning it off.” We lose weight through exhaled breath. For every ten pounds of fat lost in our bodies, eight and a half pounds of it comes out through the lungs; most of it is carbon dioxide mixed with a bit of water vapor. The rest is sweated or urinated out.
Blood with the most carbon dioxide in it (more acidic) loosened oxygen from hemoglobin. In some ways, carbon dioxide worked as a kind of divorce lawyer, a go-between to separate oxygen from its ties so it could be free to land another mate. This discovery explained why certain muscles used during exercise received more oxygen than lesser-used muscles. They were producing more carbon dioxide, which attracted more oxygen. It was supply on demand, at a molecular level. Carbon dioxide also had a profound dilating effect on blood vessels, opening these pathways so they could carry more oxygen-rich blood to hungry cells. Breathing less allowed animals to produce more energy, more efficiently.
In 1904, Bohr published a paper called “Concerning a Biologically Important Relationship—The Influence of the Carbon Dioxide Content of Blood on Its Oxygen Binding.” It was a sensation among scientists and inspired a flurry of new research into this long-misunderstood gas. Soon after, Yandell Henderson, the director of the Laboratory of Applied Physiology at Yale, began his own set of experiments. Henderson had spent the last several years studying metabolism, and, like Bohr, he too was convinced that carbon dioxide was as essential to the body as any vitamin.
It turns out that when breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will absorb only about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air. The majority of that oxygen is exhaled back out. By taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more in fewer breaths. “If, with training and patience, you can perform the same exercise workload with only 14 breaths per minute instead of 47 using conventional techniques, what reason could there be not to do it?” wrote John Douillard, the trainer who’d conducted the stationary bike experiments in the 1990s. “When you see yourself running faster every day, with your breath rate stable . . . you will begin to feel the true meaning of the word fitness.”
Breathing was like rowing a boat: taking a zillion short and stilted strokes will get you where you’re going, but they pale in comparison to the efficiency and speed of fewer, longer strokes. On the second day of using this slower, nasal breathing approach, I’d outdistanced my mouthbreathing record by .13 of a mile. The next session, I pedaled .36 miles farther—a 5 percent increase over mouthbreathing. By my fifth ride on the stationary bike, I pedaled 7.7 miles, almost a full mile longer, in the same amount of time, using the same amount of energy, than I had the previous week. This was a significant gain.
I started playing around with my breathing. I tried to inhale and exhale slower and slower, from my usual exercising rate of 20 breaths a minute to just six. I immediately felt a sense of air hunger and claustrophobia. After a minute or so I looked down at the pulse oximeter to see how much oxygen I was losing, how starved my body had become. But my oxygen hadn’t dropped… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
It goes by another name: prayer. When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian—these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefited from the same calming effect. In 2001, researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy gathered two dozen subjects, covered them with sensors to measure blood flow, heart rate, and nervous system feedback, then had them recite a Buddhist mantra as well as the original Latin version of the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria, which is repeated half… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again. A decade after the Pavia tests, two renowned professors and doctors… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same pattern of the rosary. The results were profound, even when practiced for just five to ten minutes a day. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” said Brown. He and Gerbarg even used this slow breathing technique to restore the lungs of 9/11 survivors who suffered from a chronic and painful cough caused by the debris, a horrendous condition called ground-glass lungs. There was no known cure for this ailment,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Did it matter if we breathed at a rate of six or five seconds, or were a half second off? It did not, as long as the breaths were in the range of 5.5. “We believe that the rosary may have partly evolved because it synchronized with the inherent cardiovascular (Mayer) rhythms, and thus gave a feeling of wellbeing, and perhaps an increased responsiveness to the religious message,” the Pavia researchers wrote. In other words, the meditations, Ave Marias, and dozens of other prayers that had been developed over the past several thousand years weren’t all baseless.
and up to a quarter of the modern population suffers from more serious chronic overbreathing. The fix is easy: breathe less. But that’s harder than it sounds. We’ve become conditioned to breathe too much, just as we’ve been conditioned to eat too much. With some effort and training, however, breathing less can become an unconscious habit. Indian yogis train themselves to decrease the amount of air they take in at rest, not increase it. Tibetan Buddhists prescribed step-by-step instructions to reduce and calm breathing for aspiring monks. Chinese doctors two thousand years ago advised 13,500 breaths per day, which works out to nine and a half breaths per minute.
To be clear, breathing less is not the same as breathing slowly. Average adult lungs can hold about four to six liters of air. Which means that, even if we practice slow breathing at 5.5 breaths per minute, we could still be easily taking in twice the air we need. The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.
