There is nothing more essential to our health than breathing: take air in, let it out, repeat twenty-five thousand times a day. Yet, as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly.
In a book called Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art, the author James Nestor travels the world to discover more about how to improve our wellbeing with the power of breath. He also tracks down the experts who are exploring the science behind ancient breathing practices such as Pranayama, Sudarshan Kriya, and Tummo. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic and Eat Pray Love, described the award-winning book as a “fascinating scientific, cultural, spiritual and evolutionary history of the way humans breathe – and how we’ve all been doing it wrong for a long, long time.”
Here is an extract from James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art which is published by Penguin Books.
The magic of the nose, and its healing powers, wasn’t lost on the ancients.
Around 1500 bce, the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts ever discovered, offered a description of how nostrils were supposed to feed air to the heart and lungs, not the mouth. A thousand years later, Genesis 2:7 described how “the Lord God formed man of the dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
The tribes of Native America varied region by region, with different customs, traditions, and diets. Some, like the Mandan, ate only buffalo flesh and maize, while others lived on venison and water, and still others harvested plants and flowers. The tribes looked different, too, with varying hair colors, facial features, and skin tones.
And yet Catlin marveled at the fact that all 50 tribes seemed to share the same superhuman physical characteristics. In some groups, such as the Crow and the Osage, Catlin wrote there were few men, “at their full growth, who are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet.” They all seemed to share a Herculean make of broad shoulders and barrel chests. The women were nearly as tall and just as striking.
Having never seen a dentist or doctor, the tribal people had teeth that were perfectly straight —“as regular as the keys of a piano,” Catlin noted. Nobody seemed to get sick, and deformities and other chronic health problems appeared rare or nonexistent. The tribes attributed their vigorous health to a medicine, what Catlin called the “great secret of life.” The secret was breathing.
The Native Americans explained to Catlin that breath inhaled through the mouth sapped the body of strength, deformed the face, and caused stress and disease. On the other hand, breath inhaled through the nose kept the body strong, made the face beautiful, and prevented disease. “The air which enters the lungs is as different from that which enters the nostrils as distilled water is different from the water in an ordinary cistern or a frog-pond,” he wrote.
Healthy nasal breathing started at birth. Mothers in all these tribes followed the same practices, carefully closing the baby’s lips with their fingers after each feeding. At night, they’d stand over sleeping infants and gently pinch mouths shut if they opened. Some Plains tribes strapped infants to a straight board and placed a pillow beneath their heads, creating a posture that made it much harder to breathe through the mouth. During winter, infants would be wrapped in light clothing and then held at arm’s length on warmer days so they’d be less prone to get too hot and begin panting.
All these methods trained children to breathe through their noses, all day, every day. It was a habit they would carry with them the rest of their lives. Catlin described how adult tribal members would even resist smiling with an open mouth, fearing some noxious air might get in. This practice was as “old and unchangeable as their hills,” he wrote, and it was shared universally throughout the tribes for millennia.