Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

The breadth of this topic is monumental; from anatomy and archaeology to medicine to sports to spiritualism. This is a project that cuts through our collective amnesia and starts documenting what we’ve known on and off for generations. And this is not niche, specialist material; this is practical truth for everyone everyday with huge implications for health. And by now, your skepticism alarms should be going off and rightly so. The subject matter experts for this topic are often not academics or scientists. This is a subject that, while universal, has been neglected by the modern scientific machine. Some of what we do have is truly ancient knowledge, passed down the old-fashioned way, but Nestor does not fetishize the wisdom of the past. He merely documents it, tests it, and tells us about his experiences. This is gonzo science-journalism.

And this is where the skepticism alarms quiet down. Nestor is not making fanciful claims himself. He is collecting others’ claims and research and, as best as he is able, subjecting them to analysis and experimentation. Individually, they are fascinating and thought-provoking. Together, they form an immensely compelling picture; there is, it appears, something going on that not many people are talking about. Nestor’s research points out some of the failings of modern medicine and academia. This is not a critique of those institutions, merely an illustration of their being works-in-progress. This book is part of that progress. Bringing popular attention to something is an effective way to further our collective understanding of it. This is not a replacement for rigorous, academic research; it is what motivates such research.

In addition to giving us perspective on what we know and what we have known, this is also a practical book. Nestor has compiled the basics of several techniques. He does not make grandiose claims about them, he gives you some context, he tells you his experience, and then gives you what you need to try it for yourself.

While his writing does occasionally stray a little too far into superlatives and sensationalism for my taste, there is a healthy collection of references at the back of the book. While much of the most compelling content is anecdotal or from small samples at best, this is simply how limited our knowledge is in this field. We have some guidance from past human experience, but we have yet to evaluate this guidance scientifically. If those in a position to contribute are paying attention, we have but to wait… In the meantime, breathe through your nose.