Olsson kept prodding me to reduce my breathing rate even further. He harped on about the wonders of breathing way less than anyone normally should: the respiratory equivalent of fasting. Starving yourself of air can be injurious if it becomes a regular thing, he warned. Ordinarily, we should breathe as closely in line with our needs as we can. But occasionally willing the body to breathe way less, he argued, has some potent benefits just as fasting does. Sometimes it can lead to euphoria.
“What I want you to do is, as you warm up, start extending your exhales,” he says. He prepped me earlier for this, so I know what’s coming. Each breath we draw in should take about three seconds, and each breath out should take four. We’ll then continue the same short inhales while lengthening the exhales to a five, six, and seven count as the run progresses. Slower, longer exhales, of course, mean higher carbon dioxide levels. With that bonus carbon dioxide, we gain a higher aerobic endurance. This measurement of highest oxygen consumption, called VO2 max, is the best gauge of cardiorespiratory fitness. Training the body to breathe less actually increases VO2 max, which can not only boost athletic stamina but also help us live longer and healthier lives.
Heart disease, ulcers, and chronic inflammation were all linked to disturbances in circulation, blood pH, and metabolism. How we breathe affects all those functions. Breathing just 20 percent, or even 10 percent more than the body’s needs could overwork our systems. Eventually, they’d weaken and falter. Was breathing too much making people sick, and keeping them that way?
The point of this exercise isn’t to inflict unnecessary pain. It’s to get the body comfortable with higher levels of carbon dioxide, so that we’ll unconsciously breathe less during our resting hours and the next time we work out. So that we’ll release more oxygen, increase our endurance, and better support all the functions in our bodies. “Try to extend the exhales even more,” Olsson says as he takes tiny nips of air through his nose. “Breathe out twice as long for each inhale, three times,” he chides me. For a moment, I feel like I’m going to puke. “Yes!” he says. “Even slower, even less!”
The sick and healthy, young and old—more than a thousand of them came to Buteyko’s lab. The patients with asthma, hypertension, and other ailments consistently breathed the same: too much. They often inhaled and exhaled through the mouth, packing in 15 liters or more of air per minute. Some breathed so loudly they could be heard several feet away. The readouts showed that they had plenty of oxygen in their blood, but much less carbon dioxide, about 4 percent. Resting heart rates were up to 90 beats per minute. The healthiest patients breathed alike, too: less. They’d inhale and exhale about ten times a minute, taking in a total of about five to six liters of air. Their resting pulses ranged from around 48 to 55, and they had about 50 percent more carbon dioxide in their exhaled breath.
breathing no more than about six liters per minute at rest. Within a few sessions of practicing these techniques, patients reported tingling and heat in their hands and toes. Their heart rates would slow and stabilize. The hypertension and migraines that had debilitated so many of them would begin to disappear. Those already in good health felt even better. Athletes claimed big gains in performance. —
Packman explained that overbreathing can have other, deeper effects on the body beyond just lung function and constricted airways. When we breathe too much, we expel too much carbon dioxide, and our blood pH rises to become more alkaline; when we breathe slower and hold in more carbon dioxide, pH lowers and blood becomes more acidic. Almost all cellular functions in the body take place at a blood pH of 7.4, our sweet spot between alkaline and acid. When we stray from that, the body will do whatever it can to get us back there. The kidneys, for instance, will respond to overbreathing by “buffering,”* a process in which an alkaline compound called bicarbonate is released into the urine. With less bicarbonate in the blood, the pH lowers back to normal, even if we continue to huff and puff.
Weeks, months, or years of overbreathing, and this constant kidney (renal) buffering will deplete the body of essential minerals. This occurs because as bicarbonate leaves the body, it takes magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and more with it. Without healthy stores of these minerals, nothing works right: nerves malfunction, smooth muscles spasm, and cells can’t efficiently create energy. Breathing becomes even more difficult. This is one reason why asthmatics and other people with chronic respiratory problems are prescribed supplements like magnesium to stave off further attacks.
Constant buffering also weakens the bones, which try to compensate by dissolving their mineral stores back into the bloodstream. (Yes, it’s possible to overbreathe yourself into osteoporosis and increased risk of bone fractures.) This unending grind of imbalances and compensations, of deficiencies and strain, will eventually break the body down.
Others may test with completely normal blood gas and pH levels. But such nitpicking, he said, missed the larger point. All these people have a breathing problem. They’re stressed, they’re inflamed, they’re congested, and they struggle to get air in and out of their lungs. And it’s these breathing problems that slow, paced, less techniques are so effective at fixing.
For several months leading up to the Stanford experiment, I visited with several Buteyko teachers and other low-breathing devotees. They told me the same story, of how they’d been plagued by some chronic respiratory illness that no drug or surgery or medical therapy could fix. Of how they all “cured” themselves with nothing more than breathing less. The techniques they used varied, but all circled around the same premise: to extend the length of time between inhalations and exhalations. The less one breathes, the more one absorbs the warming touch of respiratory efficiency—and the further a body can go. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Nature functions in orders of magnitude. Mammals with the lowest resting heart rates live the longest. And it’s no coincidence that these are consistently the same mammals that breathe the slowest. The only way to retain a slow resting heart rate is with slow breaths.
