The Lost Art and Science of Breath - James Nestor | Float Conference 2018

James Nestor is an author, science journalist, and avid floater. In this talk he shares his research and findings from the newest book he is working on all about the science of breath and the impact it has on the human body.


James Nestor:
Thanks a lot. A couple of years ago I came here and talked about the human body's connection to the ocean, how we're all born with these amphibious dive reflexes that allow us to dive very deep for minutes and minutes at a time. I talked about the people who had honed these abilities and used it, these free divers who were connecting with the ocean, who were connecting with themselves and with oceanic animals, and they were doing stuff like this. They were diving face to face with sharks, they were diving with dolphins, they were even having encounters with sperm whales.

Along the way, I learned how to free dive. The first thing I learned about free diving was that it was all about breathing. The only way that you can hold your breath for about three to four minutes at a time and dive down a few hundred feet is if you knew how to breathe and optimize each breath and were able to hold it in certain ways, and to calm yourself and to calm your heart.

So the ability to hold your breath and to free dive, those were completely connected, they were one thing, but I kept wondering what were the other benefits of breathing this way on dry land? Well, these guys knew it, yogis. They understood that respiration was absolutely part of health. You can't have health before you master respiration. I asked a few doctors if how we breathe really mattered, and the answer I heard was pretty much it didn't. Basically, breathing like this was the same as breathing like this. The point was we just needed to get oxygen into us. As long as we weren't diseased, our bodies would do the rest. We were all built with these amazing mechanisms that allow us to compensate. If we're breathing too fast or too slow or too deep, our bodies could do everything and they would always maintain homeostasis.

So I gave up researching this in any real way, but I kept practicing all of these different breathing techniques I learned from the free divers, and I noticed something. I felt a lot better, had a lot more energy, got a lot fewer headaches, I lost some weight. So I got even more interested in this just from a personal standpoint, and I started some more stringent and intense breathing techniques. This is called Sudarshan Kriya, where you just sit cross legged and you breathe in certain patterns. I noticed within about five minutes of trying this for my first time, I sweated through my T-shirt, I sweated my socks, through my jeans, my hair was wet. If how we breathe didn't matter, why would sitting stationary and breathing in a specific pattern elicit such a transformation in my own body, give me so much energy, make me sweat like this? Obviously there was something going on here.

I started talking to some more researchers who told me that, yes, how we breathe was everything, and they were discovering that good breathing was essential to health and longevity and poor breathing was a problem that was contributing to a bunch of different problems, and how we breathed was actually in many ways as important to what we ate. We took in about 30 pounds of air in and out of our lungs every day. How we breathe was also as important as how much we exercise. So this good breathing, that was very good, very healthy, poor breathing was really bad. As a matter of fact, poor breathing habits were attributed to a number of chronic problems, hypertension, depression, chronic sinusitis, acid reflex, all of these things were either exacerbated or sometimes caused by poor breathing.

I realize this all sounds pretty wacko, but this was all clarified by dozens and dozens of different studies over decades and decades. I thought I'd explore it a little more, and I heard that the only way to really understand what has happened to us, why we breathe so poorly now, is to understand our evolution. I went to the University of Pennsylvania, to the Anthropology and Archeology Museum, where they have one of the largest collections of pre-industrial skulls in the world.

One thing these researchers told me, they said, "If you're going to understand breathing, you have to understand the mechanisms of it." They said, "Of the 5,400 different mammals on the planet, why are humans the only ones with crooked teeth?" If you look at chimpanzees, perfect teeth. This gentleman, the Berberaffe macaque, perfect teeth. Marine mammals, guess what? They all have perfect teeth. Even my dog, I pinned her down, took a picture of her teeth, and they were perfect. Meanwhile, this is what we have. This is pretty common for young people to have teeth like this, and if we don't do anything about it, they can end up like this. 80 to 90% of us have crooked teeth. Why?

The next question they asked me, they said, "Of the 5,400 different mammals, why are humans the only ones who have sleep apnea? Why are we the only ones that snore?" Some Bulldogs snore, but beyond that, humans are the only ones. 50% of us snore and a quarter of us suffer from sleep apnea. Why? Why would this happen? I've always thought that crooked teeth, I thought that this was a genetic problem, but then I thought about it a little more and my parents had great teeth and I had awful teeth. Then I thought, huh, sleep apnea, that's always a problem associated with obesity, but it's actually not. Tens of millions of skinny and normal weight people also have sleep apnea. The answers, they told me, are in the human skulls, and by looking at evolution, all of this becomes clear.

