I recently finished the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, and it taught me a lot about the physiology of breathing—even about why so many of us (including me) get braces and our wisdom teeth extracted in the modern era (short version: growing up, we eat soft food and breathe too much through our mouths).
Most importantly, it helped further ground my meditation practice. I’m not one who trusts tradition unreservedly—there’s been too much recent tradition (e.g. the last 2,000 years or so) that has brought us down some very wrong roads. But there’s a growing body of scientific literature behind meditation that concludes it’s a highly valuable practice. Why?
Perhaps, it’s just this simple: meditation helps us breathe more properly. Nestor writes at length about how we often hold our breath (without realizing it) while stressed or even while simply working at our computers. So without our awareness, this regular breath obstruction increases our stress levels, blood pressure, physical discomfort, and so on.
In the extreme form of this, we get severe physiological distress. At one point, Nestor relays how some volunteers at the battle of Fredericksburg during the US civil war came to the surgeon in charge, with digestive problems, racing hearts, difficulty catching their breath, even bluish extremities. They were healthy when they joined, the doctor noted, and hadn’t even seen action, and yet they came into the hospital with a similar set of issues—what the surgeon called “Irritable Heart Syndrome” and assessed as a “disorder of the sympathetic nervous system”—a condition of overbreathing. This is a disorder doctors kept rediscovering in future wars as well, and which today we call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (pp. 140-142).
In another story from Breath, Nestor describes a woman whose rare genetic condition destroys both her amygdalae. This leads her to be unable to experience panic (even in life threatening situations—at one point Nestor describes how she asked her interrupted would-be rapist for a ride home). In the lab, doctors tried to scare this woman, exposing her to the most frightening images and experiences. But nothing phased her. That is, until they administered a single breath of CO2 (35% concentration). Nestor describes how this woman freaked out, gasping, jerking, screaming, until a few minutes later she went back to her implacable self. As Nestor explains, it’s not just the amygdalae that regulate fear. There is a “deeper circuit in our bodies that was generating perhaps a more powerful sense of danger than anything the amygdalae alone could muster” (pp. 166-69). *
What these two (and many other) stories make clear is that breath/breathing plays a huge role in extreme stress and in stress management—even at an unconscious physiological level. Which makes the stories of freedivers (some of whom can hold their breaths for up to 12 minutes) and other extreme breathers even more inspiring. As Nestor explained, these were normal people, who had simply trained their lungs, to “master the art of breathing” (xvi).
It’s clear that breath control—regular deep breathing, from the belly through the nose—is essential for good physical and mental health. But is that the whole picture? If I follow the breathing exercises at the end of Breath will that replace the meditation sessions I do in the mornings on my tiny back porch, emptying my mind and/or observing wildlife?
In some ways, yes. Yogic alternate nostril breathing has been shown to be effective in lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and stress. And I certainly enjoyed the exercise he calls “Breathing Coordination,” where you sit straight, take a breath (through the nose) and then count softly out loud 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 over and over again until you can only whisper it and then keep saying it until only your lips move and your “lungs feel completely empty.” As Nestor notes, “this technique helps to engage more movement from the diaphragm and increase respiratory efficiency” (p. 220). Even the breath holding exercises seemed to do me some good. But as I did these exercises, something was missing. The spirit of the exercises was eviscerated (if one can eviscerate a spirit) or even exorcised.
Invoking the Spirit
There’s a reason why the root of the words spirit and breath are the same in many languages (including Latin and Greek).*** And in some languages, breath is interchangeable with spirit (Qi in Chinese, Ki in Japanese, and Prana in Hindi, for example). Since ancient times, people have understood that our breath can modulate our being—calm us, invigorate us (hence why Nestor refers to this as a lost art). But it’s also true that our minds can do these things too (unless you have damaged amygdalae).
Breath and mind offer two different routes to altering one’s physiological and psychological states. So it’s hard not to conclude that when used together, they will be more powerful than when used separately. Would cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, not work better when paired properly with breathing exercises?
And not surprisingly, it’s somewhat hard to distinguish between some of the breath exercises Nestor shares with meditation. In fact, his description of “Resonant Breathing” is a meditation at its simplest: inhale slowly for 5.5 seconds and exhale slowly for 5.5 seconds.**** The only thing the instructions are missing is what to do with your mind during these inhalations and exhalations (p. 221).
And that’s where meditation comes in. Whether it’s focusing on counting, a mantra, a flickering flame, or a burbling brook; whether concentrating on empathetic imaginings or a guided visualization (like being a tree), the mind is recruited to help in the calming process. Together the mind and breath can do more together than apart. Like Mother Theresa famously didn’t say, “You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things.”
Completing the Triumvirate
And let’s not forget the body, which can also do great things (along with the mind and breath—the three human elements as karate and other martial arts teaches). How we hold our bodies (often shoulders hunched in front of a computer or slouched on a couch) exacerbates our difficulty in drawing in full breaths, as well as causing many other musculoskeletal issues (e.g. floppy fin syndrome).
By aligning body, mind, and breath, one’s physical and psychological wellbeing can be improved. Of course, if that’s a step too far right now, just focus on the most essential point: breathe—whether in meditation or breathing exercises, or even simply inhaling and exhaling more fully and regularly while working. But if you can complement breath work, with meditation and even some upper back and core exercises (plank pose is a good one) you might find yourself breathing away much of your pain and anxiety.
*I thought about using a CO2 cartridge from a Soda Stream to try this myself but a) I don’t know what kind of impurities are in that tank and b) I don’t know how to gauge the right proportion and have no desire to die or even pass out awkwardly on my bathroom floor, especially just in order to feel extreme panic!
**Actually, as Nestor notes, never practice breathholding exercises in dangerous environments like driving or under the water.
***Some argue that Jesus wasn’t talking about spirit in the soul sense at all, but breath—which would really shift the teachings of Christianity!
****One fun aside: as I’ve developed my meditation practice, I’ve added ecological elements, reframing some older meditations to incorporate both science and a Gaian ethic. So I was excited to discover that an optimal breath cycle (used across traditions and scientifically studied) is a breath count of 11 seconds (5.5 seconds in, 5.5 out) (p. 221). By coincidence—or more correctly, because the solar cycle is 11 years long—the Gaian Solar Meditation follows an eleven count. 5 in, pause for 1, 5 out, but I’ve now modified that to reflect the 5.5/5.5 structure.