They discovered that the optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath. Asthmatics, emphysemics, Olympians, and almost anyone, anywhere, can benefit from breathing this way for even a few minutes a day, much longer if possible: to inhale and exhale in a way that feeds our bodies just the right amount of air, at just the right time, to perform at peak capacity.
We did it all by breathing through our noses, slowly and less with full exhales.
By around 1500, the farming that had begun in Southwest Asia and the Fertile Crescent ten thousand years earlier took over the world. The human population grew to a half billion, 100 times what it had been at the dawn of agriculture. Life, at least for city dwellers, was miserable: streams of human waste gushed down city streets. Air was tainted by coal smoke and nearby rivers and lakes ran with blood, fat, hair, and acids from manufacturing runoff. Infections, disease, and plague were a constant menace.
This new, highly processed diet lacked fiber and the full spectrum of minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients. As a result, urban populations would grow sicker and smaller. In the 1730s, before the onset of industrialization, the average Briton stood about five-seven. Within a century, population shrank two inches, to less than five-five. The human face began rapidly deteriorating, too. Mouths shrank and facial bones grew stunted. Dental disease became rampant, and the incidence of crooked teeth and jaws increased tenfold in the Industrial Age. Our mouths got so bad, so overcrowded, that it became common to have teeth removed altogether.
“The better the school, the worse the teeth,” a Victorian dentist observed. Breathing problems skyrocketed.
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.
While the foods in these diets varied, they all contained the same high amounts of vitamins and minerals: from one and a half to 50 times that of modern diets. All of them. Price became convinced that the cause of our shrinking mouths and obstructed airways was deficiencies not of just D or C but all essential vitamins. Vitamins and minerals, he discovered, work in symbiosis; one needs the others to be effective. This explained why supplements could be useless unless they’re in the presence of other supplements. We needed all these nutrients to develop strong bones throughout the body, especially in the mouth and face.
So many people eating industrialized foods were sick; they might explain why so many were getting cavities and why their bones were growing thin and weak. But they couldn’t fully explain the sudden and extreme shrinking of the mouth and blocking of airways that swept through modern societies. Even if our ancestors consumed a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals every day, their mouths would still grow too small, teeth would come in crooked, and airways would become obstructed. What was true for our ancestors was also true for us. The problem had less to do with what we were eating than how we ate it. Chewing.
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.
The more they breathed, the more out of breath they felt. Their doctors, families, and friends couldn’t understand. Having access to more air, more quickly, could only be an advantage, they said. But we know now that the opposite is more often true. Five percent of Nayak’s patients in the past six years—nearly 200 people from 25 states and 7 countries—have come to Stanford to understand if and how empty nose syndrome is affecting them, and what procedures might help them breathe normally again. If they pass a rigorous screening test, Nayak will go into their noses and add back the soft tissues and cartilage that had been taken out.
The deeper the uvula appears to hang in the throat, the higher the risk of airway obstruction. In mouths that are most susceptible, the uvula may not be visible at all. This measurement system is called the Friedman tongue position scale, and it’s used to quickly estimate breathing ability. Next is the tongue. If the tongue overlaps the molars, or has “scalloping” teeth indentations on its sides, it’s too large and will be more apt to clog the throat when you lie down to sleep. Farther down is the neck. Thicker necks cramp airways. Men with neck circumferences of more than 17 inches, and women with necks larger than 16 inches, have a significantly increased risk of airway obstruction.
Weight lifters frequently deal with sleep apnea and chronic breathing problems; instead of layers of fat, they have muscles crowding the airways. Plenty of rail-thin distance runners and even infants suffer, too. That’s because the blockage doesn’t start with the neck, uvula, or tongue. It starts with the mouth, and mouth size is indiscriminate. Ninety percent of the obstruction in the airway occurs around the tongue, soft palate, and tissues around the mouth. The smaller the mouth is, the more the tongue, uvula, and other tissues can obstruct airflow.
50 percent of kids with ADHD were shown to no longer have symptoms after having their adenoids and tonsils removed.
Teeth will grow in naturally straight if they have enough room. Expanding devices returned the mouth to the width it was intended to be, offering a larger “playing field” for teeth. Expansion would remain a standard practice for the next 20 years, and would continue to be used throughout Europe for decades after that. But the process of expanding a mouth took expertise and maintenance; results varied depending on the skill of the dentist. It didn’t help that these devices were miserable and awkward to wear. For those patients with overbites, the most common problem in the mouth, few dentists could figure out how to move the bottom jaw forward, so they instead began working on ways to move the top of the mouth back.