This is what we looked like about a million years ago. you can see how broad the face is. If you could see his mouth, it would be huge. Enormous nasal cavity here. About 300,000 years ago, looked pretty much the same, a little skinnier, a little slimmer, still a huge nasal cavity. You can see his remaining teeth here, perfectly straight. About 10,000 years ago, we looked like this. A lot skinnier in the face, still pretty broad, healthy, smaller nasal cavity. If you compare it to Neanderthal with a human, Neanderthal is on the right of course, you can see this forward facial growth, this prognathic facial growth here. This guy could breathe so easily, whereas humans, we're getting flatter and flatter.

In the last 10,000 years, here's where things got really crazy. This is how we looked like about 8,000 years ago, this is about 2,000 years ago and coming up here is how we look about 300 to 400 years ago. You see how much skinnier and how much longer our faces have become, but by far, the biggest change happened in the last 400 years. That's when we went from all having this forward facial growth to having this retruded and recessed facial growth. That's about 300 years ago, that's about 200 years ago, and now about 90% of us have a facial growth that is recessed and flat, much like mine.

If you drew a line from the top of the ears and a perpendicular line in front of it, almost every single ancient skull is above that line. Now, about 10% of the population or 5% of the modern population is below that line, sometimes way below it. Here's another way of looking at it. This woman represents the sort of facial growth that we had about 500 years ago. As the centuries pass, she starts representing where we are now. What happens when your face grows backwards and your mouth grows smaller? Teeth have nowhere to go, so they come in crooked. They have to fight for space, there's no room for them.

About 300,000 years ago, this is the oldest human skeleton that we have, check out its teeth, it's perfect. This is a prehuman species, perfect teeth once again. These guys didn't have dentists, they didn't have braces, they didn't have headgear or orthodontists or Scope or Invisalign, and they all perfect teeth. Although it may seem like it, I'm not here to talk about dentistry, I'm not here to talk about the merits of facial growth. Everyone is beautiful in his or her own way. This guy has been talking about this stuff for 60 years and no one has listened to him. This is John Mew, in the last 10 years, researchers are finding that he's been almost entirely true. His son, Mike Mew, is now doing some amazing research, so is Ted Belfour and Mariana Evans and on and on and on. But what I'm here to talk about is how all of this shrinking in our mouths and our faces has affected our breathing, because guess what else shrinks? Our airways.

What you're seeing right now is what has happened to the airways in humans. This is why we have sleep apnea, this is why we have crooked teeth, and this is why we can't breathe right. This is also why one of the main reasons why we have so many chronic problems. I just looked up sleep apnea on a good friend, PubMed, here and there's like 7,000 different articles showing the deleterious effects of sleep apnea.

Are you guys depressed yet? Because I certainly was when I discovered all of this, but it made just such perfect sense you just can't deny it. But I realize I'm here at a Float Conference. You people have come from all over the world to be here to talk about floating and I assure you that shrinking mouths, de-evolution, and breathing aren't as disassociated from floating as it may seem right now, and I'm going to tell you why. Because right now you are seeing a clip from one of the greatest films ever made, at least the first half of it. This of course is Altered States, yes. This whole film is about a professor, played by William Hurt, who floats for extended periods of time and goes back in time, becomes a primordial caveman. Here he is, his EEG is going crazy. You're going to see this hairy, creepy arm coming out of here. He has reverted back to a pre-human species.

Now, this whole film was predicated on the fact that this is really bad. We don't want to devolve, we want to be in our modern bodies, we want to be who we are now. You're going to see, they even show him... I mean, here he is in Boston. He's throwing stuff at dogs, it's bad news. He doesn't know what to do. But if you stop this film here and really take a look at this guy, of this devolved species, you're going to notice right here, huge wide face. He's got enormous nostrils, perfect teeth. He never had ADHD, or fibromyalgia, or asthma, or hypertension, or restless leg syndrome, because he could breathe. He didn't have obstructed breathing.

How do we get from this back to that, and how do we get from this back to that, and from this back to that? Changing your skeletal structure, that's really hard and no one's going to do that, but what you can do is change the way you're breathing. By optimizing the 20,000 breaths you take every day, something amazing happens. So many of those modern chronic diseases, you can either greatly reduce the symptoms or sometimes you can get rid of them entirely. These are the facts.

This guy knew all about it, these guys know all about it, and we can do it too. This is what I've discovered over the last couple of years researching a book on the lost art and science of breathing, following a single inhale as it makes its way through our bodies, through our noses, through our mouth, down our throat, into our lungs, into every healthy cell of our body. It all starts here in our mouth. This is all chapter one, and after this is where things get really weird.

Before I split here, I just want to say thank you so much for Ashkahn and the rest of the Float On crew for having me up here yet another year to tell you about all this weird crap I'm working on, because it's not every conference that has someone come up here and talk about mammalian dive reflexes, the human body's innate ability to home in on the Earth's electromagnetic field, or about oral de-evolution. So thank them, thank all you free thinking people for listening. All right, take care.