James Nestor combines scientific exploration and his own experiences in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. The two aspects keep the book from being entirely memoir or entirely an academic treatise. At its heart, Nestor asks why breath matters. We breathe automatically. But he explains there are many ways to breathe. It’s more complex than we realize.

Nestor talks about his own explorations into breath. For example, he pays to participate in a study at Stanford University about breath. For two weeks, he and a companion track their breath. The difference between the two weeks is simple. One week they breathe exclusively through their mouths. The other, through their noses. 

Yes, they literally close off the other option depending on which week it is. The average reader isn’t going to take such drastic steps. But the results Nestor experiences are interesting, and can inform how we use our own breath. 

Nestor also discusses a variety of breathing methods, including who started them and how they came to be. If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, some will be familiar to you. For example, Nestor discusses the experience and the science behind taking many breaths in a very short time. He does the same with methods that do the opposite—that extend the exhalation and even allow for hold time between breaths.

Although people (dare I say gurus?) have popularized certain methods, Nestor concludes by saying that most breathing methods are rooted in a spiritual practice. For example, monks in Tibet or yogis in India famously developed breathing practices. But scientists continue to be fascinated, and when it’s available, Nestor discusses scientific studies about breathing.

My conclusions

Nestor takes a fairly complex subject and breaks it down into manageable sections of information. He discusses the necessary physiology of lungs and nervous system, but doesn’t dive terribly deep. It’s just enough for someone without medical background to understand, without being too much to wade through.

On the other hand, plenty of reviewers have rightly commented on how light Nestor is on the actual science behind these breathing methods. Breath and breathing don’t merit many peer-reviewed studies, I suppose. Taking that grain of salt into account, I still felt this book was valuable.

Breath is generally very readable. However, I also put it down for a couple of weeks in the middle of reading. It wasn’t so incredibly compelling that I flew through it. I needed the right mindset to absorb the ideas.

And for me, this book is personal. My physical therapist recommended Breath to me because of work we’re doing together. Breathwork fascinates me, and keeps popping up in discussions with friends and massage clients. It’s on the radar around the world because COVID-19 survivors often have lung damage. So, you may find it uniquely relevant to your life, as I did.

I recommend this for science readers comfortable allowing a small bit of the mystical into their viewfinder. It’s also appropriate for readers looking for new (but ancient) ways to relax in today’s stressful world.

Pair with Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. for another science-adjacent book with ties to our nervous system. Or do what I’m doing and pair with this (upcoming) book: Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health by MeiLan K. Han, MD.