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. A few months, or years, after their mouths were compressed with braces and headgear, some patients would complain about breathing difficulties like snoring, sleep apnea, hay fever, and asthma that they’d never had before. When they bit down, they noticed a clicking sound
Mew began measuring the faces and mouths of young patients who’d gotten extractions, and compared them with patients who’d gotten expansion treatment. Brothers and sisters measured against their siblings, even sets of identical twins. 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.
happened in the last few years. Hundreds of leading orthodontists and dentists have come out in support of Mew’s position, saying that, yes, traditional orthodontics were making breathing worse in half their patients. The strongest endorsement came in April 2018, when Stanford University Press published a 216-page monograph by famed evolutionary biologist Paul R. Ehrlich and Dr. Sandra Kahn, an orthodontist, detailing hundreds of scientific references that supported Mew’s research. In a short time, Mew’s outlier theories started entering the mainstream. “In ten years, nobody will be using traditional orthodontics,” Gelb told me. “We’ll look back at what we’ve done and be horrified.”
The rebellion within orthodontics eventually led to the formation of a professional organization called the Academy of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy. This group, I’d learned, is much more interested in fixing the problem of undersize mouths than blaming those who contributed to it. There are too many variables, and too many guilty parties, they argued. As with so many fixes I’d come across, Mew and the others discovered that the tools they needed to remove airway obstruction, to restore the function in that too-small mouth,
A 2006 peer-reviewed study of 50 children showed that the Biobloc expanded airways by up to 30 percent over the course of six months. I came here because I’d become interested in expanding my own too-small mouth and opening my too-small airways. But Mew told me his device works best for children age 5 to 9, whose bones and faces were still developing and easily moldable. For me, that was several lifetimes ago. Mew’s son, Mike, who is also a dentist, joined the conversation.
Along with maintaining the correct oral posture, Mike recommended a series of tongue-thrusting exercises, which he says can train us out of the “death pose” and make breathing easier. The tongue is a powerful muscle. If its force is directed at the teeth, it can throw them out of alignment; if it’s directed at the roof of the mouth, Mike believed it might help expand the upper palate of the mouth and open up the airways.
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.
Women will suffer much more bone loss than men, especially after menopause. By the time a woman reaches 60, she’ll have lost more than a third of her bone mass. If she lives to 80, she’ll have as much bone as she had when she was 15. Eating well and getting exercise can help to stave off the deterioration, but nothing can stop it. It’s most apparent in our faces. Sagging skin, baggy and hollow eyes, and sallow cheeks all result from bone disappearing and flesh having nowhere to go but down. As bone degrades deeper in the skull, soft tissues at the back of the throat have less to hang on to, so they can droop too, which can lead to airway obstruction. This bone loss partly explains why snoring and sleep apnea often grow worse the older we get.
The maxilla can remodel and grow more dense into our 70s, and likely longer. “You, me, whoever—we can grow bone at any age,” Belfor told me. All we need are stem cells. And the way we produce and signal stem cells to build more maxilla bone in the face is by engaging the masseter—by clamping down on the back molars over and over. 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.
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.
the Homeoblock wasn’t designed to straighten teeth. Like the first functional orthodontic devices created by Norman Kingsley and Pierre Robin, its purpose is to expand the mouth and make breathing easier. Along the way, it stimulates the stress of chewing whenever the wearer chomps down,
Belfor showed me their before-and-after CAT scans when I first got to his office. They had obstructed throats in the shots before; more-open airways and loads of new bone six months later.
Wallace’s contemporaries began taking measurements of patients’ mouths and comparing them to skulls that dated to before the Industrial Revolution. The palates of the ancient skulls measured an average of 2.37 inches. By the late nineteenth century, mouths had shrunk to 2.16 inches. No one was disputing these observations. “That the human jaw is gradually becoming smaller is a fact which is universally recognized,” Wallace noted. That didn’t stop this research from being ignored for the next hundred years.
People, pigs, whatever. Whenever they switched from harder foods to soft foods, faces would narrow, teeth would crowd, jaws would fall out of alignment. Breathing problems would often follow. Fifty percent of the modern human population would show this “malocclusion” within the first generation of switching to soft and processed foods; by the second generation, 70 percent; by the third, 85 percent. By the fourth, well, look around. That’s us, now. Some 90 percent of us have some form of malocclusion.
Belfor collected his own library of data over two decades. He had case studies and charts and graphs showing how his patients were regrowing bones and opening their airways.
