Breath Summary (9/10) — Unearned Wisdom

James Nestor’s Breath is about something we all think we have mastered, but actually don’t know what we are doing at all. Only a minority of people know how to breathe properly. And the fact that we have lost the art of breathing is one of the main reasons for health problems.

If you breathe wrong, anything you do to lose weight will not matter.

Around 40 percent of people have chronic nasal obstruction. Around 50 percent are habitual mouth breathers.

Evolution doesn’t always mean progress. It means change. Life can change for the worse sometimes (dysevolution).

Mouth breathing causes soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space, and making breathing more difficult.

Sleeping with an open mouth makes things worse. Thanks to gravity, there is pressure on the tongue and throat. Airway is closed off more. Snoring and sleep apnea become normal.

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.

Starting at age 30, bodies begin to deteriorate. We begin to lose more memory, mobility, and muscle each year. Lungs would lose around 12 percent capacity from age 30 to 50.

An 80-year-old breathes 30 percent less air than someone in their 20s. But internal organs are malleable. Tibetans and freedivers have long known that aging doesn’t have to be a one-way path of decline. Many freedivers that Nestor has met claim to have increased their lung capacity by 30 to 40 percent.

Olsson claimed that carbon dioxide is more important than oxygen, that we have 100 times more carbon dioxide in our bodies than oxygen (which is true), and that most of us need even more of it (also true). He said it wasn’t just oxygen but huge quantities of carbon dioxide that fostered the burst of life during the Cambrian Explosion 500 million years ago. He said that, today, humans can increase this toxic gas in our bodies and sharpen our minds, burn fat, and, in some cases, heal disease.

This counter-intuitive and not what we are usually taught. But apparently those big heavy breaths that were supposed to calm you done are actually bad for you. They deplete your body of oxygen. It’s less breathing, fewer and shorter breaths that allow oxygen to be distributed more efficiently throughout your body.

It was the constant stress of chewing that was lacking from our diets-not vitamin A, B, C, or D. Ninety-five percent of the modern, processed diet was soft. Even what’s considered healthy food today-smoothies, nut butters, oatmeal, avocados, whole wheat bread, vegetable soups. It’s all soft.

We used to chew for hours every day. And because of that, our mouths, teeth, throats, and faces grew to be wise, strong, and pronounced. Food in industrialized societies hardly need any chewing at all.

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.

It just meant holding the lips together, teeth lightly touching, with your tongue on the roof of the mouth. Hold the head up perpendicular to the body and don’t kink the neck. When sitting or standing, the spine should form a J-shape-perfectly straight until it reaches the small of the back, where it naturally curves outward. While maintaining this posture, we should always breathe slowly through the nose into the abdomen.

The opposite is the village-idiot, slouched over, bent neck position.

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 most waking hours-and all of our sleeping hours-in this state of recovery and relaxation. Chilling out helped make us human. Wim violated the rules laid out in medical textbooks so drastically scientists had to pay attention,” said Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. Scientists paid attention.

In 2011, researchers at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands brought Hof into a laboratory to investigate what was going on. They injected his arm with a component of E. coli. Usually, this should induce vomiting, fever, or headaches. Hof took the E.coli into his veins and then breathed a few dozen Tummo breaths, willing his body to fight it off. He showed no signs of fever or nausea.

Hof insisted he wasn’t special. Almost anyone could do what they all did. As Hof put it, we just had to “Breathe, motherfucker!”

Heavy breathing and regular cold exposure was shown to release stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine on command. The burst of adrenaline gave heavy breathers energy and released 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. Tummo 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.

Breathing Methods (End of the Book)

This standard pranayama technique improves lung function and lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic stress. It’s an effective technique to employ before a meeting, an event, or sleep. Optional) Hand Positioning: Place the thumb of your right hand gently over your right nostril and the ring finger of that same hand on the left nostril. The forefinger and middle finger should rest between the eyebrows.
Close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril very slowly.

At the top of the breath, pause briefly, holding both nostrils closed, then lift just the thumb to exhale through the right nostril. At the natural conclusion of the exhale, hold both nostrils closed for a moment, then inhale through the right nostril. Continue alternating breaths through the nostrils for five to ten cycles.

This technique helps to engage more movement from the diaphragm and increase respiratory efficiency. It should never be forced; each breath should feel soft and enriching.

Sit up so that the spine is straight and chin is perpendicular to the body.
Take a gentle breath in through the nose. At the top of the breath begin counting softly aloud from one to 10 over and over (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

As you reach the natural conclusion of the exhale, keep counting but do so in a whisper, letting the voice softly trail out. Then keep going until only the lips are moving and the lungs feel completely empty.
Take in another large and soft breath and repeat.
Continue for anywhere from 10 to 30 or more cycles.

