Reading dates: 29 May – 16 June 2020
I am a pranayama breath practitioner and teacher and therefore I read many books on breath. I love them, find them incredibly interesting but I must admit they are very technical and I could only recommend them to people in my line of work. James Nestor’s book is the first proper introduction to breath work I have encountered which I think is written for the general public. It is interesting, entertaining, offers a variety of perspectives on the breath and shows enough science. It is a great resource on the different approaches to a system that now, especially in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, should attract more attention and study.
Nestor spends a few years following different breath approaches: from university research, to holotropic breath work, Tummo, Wim Hof, Buteyko and pranayama. I learned to breathe through my nose always (and to notice when I am not doing it), to lengthen the breath (which I already do in pranayama), to breathe less (my practice is also naturally taking me there), to sometimes, under some circumstances, breathe more, and to consider chewing. I like most things about this book and I have been recommending it a lot because it does something no other book on breath does, especially as clearly as this one. BUT (and it is a big BUT), the subtleties of the breath completely escape Nestor. There is nothing subtle about it. It is all about goals, oxygen, CO2, bones, the nervous system, airways … The breath does so much more than that. Admittedly, this subtlety does not always fit into words, but even Patanjali in his sutras alludes to this (the breath becomes dirgha, long, and sukshma, subtle). One comes with the other. I know Nestor wrote a much larger book that was edited down, so perhaps the issue was with the publisher. I know how hard it is to write breath without paying close attention to it.
The chapter on pranayama is, to me, very disappointing. He grounds it on Swami Rama’s seemingly miraculous achievements of controlling body temperature and then travels to Brazil to interview DeRosa. Why not go to the source, to India, and to learn from ashrams invested in these practices for years? He diddles too much in different techniques. One week this, then a bit of that, then something he does sporadically … This is what my teacher Kia calls spiritual materialism, although there is also very little spirituality in the book. Breath practice, I am afraid, is all about regular practice (daily if possible) and the subtleties that arise. The CO2 level is just the easily measurable tip of the iceberg. Still, if anyone was unconvinced about how badly we breathe, how this is impacting our quality of life and the importance of addressing this as soon as possible, this is the book to help them see otherwise.