Exactly a year to the week after I began wearing Belfor’s retainer, I visited a private radiology clinic in downtown San Francisco and had my airways, sinuses, and mouth rescanned. Belfor sent the results to AnalyzeDirect at the Mayo Clinic to study what had happened to my face and airways. The results were stunning. I had gained 1,658 cubic millimeters of new bone in my cheeks and right eye socket, the equivalent volume of five pennies. I’d also added 118 cubic millimeters of bone along my nose, and 178 along my upper jaw. My jaw position became better aligned and balanced. My airways widened and became firmer.
Deposit of pus and granulation that had accumulated in my maxillary sinuses, likely the result of mild chronic obstruction, was completely gone. 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. As I write this, because of chewing and some widening of my palate, I am breathing more easily and freely than I ever remember. Other than that week and a half in which I purposely obstructed my nose in the Stanford experiment, I have suffered only one stuffy nose this year,
Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system. There are two sections of this system, and they serve opposite functions. Each is essential to our well-being. 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.
Many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are located in the lower lobes, which is one reason long and slow breaths are so relaxing. As molecules of breath descend deeper, they switch on parasympathetic nerves, which send more messages for the organs to rest and digest. As air ascends through the lungs during exhalation, the molecules stimulate an even more powerful parasympathetic response. The deeper and more softly we breathe in, and the longer we exhale, the more slowly the heart beats and the calmer we become. People have evolved to spend the majority of waking hours—and all of our sleeping hours—in this state of recovery and relaxation. Chilling out helped make us human.
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. That negative energy you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic or wrongs you at work is the sympathetic system ramping up. In these states, the body redirects blood flow from less-vital organs like the stomach and bladder and sends it to the muscles and brain. Heart rate increases, adrenaline kicks in,
vessels constrict, pupils dilate, palms sweat, the mind sharpens. Sympathetic states help ease pain and keep blood from draining out if we get injured. They make us meaner and leaner, so we can fight harder or run faster when confronted with danger. But our bodies are built to stay in a state of heightened sympathetic alert only for short bursts, and only on occasion. Although sympathetic stress takes just a second to activate, turning it off and returning to a state of relaxation and restoration can take an hour or more.
Surfers, mixed martial arts fighters, and Navy SEALs use Tummo-style breathing to get into the zone before a competition or black ops mission. It’s also especially useful for middle-aged people who suffer from lower-grade stress, aches and pains, and slowing metabolisms. For them—for me—Tummo can be a preventative therapy, a way to get a fraying nervous system back on track and keep it there. Simpler and less intense methods of breathing slow, less, through the nose with a big exhale, can also diffuse stress and restore balance. These techniques can be life-changing, and I’d seen dozens of people changed by them. But they can also take a while, especially for those with long-standing chronic conditions.
It’s much more common, especially in the modern world, to never experience full-blown, life-threatening stress, but to never fully relax either. We’ll spend our days half-asleep and nights half-awake, lolling in a gray zone of half-anxiety. When we do, the vagus nerve stays half-stimulated. During these times, the organs throughout the body won’t be “shut down,” but will instead be half supported in a state of suspended animation: blood flow will decrease and communication between the organs and the brain will become choppy,
What they often suffer from are communication problems along the vagal and autonomic network, brought on by chronic stress. To some researchers, it’s no coincidence that eight of the top ten most common cancers affect organs cut off from normal blood flow during extended states of stress. Fixing the autonomic nervous system can effectively cure or lessen these symptoms. In the past decade, surgeons have implanted electrical nodes in patients that work as an artificial vagal nerve to restart blood flow and communication between organs. The procedure is called vagus nerve stimulation, and it’s highly effective for patients suffering from anxiety, depression, and autoimmune diseases.
There is another, less invasive way Porges found to stimulate the vagus nerve: breathing. Breathing is an autonomic function we can consciously control. While we can’t simply decide when to slow or speed up our heart or digestion, or to move blood from one organ to another, we can choose how and when to breathe. Willing ourselves to breathe slowly will open up communication along the vagal network and relax us into a parasympathetic state. Breathing really fast and heavy on purpose flips the vagal response the other way, shoving us into a stressed state. It teaches us to consciously access the autonomic nervous system and control it, to turn on heavy stress specifically so that we can turn it off
When Alexandra David-Néel finally returned to Paris and wrote about Tummo and other Buddhist breathing techniques and meditations in her 1927 book, My Journey to Lhasa, few doctors and medical researchers believed the stories. Few could accept that breathing alone could keep a body warm in freezing temperatures. Fewer believed it could control immune function and heal diseases. Through the twentieth century, interest in Tummo grew, and a flood of anthropologists, researchers, and seekers traveled to the Himalayas and came back reporting the same feats that David-Néel had been talking about. They told stories of monks wearing nothing but a single layer of clothes throughout the winter,
Eventually, a Harvard Medical School researcher named Herbert Benson thought it might be time to put Tummo to the test. Benson flew to the Himalayas in 1981, recruited three monks, hooked them up to sensors that measured the temperature in their fingers and toes, and then asked them to practice Tummo breathing. During the practice, the temperature in the monks’ extremities went up by as much as 17 degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there. The results were published the next year in the esteemed scientific journal Nature.
