More on Breathing

According to the famous Framingham Study, the strongest predictor of longevity is lung capacity. People with small and inefficient lungs tend to get sick and die quicker. Greater lung capacity promises greater living capacity… from Chapter 4 of “Breath” by James Nestor.

James Nestor is a science journalist who has done some fascinating personal experiments in the course of writing his books — including some marvelous experiments for the book “Breath” and for his book on “Deep Freediving,” a death-defying activity if ever there was one. Today we are interested in his discovered views on breathing.

Up to 80 percent of us today are breathing inadequately. Twenty-five percent of us suffer from serious overbreathing. Fifty percent snore on occasion and about a quarter suffer from the chronic nighttime asphyxia known as sleep apnea. Up to a half of us habitually take in breath from our mouths. The consequences of this poor breathing are wreaking havoc on our health. Hypertension to neurological disorders, asthma to metabolic diseases can all be either exacerbated or sometimes even caused by poor breathing habits.

But improving breathing habits can have a significant impact on our well-being. In some cases, simply changing the way we breathe can blunt the symptoms of so many modern chronic diseases. New York psychiatrists and authors, Dr. Richard Brown and Patrician Gerbarg, found patients who practiced these slow-and-low breaths could blunt the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It even helped 9-11 survivors restore lung damage caused by debris, a horrendous condition called ground-glass lungs. Where all other therapies failed, breath offered significant improvement.

If we keep building healthy breathing habits we can help reverse that list of modern day maladies that now affects the majority of the population: all that asthma, those allergies, and even autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes and psoriasis.

James Nestor quoted here

Remember, Nestor is not a medical doctor, not a pulmonary physiologist or scientist. He is a journalist who actually performs the radical experiments described in his books, on himself — and lives to tell about it so far.

Most of the pioneers in radical breathing technologies were considered freaks by the conventional experts of the day. Many of their breakthroughs have now been forgotten by established medicine and science, and would have been completely lost if not for a few devotees who have had their lives changed by these radical and unconventional experiments in everyday personal practice.

Take, for instance, Carl Stough, a New Jersey choral conductor who in the 1950s and 60s developed a deep, diaphragmatic breathing method to help singers improve the resonance of their voices. Using the same practice, Stough treated emphysemics at the largest VA hospitals on the east coast. Several of these patients had been bedridden for years, giving a steady diet of antibiotics and oxygen, but to no avail. Many were close to death. Stough rehabilitated the patients by teaching them how to breathe properly. He showed them how to develop their shirking lungs and atrophied diaphragms, which at the time, was supposed to have been medically impossible. X-rays proved it, and patients who had been left for dead walked out of the hospital.

Anyone could benefit from improving breathing, to extending those inhales and exhales a little longer and to take in less air more slowly. Stough proved it when he went to train the U.S. men’s track and field team in preparation for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Within a few sessions, the runners were breaking records. Under this tutelage the team went on to win a total of 12 medals, most gold, and set five world records in the greatest track performance of an Olympics. 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.

Nestor quoted here

“Modern medicine” wasted no time forgetting the powerful lessons learned and taught by Carl Stough — who after all, was a mere choral conductor and not a doctor or scientist at all! And how many millions must now suffer because of the ignorant prejudices of modern medicine and modern “science?”

Modern medicine and modern “hard sciences” are considered among the most advanced and enlightened of the thinking and accomplishments of advanced human societies. But they are truly not so enlightened at all. Consider how much less enlightened are the institutions that actually hold power over human societies — governments, lawyers, media gatekeepers of information, university social science/humanities/liberal arts professors and administrators, political activist groups, and the ultra-rich and their “Rasputian lackies” who pull the strings of all of the above.

People like Carl Stough who push the limits of their professions — and in the process ruffle feathers of the “experts” in other fields — are what I often call “freaks of nature.” They emerge out of nowhere, discover potentially world-changing insights, and are too often forgotten after they die — many of their most valuable discoveries lost to time.

Fortunately, science journalist James Nestor has captured excellent descriptions of the unsettling wizardry of some of the “freaks of breathing” in recent times. We can learn from them, and ponder what else they may have tried to tell us if they were still here.

Breathing is at the Heart of Our Lives

The internet is full of “guided meditation” videos and exercises to help develop your breathing. Those can be very helpful every now and then and in a pinch, but over the long run they are nothing more than crutches. Sooner or later, you will need to practice on your own, within yourself, over the days, weeks, months, and years.

I have mentioned the practice of “box breathing,” which is sometimes used in special operations training, to calm the mind and to focus on the mission at hand. There are many useful variations on box breathing which individuals can experiment with on their own — which is really the best way, rather than to merely follow directions by rote over a long time span.

There are also meditation masters who have videos on the internet, and by taking them seriously a person can help accelerate their own at-home training.

For some readers, all of this may seem quite pointless and silly. In my opinion, there is nothing more to the point of what a person can learn about himself and his capabilities, than in learning to breathe in as comprehensive a manner as possible.

More (thanks to Will Brown):

Another pioneer that James Nestor discusses in his book “Breath,” is Wim Hof, the ice man. Here is a short outline of Wim Hof’s breathing technique:

Step 1: Get Comfortable

Assume a meditation posture: sitting, lying down — whichever is most comfortable for you. Make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction.1 This is how Get Comfortable looks

Step 2: 30-40 Deep Breaths

Close your eyes and try to clear your mind. Be conscious of your breath, and try to fully connect with it. Inhale deeply through the nose or mouth, and exhale unforced through the mouth. Fully inhale through the belly, then chest and then let go unforced. Repeat this 30 to 40 times in short, powerful bursts. You may experience light-headedness, and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet. These side effects are completely harmless.2 This is how 30-40 Deep Breaths looks

Step 3: The Hold

After the last exhalation, inhale one final time, as deeply as you can. Then let the air out and stop breathing. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again. This is how The Hold looks

Step 4: Recovery Breath

When you feel the urge to breathe again, draw one big breath to fill your lungs. Feel your belly and chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold the breath for around 15 seconds, then let go. That completes round number one. This cycle can be repeated 3-4 times without interval. After having completed the breathing exercise, take your time to bask in the bliss. This calm state is highly conducive to meditation — don’t hesitate to combine the two.


Note: Nestor’s book refers to a large number of “breath pioneers” who originated several distinct approaches to breathing, some of them contradictory to each other. Before you do anything truly death-defying, be sure to take the time to understand what it is that you are doing. If you are exercising under water, for example, don’t do something that might make you pass out unless you are under close observation by persons who can offer expert assistance if needed.

It is no coincidence that some of the most radical breathers discussed by Nestor also have profound experience with meditation, yoga, tantra, and other mental/spiritual disciplines. When you are considering how far you might be able to go, it helps to know where you are right now.

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3 Responses to More on Breathing

  1. Anon says:

    Excellent series of articles. Here is a simple technique created by Ron Hruska using a balloon to increase lung capacity.

    Easy to find a video by searching for “The Value of Blowing Up a Balloon”.

  2. Will Brown says:

    I notice you avoid any mention of Wim Hof, though Nestor spends many pages discussing his work in a very positive light. That aside, I agree with your expressed viewpoint and thank you for the link to the Thich Nhat Hanh video.

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