Once you feel comfortable practicing this technique while sitting, try it while walking or jogging, or during other light exercise. For classes and individual coaching, visit

A calming practice that places the heart, lungs, and circulation into a state of coherence, where the systems of the body are working at peak efficiency. There is no more essential technique, and none more basic.

Sit up straight, relax the shoulders and belly, and exhale. Inhale softly for 5.5 seconds, expanding the belly as air fills the bottom of the lungs. Without pausing, exhale softly for 5.5 seconds, bringing the belly in as the lungs empty. Each breath should feel like a circle.
Repeat at least ten times, more if possible. Several apps offer timers and visual guides. My favorites are Paced Breathing and My Cardiac Coherence, both of which are free. I try to practice this technique as often as possible.

The point of Buteyko techniques is to train the body to breathe in line with its metabolic needs. For the vast majority of us, that means breathing less. Buteyko had an arsenal of methods, and almost all of them are based on extending the time between inhalations and exhalations, or breathholding. Here are a few of the simplest.

Control Pause

A diagnostic tool to gauge general respiratory health and breathing progress. Place a watch with a second hand or mobile phone with a stopwatch close by. Sit up with a straight back.
Pinch both nostrils closed with the thumb and forefinger of either hand, then exhale softly out your mouth to the natural conclusion.

Start the stopwatch and hold the breath. When you feel the first potent desire to breathe, note the time and take a soft inhale. It’s important that the first breath in after the Control Pause is controlled and relaxed; if it’s labored or gasping, the breathhold was too long. Wait several minutes and try it again. The Control Pause should only be measured when you’re relaxed and breathing normally, never after strenuous exercise or during stressed states. And like all breath restriction techniques, never attempt it while driving, while underwater, or in any other conditions where you might be injured should you become dizzy.

Mini Breathholds

A key component to Buteyko breathing is to practice breathing less all the time, which is what this technique trains the body to do. Thousands of Buteyko practitioners, and several medical researchers, swear by it to stave off asthma and anxiety attacks.

Exhale gently and hold the breath for half the time of the Control Pause. (For instance, if the Control Pause is 40 seconds, the Mini Breathhold would be 20.) Repeat from 100 to 500 times a day. Setting up timers throughout the day, every 15 minutes or so, can be helpful reminders.

Nose Songs

Nitric oxide is a powerhouse molecule that widens capillaries, increases oxygenation, and relaxes the smooth muscles. Humming increases the release of nitric oxide in the nasal passages 15-fold. There is the most effective, and simple, method for increasing this essential gas. Breathe normally through the nose and hum, any song or sound. Practice for at least five minutes a day, more if possible. It may sound ridiculous, and feel ridiculous, and annoy those nearby, but the effects can be potent.


Less extreme hypoventilation exercises (other than the misery I experienced jogging in Golden Gate Park) offer many of the benefits of high-altitude training. They are easy and can be practiced anywhere. Walk or run for a minute or so while breathing normally through the nose.
Exhale and pinch the nose closed while keeping the same pace.
When you sense a palpable air hunger, release the nose and breathe very gently, at about half of what feels normal for about 10 to 15 seconds. Return to regular breathing for 30 seconds.
Repeat for about ten cycles. Decongest the Nose.

Sit up straight and exhale a soft breath, then pinch both nostrils shut. Try to keep your mind off the breathholding; shake your head up and down or side to side; go for a quick walk, or jump and run.
Once you feel a very potent sense of air hunger, take a very slow and controlled breath in through the nose. (If the nose is still congested, breathe softly through the mouth with pursed lips.)
Continue this calm, controlled breathing for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute. Repeat all these steps six times.

Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage offers detailed instructions and training programs in breathing less. Personalized instruction in Buteyko’s method is available through,,, and with other certified Buteyko instructors.

Hard chewing builds new bone in the face and opens airways. But for most of us, gnawing several hours a day-the amount of time and effort it takes to get such benefits-isn’t possible, or preferable. A number of devices and proxies can fill the gap.


Any gum chewing can strengthen the jaw and stimulate stem cell growth, but harder textured varieties offer a more vigorous workout. Falim, a Turkish brand, is as tough as shoe leather and each piece lasts for about an hour. I’ve found the Sugarless Mint to be the most palatable. (Other flavors, such as Carbonate, Mint Grass, and sugar-filled varieties, tend to be softer and grosser.) Mastic gum, which comes from the resin of the evergreen shrub Pistacia lentiscus, has been cultivated in the Greek islands for thousands of years. Several brands are available through online retailers. The stuff can taste nasty but offers a rigorous jaw workout.

Oral Devices

As of this writing, Ted Belfor and his colleague, Scott Simonetti, received FDA approval for a device called the POD (Preventive Oral Device), a small retainer that fits along the bottom row of teeth and simulates chewing stress. For more information, see and [inactive].