The group trained by Hof were able to control their heart rate, temperature, and immune response, and stimulate the sympathetic system. This practice of heavy breathing along with regular cold exposure was later discovered to release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine on command. The burst of adrenaline gave heavy breathers energy and released a battery of immune cells programmed to heal wounds, fight off pathogens and infection. The huge spike in cortisol helped downgrade short-term inflammatory immune responses, while a squirt of norepinephrine redirected blood flow from the skin, stomach, and reproductive organs to muscles, the brain, and other areas essential in stressful situations.
They heated the body and opened up the brain’s pharmacy, flooding the bloodstream with self-produced opioids, dopamine, and serotonin. All that, with just a few hundred quick and heavy breaths.
McGee was like 15 percent of the American population—more than 50 million people—who suffer from an autoimmune disorder. In simple terms, these diseases are the result of an immune system that goes rogue and starts attacking healthy tissues. Joints become inflamed, muscles and nerve fibers waste away, rashes cover the skin. These ailments go by many names: rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s disease, type 1 diabetes. Pharmaceutical treatments, such as immunosuppressants, work by easing symptoms and keeping the patient more comfortable, but they do nothing to address the core malfunction in the body. Autoimmune diseases have no known cure, and even the causes are debated.
McGee tried Wim Hof’s heavy breathing technique. “For the first time in a long time, I slept peacefully,” he told me. He signed up for Hof’s ten-week video course, and within weeks watched as his insulin levels normalized, pain subsided, and blood pressure plunged. He quit taking enalapril and reduced his insulin intake by around 80 percent. He still took ibuprofen, but only a pill or two once a week. McGee was hooked. He flew to Poland to attend an instructor retreat with Hof, where he and a dozen other students spent two weeks hiking up snowy mountains and swimming in freezing lakes. They breathed a lot.
The point was to rebalance the body so that it could do what it is naturally adapted to do. I’d heard dozens of these stories. Men, mainly in their 20s, who’d suddenly been diagnosed with arthritis and psoriasis or depression, who, weeks after practicing heavy breathing, no longer suffered any symptoms. Twenty thousand others in Hof’s community exchange blood work data and other metrics of their transformations online. The before-and-after results confirmed their claims. Some of these people were reducing inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein) 40-fold within just a few weeks.
“[Tummo] is for the reconstitution of man’s immune system,” Daubard proclaimed. “It’s a fabulous way for the future of man’s health.”
During rest, about 750 milliliters of blood—enough to fill a full wine bottle—flows through the brain every minute. Blood flow can increase a little during exercise just as it does in other parts of the body, but it will usually stay consistent. That changes when we breathe heavily. Whenever the body is forced to take in more air than it needs, we’ll exhale too much carbon dioxide, which will narrow the blood vessels and decrease circulation, especially in the brain. With just a few minutes, or even seconds, of overbreathing, brain blood flow can decrease by 40 percent, an incredible amount.
The areas most affected by this are the brain’s hippocampus and frontal, occipital, and parieto-occipital cortices, which, together, govern functions such as visual processing, body sensory information, memory, the experience of time, and the sense of self. Disturbances in these areas can elicit powerful hallucinations, which include out-of-body experiences and waking dreams. If we keep breathing a little faster and deeper, more blood will drain from the brain, and the visual and auditory hallucinations will become more profound. In addition, the sustained pH imbalance in the blood sends distress signals throughout the body, specifically to the limbic system, which controls emotions, arousal, and other instincts.
Grof admitted that researchers were a long way from really understanding the full picture. He was OK with that; he just knew Holotropic Breathwork offered a heavy shove that so many patients needed but weren’t getting with other therapies. Heavy breathing alone did for them what nothing else could do.
Anxiety had a physical manifestation, too. They could be generated from outside the amygdalae, from within a more ancient part of the reptilian brain. Eighteen percent of Americans suffer from some form of anxiety or panic, with these numbers rising every year. Perhaps the best step in treating them, and hundreds of millions of others around the world, was by first conditioning the central chemoreceptors and the rest of the brain to become more flexible to carbon dioxide levels. By teaching anxious people the art of holding their breath.
Lie down every day, pacify your mind, cut off thoughts and block the breath. Close your fists, inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. Do not let the breathing be audible. Let it be most subtle and fine. When the breath is full, block it. The blocking (of the breath) will make the soles of your feet perspire. Count one hundred times “one and two.” After blocking the breath to the extreme, exhale it subtly. Inhale a little more and block (the breath) again. If (you feel) hot, exhale with “Ho.” If (you feel) cold, blow the breath out and exhale it with (the sound) “Ch’ui.” If you can breathe (like this) and count to one thousand (when blocking), then you will need neither grains nor medicine.
