How the Science of Breathing Can Save You

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Why proper nasal breathing techniques can change your life, and even make you live longer.

When I was in high school, I struggled with asthma and a variety of respiratory issues. I was on several medications and weekly allergy shots to help alleviate the crud in my lungs and sinuses. When I asked my doctor if I could run the Peachtree Road Race (a 10 kilometer distance race held in Atlanta, Georgia) he balked. He told me my lungs "could not handle it." At the reception desk, I smiled at the nurse and took my folded race number out of my pocket and put my finger to my lips.

Goodbye Asthma

I ran that race, and after, continued to run 10 miles a day - and I still do. How could a kid with a childhood history of asthma attacks and chronic bouts of bronchitis do this? Diaphragmatic nose breathing. I had begun daily, slow, deep breathing exercises - I performed them in the morning before school, then again before bed. My lungs heaved like drunk accordions, yet I pushed through the exercises. How did I discover this at the age of 18? Let me explain.

How to Pass a Breathalyzer

One weekend while home from college, my friends and I hit the bars, and I had more than my 2-drink limit. While I was not hammered, it does not take much to red flag your alcohol blood level. I should not have driven, but I figured I lived a few miles away, I'll be fine. As I drove through Duluth, Georgia, (back then, think Deliverance), Duluth's finest pulled me over. After the policeman asked for my driver's license and returned to his car to run me through the system, I instinctively opened the windows and began doing deep nasal breathing. What made me do this I cannot tell you; it was instinct or nerves or both, or maybe I read it in a book. (The irony is that I would later learn ancient breathing, then train and teach in martial arts for over 30 years, where breathing is part of training.) By the time the officer returned to my car, I had probably done 40 breaths.

He leaned into my window, his gut spilling over his belt. He sniffed. "Son? You done had a few tonight?" He performed a breathalyzer and I passed with flying colors. And to this day, I am absolutely certain I would have failed that test had I not done the breathing.

That night, I thought, if this works with toxins in the body, why wouldn't it help my lungs? It was then I began to breathe, and run.

How Western Medicine Fails Breathing

Breathing has been in the news a lot lately, partly due to Covid-19, a mainly respiratory illness that attacks the lungs. James Nestor's latest book about the science of breath has piqued interest in breathing, and for good reason. Breathing is powerful. But if we begin with modern western medicine, breathing is not on a primary care doctor's radar. During a checkup, she will take your blood pressure, pulse, and palpate your abdomen, yet a focus on breath is limited to taking a few deep breaths as she listens with her stethoscope. Doctors will give advice on diet, exercise, and medications, but they rarely talk to you about breathing. Imagine if my doctor told me, "Tim, you can cure your asthma with nose breathing." Guess what? A myriad of scientists are changing this mindset.

Breathing, an Ancient History

Breath consciousness has been around for thousands of years. From the Chinese Taoist Canon, the Tao Tsang, it says this of breath: "What the bodily form depends on is breath (ch'i) and what breath relies upon is form. When the breath is perfect, the form is perfect (too). If breath is exhausted, then form dies." In yogic practices, pranayama means expansion of the life force (prana) and expansion of the breath. Yogis knew that expanding the breath would expand life, yet they also understood lack of breath kills. In ancient Budo traditions, moving arts such as qi-gong and tai-chi utilize proper breathing in its forms. For thousands of years, the power of the breath was used to shift consciousness and heal disease. By regulating the breath, the ancients realized you could control the mind and nervous system (and Nestor discusses this in his book). Breathing can heat the body, slow heart rate, and rid the body of nasty bacteria. (Famed pulmonaut Wim Hof proved this by ridding his body of e-coli.) These ancients reached altered states of awareness and discovered that profound healing was possible through the breath. And that's exactly what I did with my asthma.

The Lost Art

Why is breathing a lost art? And why, if science concurs with the benefits for health, does the medical community ignore it? The short answer is it has been lost in conventional norms. Ask most if they breathe correctly and they will likely answer "of course." While it's true we all breathe daily to exist, that breathing quality is lacking.

Environmental and social aspects exist, too. Depression, stress, anxiety, and lifestyle all play a role in how we breathe. Our social lifestyles -technology, social media, etc - literally paralyze the body, making even normal breath difficult. If anything, we over breathe, and this activates the sympathetic nervous system (raised heart rate etc). I've taught movement arts for decades, as well as dynamic nasal breathing, and the one thing I notice in students is the lack of a mindful focus on the process. They have a difficult time "following" the breath and putting in the effort to actually learn (and understand) what the benefits are. "It's just breathing," they say.

Like many esoteric practices, breathing is a shugyo (study, self-training), and it takes effort and focus to do correctly. Yet it's also quite simple. Breathe through the nose. Close the mouth. Breathe less by breathing slower, and by lengthening the exhalation. And that brings us to another point. Why breathe through the nose?

Close your Mouth and Breathe

There is an old proverb: "Breathe through the nose, eat with the mouth." The Chinese Taoist Canon makes many references to nose breathing, and how breath is "lost" when done through the mouth. Now tons of research shows how mouth breathing negatively changes the skull, teeth, pallet, sinuses, and even the nervous system. If you are a mouth breather, you are getting hijacked. The nose is the main organ to oxygenate the body while the mouth is meant for chewing and getting food into the stomach.

Humans are nose breathers by default. We only switch to mouth breathing under “extreme” circumstances, such as "fight or flight," because mouth breathing is so