Palatal Expansion

There are dozens of devices to expand the palate and open airways, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Begin by contacting a dental professional who specializes in functional orthodontics.

Dr. Marianna Evans’s Infinity Dental Specialists (at on the East Coast, and Dr. William Hang’s Face Focused ( on the West Coast are among the most well-known and respected clinics in the United States, and good places to start. Across the pond, Britons can contact Dr. Mike Mew’s clinic at


There are two forms of Tummo-one that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, and another which triggers a parasympathetic response. Both work, but the former, made popular by Wim Hof, is much more accessible. It’s worth mentioning again that this technique should never be practiced near water, or while driving or walking, or in any other circumstances where you might get hurt should you pass out. Consult your doctor if you are pregnant or have a heart condition.
Find a quiet place and lie flat on your back with a pillow under the head. Relax the shoulders, chest, legs.

Take 30 very deep, very fast breaths into the pit of the stomach and let it back out. If possible, breathe through the nose; if the nose feels obstructed, try pursed lips. The movement of each inhalation should look like a wave, filling up in the stomach and softly moving up through the lungs. Exhales follow the same movement, first emptying the stomach then the chest as air pours through the nose or pursed lips of the mouth. At the end of 30 breaths, exhale to the “natural conclusion,” leaving about a quarter of the air in the lungs. Hold that breath for as long as possible.

Once you’ve reached your absolute breathhold limit, take one huge inhale and hold it another 15 seconds. Very gently, move that fresh breath around the chest and to the shoulders, then exhale and start the heavy breathing again. Repeat the entire pattern at least three times.

Tummo takes some practice and learning it from written instructions can be confusing and difficult. Chuck McGee, the Wim Hof Method instructor, offers free online sessions every Monday night at 9:00, Pacific Time.

Sign up at or log in through the Zoom platform: McGee also offers personalized instruction throughout Northern California:

Instructions for the calming version of Tummo meditation can be found at


This is the most powerful technique I’ve learned, and one of the most involved and difficult to get through. Sudarshan Kriya consists of four phases: Om chants, breath restriction, paced breathing (inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, exhaling for 6, then holding for 2), and, finally, 40 minutes of very heavy breathing. A few YouTube tutorials are available, but to get the motions correct, deeper instruction is highly recommended. The Art of Living offers weekend workshops to guide new students through the practice. See more at

Below are several breathing practices that didn’t make the cut in the main text of this book for one reason or another. I regularly practice them, as do millions of others. Each is useful and powerful in its own way.

Yogic Breathing (Three-Part)

A standard technique for any aspiring pranayama student.


Sit in a chair or cross-legged and upright on the floor and relax the shoulders.

Place one hand over the navel and slowly breathe into the belly. You should feel the belly expand with each breath in, deflate with each breath out. Practice this a few times.

Next, move the hand up a few inches so that it’s covering the bottom of the rib cage. Focus the breath into the location of the hand, expanding the ribs with each inhale, retracting them with each exhale. Practice this for about three to five breaths.Move the hand to just below the collarbone. Breathe deeply into this area and imagine the chest spreading out and withdrawing with each exhale. Do this for a few breaths.


Connect all these motions into one breath, inhaling into the stomach, lower rib cage, then chest.

Exhale in the opposite direction, first emptying the chest, then the rib cage, then the stomach. Feel free to use a hand and feel each area as you breathe in and out of it. Continue this same sequence for about a dozen rounds.

These motions will feel very awkward at first, but after a few breaths they get easier.

Box Breathing

Navy SEALs use this technique to stay calm and focused in tense situations. It’s simple. Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 4; hold 4. Repeat. Longer exhalations will elicit a stronger parasympathetic response. A variation of Box Breathing to more deeply relax the body that’s especially effective before sleeping is as follows: Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 6; hold 2. Repeat.

Try at least six rounds, more if necessary.

Breathhold Walking

Anders Olsson uses this technique to increase carbon dioxide and, thus, increase circulation in his body. It’s not much fun, but the benefits, Olsson told me, are many.
Go to a grassy park, beach, or anywhere else where the ground is soft.
Exhale all the breath, then walk slowly, counting each step.

Once you feel a powerful sense of air hunger, stop counting and take a few very calm breaths through the nose while still walking. Breathe normally for at least a minute, then repeat the sequence. The more you practice this technique, the higher the count. Olsson’s record is 130 steps; mine is about a third of that.

4–7–8 Breathing

This technique, made famous by Dr. Andrew Weil, places the body into a state of deep relaxation. I use it on long flights to help fall asleep. Take a breath in, then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound. Close the mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, with a whoosh, to the count of eight.

Repeat this cycle for at least four breaths.
Weil offers a step-by-step instructional on YouTube, which has been viewed more than four million times.

Read Breathe

Originally published at



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store