Pills, he tells me, offer a false promise and do little good for most people. Anxiety disorders and depression are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, and about half of us will suffer from one or the other in our lifetime. To help cope, 13 percent of us over the age of 12 will use antidepressants, most often selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, also known as SSRIs. These drugs have been lifesavers for millions, especially those with severe depression and other serious conditions. But less than half the patients who take them get any benefits.
Everyone breathes, and, today, few of us breathe well. Those with the worst anxieties consistently suffer from the worst breathing habits. People with anorexia or panic or obsessive-compulsive disorders consistently have low carbon dioxide levels and a much greater fear of holding their breath. To avoid another attack, they breathe far too much and eventually become hypersensitized to carbon dioxide and panic if they sense a rise in this gas. They are anxious because they’re overbreathing, overbreathing because they’re anxious.
capnometers, which recorded the amount of carbon dioxide in their breath throughout the day. Meuret crunched the data and found that panic, like asthma, is usually preceded by an increase in breathing volume and rate and a decrease in carbon dioxide. To stop the attack before it struck, subjects breathed slower and less, increasing their carbon dioxide. This simple and free technique reversed dizziness, shortness of breath, and feelings of suffocation. It could effectively cure a panic attack before the attack came on. “‘Take a deep breath’ is not a helpful instruction,” Meuret wrote. Hold your breath is much better.
…documented around the same time in India and China, some 3,000 years ago, and became the bedrock of medicine. The Chinese called it ch’i and believed the body contained channels that functioned like prana power lines connecting organs and tissues. The Japanese had their own name for prana, ki, as did the Greeks (pneuma), Hebrews (ruah), Iroquois (orenda), and so on. Different names, same premise. The more prana something has, the more alive it is. Should this flow of energy ever become blocked, the body would shut down and sickness would follow. If we lose so much prana that we can’t support basic body functions, we die.
Rama revealed some of his secrets of prana control in group lessons and videos. He recommended students begin by harmonizing their breathing, by removing the pause between inhalations and exhalations so that every breath was one line connected with no end. When this practice felt comfortable, he instructed them to lengthen the breaths. Once a day, they were to lie down, take a brief inhale, and then exhale to a count of 6. As they progressed, they could inhale to a count of 4 and exhale to 8, with the goal of reaching a half-minute exhale after six months of practice. Upon reaching this 30 count, Rama promised his students, they “will not have any toxins and will be disease-free.”
Albert Szent-Györgyi, and in the 1940s he’d made his way to the United States and would end up heading the National Foundation for Cancer Research, where he spent years investigating the role of cellular respiration. It was there, working in his laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that he proposed an explanation for the subtle energy that drives all life and everything else in the universe. “All living organisms are but leaves on the same tree of life,” he wrote. “The various functions of plants and animals and their specialized organs are manifestations of the same living matter.” Szent-Györgyi wanted to understand the process of breathing, but not in the physical or mental sense, or even at the molecular level. He wanted to know how the breath we take into our bodies interacts with our tissues, organs, and muscles on a subatomic level. He wanted to know how life gained energy from air.
All matter is, at its most basic level, energy. “We cannot separate life from living matter,” Szent-Györgyi wrote. “Inevitably, studying living matter and its reactions, we study life itself.” What distinguishes inanimate objects like rocks from birds and bees and leaves is the level of energy, or the “excitability” of electrons within those atoms that make up the molecules in matter. The more easily and often electrons can be transferred between molecules, the more “desaturated” matter becomes, the more alive it is.
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. “In every culture and in every medical tradition before ours, healing was accomplished by moving energy,” said Szent-Györgyi. The moving energy of electrons allows living things to stay alive and healthy for as long as possible.
Yôga practices were never designed to cure problems, he tells me. They were created for healthy people to climb the next rung of potential: to give them the conscious power to heat themselves on command, expand their consciousness, control their nervous systems and hearts, and live longer and more vibrant lives.
The kriya I’d experienced was developed in the 1980s by a man named Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and is now practiced by tens of millions of people around the world through The Art of Living Foundation. It does much of what Tummo does because, DeRose says, both were designed from the same ancient practices.* Sudarshan Kriya, too, was no picnic. It took time, dedication, and will power. The central method, called Purifying Breath, requires more than 40 minutes of intensive breathing, from huffing and at a rate of more than a hundred breaths per minute, to several minutes of slow breathing, and
The key to Sudarshan Kriya, Tummo, or any other breathing practice rooted in ancient yoga is to learn to be patient, maintain flexibility, and slowly absorb what breathing has to offer. My initial experience with Sudarshan Kriya may have been a bit jarring, DeRose says, but it also convinced me of the sheer power of breathing.
