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I've never given mine a second thought. Should I?
This is probably an odd subject for a post, I recognize.
Breathing is the one thing each of us will do today, around 25,000 times in all. And none of us are likely to even think about it for even a fraction of a second (or you wouldn’t have today, until you read this!).
But I’ve begun to notice my own breathing more, as I find myself feeling short of breath on occasion. Perhaps I notice it because I had Covid at the beginning of the year, and I keep wondering if I’ll continue to experience symptoms as part of the “long Covid” we’ve all heard about in the news. (Labored breathing is one of the disease’s tell-tale symptoms).
A book I’ve been reading says that might not be the culprit at all, however. In fact, it’s possible I’ve been breathing the wrong way my entire life — and if I could be more intentional about the way I breathe, it could have a huge impact on the quality of my sleep as well as my energy level throughout the day.
The book is James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, and in it he describes how the subject of his previous book — freedivers, or people who can dive to depths of 300 feet or more without scuba gear, by holding their breath for 10 minutes or more — inspired this one:
“When most people go underwater in a pool they bail out at ten feet after just a few seconds, ears screaming. The freedivers told me they’d previously been ‘most people.’ Their transformation was a matter of training; they’d coaxed their lungs to work harder, to tap the pulmonary capabilities that the rest of us ignore. They insisted they weren’t special. Anyone in reasonable health willing to put in the hours could dive to 100, 200, even 300 feet. It didn’t matter how old you were, how much you weighed, or what your genetic makeup was. To freedive, they said, all anyone had to do was master the art of breathing.”
Until the moment I picked Breath off the shelf and started reading, I never for a moment considered there was any other than a single way to breathe. That makes me just like everyone Nestor encountered while doing his research for the book — except for the people who’d been researching it for years, and the ones who’d discovered “there are as many ways to breathe as there are foods to eat.”
Nestor writes that most of us living in the modern world got off-track with our breathing around the start of the Industrial Revolution. He says also that the researchers and scientists he interviewed told him that “90 percent of us — very likely me, you, and everyone you know — is breathing incorrectly and that this failure is either causing or aggravating a laundry list of chronic diseases.”
What kinds of diseases? Primarily respiratory ones like pneumonia and bronchitis — both of which Nestor suffered from for years, which also played a big role in his desire to learn how to breathe better. But he says too that how we breathe can influence our body weight and overall health (which, honestly, strikes me as a pretty big claim to make).
I was skeptical of some of the book’s claims before I picked it up; and, to be honest, I’m still a little skeptical. “Hack into our own nervous system, control our immune response”? Really? Nestor says it’s true, and while I’m not fully persuaded he’s right just yet, the claims are intriguing enough — and, if they’re true, worthwhile enough — to find out if he’s right or not.
I’ve already begun trying out some of the things the book recommends. I’m trying to be conscious about breathing through my nose as often as I can because mouth breathing, I’ve learned from Nestor, is a big no-no. That most of us do it most of the time is a big reason why so many of us experience health problems related to our breathing. (Seasonal allergies don’t make it any easier, either.)
Here’s what he told NPR after the book’s release last year:
“The nose filters, heats and treats raw air. Most of us know that. But so many of us don't realize — at least I didn't realize — how [inhaling through the nose] can trigger different hormones to flood into our bodies, how it can lower our blood pressure ... how it monitors heart rate ... even helps store memories. So it's this incredible organ that ... orchestrates innumerable functions in our body to keep us balanced.”
As I’ve already written enough here, I’d like to return to Nestor’s Breath in future posts and explore more of what he has to say — and share my own experiences in trying to put how he says we should be breathing into action.
Before I go, a question I’d love to know the answer to: are you intentional about the way you breathe, and have you tried any exercises or practices to cultivate a better, healthier way to breathe for yourself?
I’d love to know! Feel free to give me a shout back, or in the comments.
Until then, have a great run out there today — let me know how it goes! 😃
A few great reads
Runners, Ignore These Popular Training Tips. David Roche, one half of the trail ultra running couple that I got the chance to interview last year, reminds us of some powerful truths about running that all of us likely forget, including me. This one, which starts off David’s list, is just perfect — and a reminder that each of us is unique, in our bodies as well as our minds:
“The body does not work in cordoned-off physiological zones, where exceeding aerobic threshold is a crime scene for athletic growth. When you feel good, your easy runs can be a bit faster. When you feel tired or are not recovering rapidly, your easy runs can put snails to shame. The art and science of easy running require that an athlete listens to their body, not to a calculator.”
Breaking Down the ‘Wellness Industrial Complex,’ One Episode at a Time. This New York Times profile of Aubrey Gordon, the host of the podcast “Maintenance Phase,” is 🔥🔥🔥. It gives a snapshot of what the podcast is all about — debunking the B.S. that comes our way constantly when it comes to wellness and weight loss, as so much of it is simply junk science.
“Most of us have confidence that we understand these wellness issues, but we don’t realize that we’re literally just regurgitating things that we saw in a Nike commercial… And wellness is the perfect encapsulation of that. A lot of the things under wellness are just rebranded or misconstrued data being sent back to us by a company, basically.”
‘What Does It Mean to Love a Person Who Doesn’t Exist? What Does It Mean to Love a Person Who Does?’ I loved loved loved this (very long) interview with Sally Rooney, an Irish novelist whose latest book Beautiful World, Where Are You? was published last week. This interview is such a thoughtful meditation on the place of art in our lives, how to tell a story, and how deeply we look (or don’t look) into the hearts of the people who surround us.
“It can be much easier to convey disillusionment, alienation, and ugliness in fiction than it is to convey love, happiness, and beauty. Some people might conclude from this observation that life is ‘really’ alienating and ugly, and that love and happiness are illusory. But I don’t think so.”
Against Kids’ Sports. This long post by Anne Helen Peterson, whose Substack newsletter Culture Study is one of my favorites, goes straight to the heart of thoughts I’ve been having for a while now as I watch my 7-year-old participate in youth sports here in Atlanta where we live. The degree to which childhood is being professionalized is just mind-boggling, especially to me, a child of the 70s who enjoyed a decade of unstructured play, all the time, when I was growing up. The degree to which that has changed still floors me. Here’s a quote that sums up Peterson’s post so well:
“This isn’t just about traditional sports. It’s about the increasingly normative and deeply exclusionary idea that to participate in an activity, you need coaching, and competition, and leagues and expensive uniforms, and that the ultimate goal of any of that activity is not fun or bonding or even the play itself, but a foothold, any foothold, in the scramble towards career and financial stability. We have lost sight of the idea that play is how we become people, and replaced it with the anxious understanding that play is how we become careers.”
Words to run by
“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.'“
— Haruki Murakami