Book Review: Breath by James Nestor


A long time back, in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, some people had mastered the secrets of breathing, says James Nestor in his book Breath. The evidence is the meditating man seal or what we call the Shiva seal. It is from here that the wisdom spread to the world. The Indus-Sarasvati people discovered that breathing with different patterns — really fast, very slow, or holding breath — can cure diseases without medicines, influence body weight, and affect overall health. By influencing the nervous system and controlling the immune response, these breathing patterns can help a person live longer and healthier.

While the Yoga Sutras are well known, there are other ancient texts as well.

Thirteen hundred years ago, an ancient Tantric text, the Shiva Swarodaya, described how one nostril will open to let breath in as the other will softly close throughout the day. Some days, the right nostril yawns awake to greet the sun; other days, the left awakens to the fullness of the moon. According to the text, these rhythms are the same throughout every month, and they’re shared by all humanity. It’s a method our bodies use to stay balanced and grounded to the rhythms of the cosmos, and each other

This knowledge then surfaced worldwide, like Japan, Africa, Hawaii, and Native America. They developed breathing techniques and benefitted from the calming effects.

Two things make the book interesting. The first is when the author acts as a human guinea pig, trying out various techniques with breathing experts worldwide. These are not yogic techniques, but activities like Holotropic breathing or the Wim Hoff method or taking a carbon dioxide shot.

The other is when he explains what happens inside our body when you do these practices. Breathing is more than just the physical act. Medically it’s known that breath affects every single internal organ affecting heart rate, digestion, and moods. Deep breathing influences the parasympathetic nerves, which signals the organs to rest.

Often you see remarks like what’s there to learn about breathing, after all, it’s just inhaling and exhaling. The modern age has caused us to pay little attention to breathing. This has resulted in diseases like asthma, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another aspect is that as we age, the lung capacity decreases, leading to high blood pressure and immune disorders.

The book acknowledges India as the source of all this knowledge. All the techniques the author tried, he says, comes from ancient Indian texts. The ancients people who did these experiments with breathing and discovered the possible miracles knew that breathing was not just inhaling and exhaling. They knew how to manipulate body functions by controlling their breath. They obviously knew a lot more than what Western science knows, like how the prana can control the mind.

When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above the soft palate so that it’s pointed toward the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

There are a couple of issues with the book. While the book mentions Indus-Sarasvati civilization by that name, it also mentions the Aryan Invasion Theory. It has a fascinating twist – the Aryans came from Iran and not Russia. Second, the author gives credit to Indians for discovering the secrets of breathing, but to talk to a yogi, he goes to Brazil. Why not go to the land where it started and where it’s a living, breathing tradition.

If you were one of those skeptical about yoga and pranayama, this book would change the way you think about breathing. By combing ancient wisdom with scientific evidence and first-hand experience, the book distills the knowledge in an easy-to-read narrative. In the end, it advocates breathing slow and less through the nose as it sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues.

Swami Vivekananda wrote that the breath is the fly-wheel of the body. In a big machine, the fly-wheel is set in motion first. That motion is conveyed to finer machinery until the delicate and finest machinery is in motion. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar. The fact that a sick child would live to the age of 95 is proof of the book’s secrets.

Why pranayama can control the mind

Pranayama Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav) on Unsplash

Once a man went on a safari with his pet poodle. During the tour, the poodle got separated from the owner and wandered off into the forest. As it was searching for the path back, it reached a lake. In the stillness of the forest, the poodle heard a rustling sound in the bushes and through the corner of it’s eye, saw a leopard sneaking in. This is probably the end of my life, thought the poodle. Quickly, he came up with a plan. He found some bones lying around and started licking it. Then at the top of his voice, he said, “This leopard is so tasty. Hope I find some more.” The leopard, worried for his life, ran away.

A monkey, who was sitting on the tree, saw what was happening. He ran behind the leopard and told how the poodle had tricked him. The angry leopard decided to return and finish off the poodle. Sitting on the back of the leopard, the monkey also decided to go and see the fun. The poodle meanwhile saw both of them coming and sat with his back facing them. He had guessed what the monkey had done. When the pair were close, the poodle, yelled at the top of his voice, “Where’s that damn monkey. I told him to fetch me a leopard”

The mind, like the poodle, is always scheming, planning and thinking. When the mind is angry and agitated, you can notice that your breath is rapid and shallow. At the same time when you are happy, the breath is deeper and relaxed. Once your observe this, you need to wonder if the reverse is true. Can altering your breath, change your mood?

Anyone who does pranayama knows that it can be done. To understand the yogic explanation for this phenomena, we have to understand the relation between breath, prana and the mind.

Prana is the life-force that sustains the functions of the body and it supplies energy to all parts of our body. It is present all over the universe and it pervades our body as well. The breath and prana are closely related and inter-dependent; through breath, you can control prana. By controlling the act of breathing you can efficiently control all the various motions in the body and the different pranas that are running through the body.

The five pranas

Speaking of pranas, there are five that requires mention. The prana above the throat is called prana. The one below the belly button is called apanan and is responsible for the excretion function. Samanan stays between these two — below the throat and above the belly button — and is responsible for digestion. Imagine our stomach as an engine generating energy by burning fuel. Like how the fire burns strongly in our traditional hearth, when air is blown, samanan helps with digestion. Vyanan is a prana which is spread all over the body, across all our naadis. The last — Udana — sits in the sushumna. At the time of death, it gathers all your accumulated karmas and leaves. Sometimes this prana gets attached to the body and will refuse to leave. That’s why Hindus cremate quickly.

Next we need to understand the relation between prana and the mind and how they are connected. At one level, they look different. The mind is an instrument of thought and perception. It has bodha shakti. The prana, meanwhile, is connected with action with constant movement. Prana has kriya shakti. But both mind and prana originate in the pancha bhootas. The mind, which is a jnana indriya, is formed from the sattvik aspects of the panchabootas. The prana, which is a karma indriya, is formed from the rajasik aspects of the pancha bhootams. Thus the source of these two are the same. They are expressions of the same base. If you imagine two branches coming out of a trunk, the mind and prana are two branches coming out of the pancha bhootas. Since they are coming from the same trunk, influencing one, affects the other.