The final exercise I’ll be doing, he tells me, is intended to build prana in the body and focus the mind. “Concentrate on just one fluid movement from inhale to exhale,” says Pinheiro. These are the same instructions I’d heard in that Sudarshan Kriya session way back when, the same instructions I learned from Anders Olsson years later, and from Wim Hof Method instructor Chuck McGee. I know this process now; I know these ropes. I relax my throat and take a very deep inhale into the pit of my stomach, then exhale completely. Inhale again, and repeat. “All the way in and all the way out,” says Pinheiro. “Keep going! Keep breathing!”
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. The names may have changed over the years, the techniques may have been repurposed and repackaged in different cultures at different times for different reasons, but they were never lost. They’ve been inside us all this time, just waiting to be tapped. They give us the means to stretch our lungs and straighten our bodies, boost
flow, balance our minds and moods, and excite the electrons in our molecules. To sleep better, run faster, swim deeper, live longer, and evolve further. They offer a mystery and magic of life that unfolds a little more with every new breath we take.
30 pounds of air that passes through our lungs every day and that 1.7 pounds of oxygen our cells consume is as important as what we eat or how much we exercise. Breathing is a missing pillar of health. “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe better,” wrote Andrew Weil, the famed doctor. Though researchers still have much to learn about this endlessly expansive field, there is plenty of consensus right now about what “breathing better” looks like.
EXHALE Carl Stough spent a half century reminding his students of how to get all the air out of our bodies so that we could take more in. He trained his clients to exhale longer and, in the process, do what had long been considered biologically impossible. Emphysemics reported almost total recovery from their incurable conditions, opera singers gained more resonance and tone in their voices, asthmatics no longer suffered from attacks, and Olympic sprinters went on to win gold medals.
The kinds of foods that required an hour or two a day of hard chewing. And in the meantime, lips together, teeth slightly touching, and tongue on the roof of the mouth. BREATHE MORE, ON OCCASION Since meeting Chuck McGee at that roadside park in the Sierras, I’ve been practicing Tummo with dozens of others from around the world on Monday nights. That’s when McGee hosts a free online session open to anyone who wants to “become the eye of the storm.”
Feeding the body more air than it needs is damaging for the lungs right down to the cellular level. Today, the majority of us breathe more than we should, without realizing it. Willing yourself to breathe heavily for a short, intense time, however, can be profoundly therapeutic. “It’s only through disruption that we can be normal again,” McGee told me.
techniques like Tummo, Sudarshan Kriya, and vigorous pranayamas do. They stress the body on purpose, snapping it out of its funk so that it can properly function during the other 23½ hours a day. Conscious heavy breathing teaches us to be the pilots of our autonomic… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Klein was the psychiatrist who spent years studying the links between chemoreceptor flexibility, carbon dioxide, and anxieties. He was 90. It was Klein’s research that inspired Justin Feinstein to pursue the NIH-funded experiments in Tulsa. I wrote Feinstein with the news. He was crushed. He told me he’d been planning on reaching out to Klein in the coming weeks regarding what could be a “game-changing discovery.” It turns out that the amygdalae, those gooey… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Feinstein believes that people with anxiety likely suffer from connection problems between these areas and could unwittingly be holding their breath throughout the day. Only when the body becomes overwhelmed by carbon dioxide would their chemoreceptors kick in and trigger an emergency signal to the brain to immediately get another breath. The patients would reflexively start fighting to breathe. They’d panic. Eventually their bodies adapt to avoid such unexpected attacks… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
“It could be that anxiety, at its root, isn’t a psychological problem at all.” This approach is all very theoretical, Feinstein warned, and needs to be rigorously tested, which is what he will do in the coming years. But if it’s true, it could explain why so many drugs don’t work for panic, anxiety, and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Olsson is a pulmonaut in the purest sense: self-taught and driven by a sense that we are missing something right in front of us, a truth basic and essential. Through all my travels and travails, there is one lesson, one equation, that I believe is at the root of so much health, happiness, and longevity. I’m a bit embarrassed to say it has taken me a decade to figure this out, and I realize how insignificant it might look on this page. But lest we forget, nature is simple but subtle. The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Before we know it, breathing slow, less, and through the nose with a big exhale will be big business, like so much else. But be aware that the stripped-down approach is as good as any.
Most days, I treat it like a stretch, something I do after a long time sitting or stressing to bring myself back to normal. When I need an extra boost, I come here, to this old Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury, and sit beside this rattling window with the other Sudarshan Kriya breathers I first met ten years ago.
We take the first breath in. Then the second. The wave comes, washes over and runs up, then turns around and recedes, back to the ocean.