Breath: the new science of a lost art —- a review

In two earlier posts about breathwork (here and here), I described my experiences with Wim Hof breathwork and transformational breathwork. More recently I have done a three-day holotropic breathwork retreat and a workshop on transformational breathwork, which gave me the chance to experience a range of breathing techniques.

A friend recommended I read Breath: the new science of a lost art, by James Nestor. Published in 2020, this book became a New York Times bestseller. It describes Nestor’s 10-year journey exploring various forms of breathwork and the scientific research about them.

The first half of the book examines breathing methods for improving health. Nestor focuses extensively on nose breathing versus mouth breathing and on various “under-breathing” techniques which are said to make dramatic differences to chronic lung conditions such as asthma and emphysema, as well as promoting general good health and increased endurance and athletic performance. Nestor spends some time discussing his experiment in solely mouth-breathing for two weeks (his nostrils were physically blocked for the duration) followed by two weeks of solely nose breathing. He taped his lips shut at night so he would not mouth-breath while asleep.  He took extensive measurements of physiological indicators and other factors, such as time spent snoring. Mouth breathing resulted in substantially worse health and mental states, as well as higher blood pressure and heart rates. Nose breathing resulted in dramatic improvements. He also reviews a lot of research and ancient knowledge supporting these conclusions.

James Nestor having his nasal passages examined

This half of the book was fascinating, and I’ll certainly experiment with some of the techniques. Although he warned that breathing methods will not cure cancer or make an embolism go away, this part of the book still reminded me of books I’ve read where the author claims their diet, exercise, or whatever, will cure all your health problems and turn you into a high-functioning human.

Wim Hof, the Iceman

The second part of the book looked at breathing techniques which are more extreme and claimed to be radically transformative. These include various forms of breathwork which affect the autonomous nervous system and can improve immune system function and the ability to withstand extreme cold. Wim Hof breathwork is a well-known form of this and Nestor spends quite some time reviewing studies of it, and investigating the biological mechanisms involved.  He does practice some Wim Hof breathwork with an instructor, but as far as I could tell, did not actually include cold exposure training.  He much more briefly discusses holotropic breathwork and his discussions with Stan Grof and other holotropic breathwork instructors.  He did one holotropic breathwork session early in his exploration of breathing methods and did not experience much at all. He is dismissive of other participants who had dramatic experiences, noting that their breathing did not appear much more intense than his and that their experience came on very quickly. He largely dismisses the effects of holotropic breathwork as psychosomatic (due to set or setting rather than the breathing technique).

I was disappointed in the inadequacy of his approach to understanding it. My experience is that the results of holotropic and other forms of breathwork is very dependent on your willingness to open to rather than resist the experience (yes, set is important). To a greater extent than in psychedelic drug trips, the holotropic breather is largely in control the intensity of the experience. In my first transformational breathing session, I held back from allowing the bodily energy and emotions full expression due to embarrassment, but later I found that I would very rapidly start to experience powerful emotions and bodily energy in a breathwork session.  Nestor’s description struck me as that of someone who had held back in their first and only holotropic session.

A third type of breathwork covered in the second part of the book involves drastically increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air breathed. Normal outdoor air concentration of CO2 is around 0.04% and carbon dioxide therapy involves breathing a mixture of 15-35% CO2 with normal air. Although blood oxygen levels do not change significantly, the very high concentration of CO2 induces an intense fear of not being able to take another breath and arises from chemoreceptors in the brainstem. It is a much more primitive and uncontrollable biological reaction than fear mediated by the amygdala. I recently met someone who told me he had purchased a cylinder of CO2 and was experimenting with breathing mixtures involving around 7% CO2.  He claimed that this invoked a very intense fear of death which enabled him to break through to deep unconscious fears and address them. At the time I had not read this book and thought he was a nutcase. Nestor claims that this form of conscious breathwork (a much more intense version of breath-holding practice) allows the practitioner to develop much greater chemoreceptor flexibility and tolerance. In effect, it vaccinates the practitioner against excessive stress responses to events in their life. Hmm, its an extremely unpleasant experience, and I think I will pass.

James Nestor breathing high concentration of carbon dioxide

While I was disappointed at Nestor’s lack of interest in exploring holotropic and related forms of transformational breathwork, I did learn a lot and enjoyed reading the book overall. I can see why it was a bestseller in the pandemic period, when no doubt many people were stuck in lockdown with time to experiment. Anyway, I’m heading to the bathroom now to shave off my moustache so I can tape my mouth shut tonight.

Breathwork and sensed energy

In an earlier post, I described my experience with transformational breathwork and the Wim Hof method. I’ve continued to practice these, and to do some online sessions with the breathwork instructor from the retreat I attended late last year. In looking around for more information on breathwork, I came across a book by David Lee called “Life force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic” (Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2018).

Lee gives an overview of and simple instructions for ten types of breathwork, as well as discussing their various purposes and effects, and the relationships between them. This is interesting enough, but his approach to understanding breathwork completely changed my experience of it. He describes the book as an exploration of “sensed energy” and schemes of belief that work best for experiencing, cultivating and manipulating these subtle sensations. In particular, he frames breathwork in terms of the arousal and relaxation of sensed energy.

Transformational breathing produces within minutes a tingling within the hands and feet and a sense of energy surging around the body. Lee advises to simply witness this energy as it circulates and coalesces into definite sensations and emotions. Layers of unresolved emotion may surface and the high level of sensed energy helps them to resolve. So breathwork may untangle pain and discomfort from the past. Lee describes how to modulate the intensity of the breathwork to hover in the space between suppression of this unresolved material and its too intense activation, allowing a process of resolution to occur, rather than repression or re-traumatizing. I certainly experience intense emotions at times during breathwork, and the periods of “tantrum” and application of pressure to particular points on the body enable you to intensify and experience or release these intense emotions.

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Breathwork and altered states of consciousness

Until recently I had paid little attention to breathwork techniques for achieving non-ordinary states of consciousness.  I’ve done zen meditation for many years now, on and off, and spent quite a bit of time paying attention to the breath, counting the breath etc, but I had been somewhat sceptical of claims I had read that breathwork could induce psychedelic-like experiences.

Late last year I went to a 5 day retreat in the Netherlands which introduced me to a number of new (to me) practices aimed at personal transformation. Among these were breathwork sessions which introduced me to several forms of breathwork, including the form of energising breathwork taught by Wim Hof, the Iceman. Our facilitator was a trained Wim Hof instructor. He also taught us another form of breathwork, called transformational breathwork, and I will describe one of my transformational breathwork sessions at the retreat.

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