SocraticGadfly: "Breath" is classist and elitist New Age bullshit

May 21, 2021

"Breath" is classist and elitist New Age bullshit

Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtBreath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is ultimately New Agey, yogic-breath metaphysics peddling cultic bullshit.

Note: As is sometimes my wont, I expand reviews of books I do on Goodreads for either this or my philosophy-related blog. This one does have critical religion elements involved so it may wind up there as well. As usual, additions are italicized.  

Pure and simple, based on the end of this book, and what I’ve glommed on reviews of other books, this is a vehicle to promote yogic breathing practices AND the metaphysics behind them, disguised as a vehicle of a “better breathing” book. That part is addressed more below, as is the classism.

It’s quackery and cultism right there. Beyond that, it promotes pseudoscience elsewhere as well as potentially unhealthy and even dangerous practices.

It seems to have lots of interesting insights, but they’re largely anecdotal. It does have lots of problems. These are mostly at the end, but there’s a few early on, and more pile up in the middle of the book even before Nestor goes New Agey.

He does mention the domestication of fire, eons before refined foods, was the first major jaw-shrinkage time. But, he doesn’t go back older, far far older, to our australopithecine ancestors walking upright, and how that affected sinus drainage (as well as backs and fallen arches). More here, in a review of a great book about how fucked up we are. 

Nestor also, although he talks about how the change in the larynx affect our possibility of choking, doesn't talk about how the post-infancy descent of the epiglottis, in conjunction with that, puts reverse pressure on the nasal passages, also increasing the tendency toward mouth-breathing. See here. At that link, Dr. Gelb, a dentist, also notes our nasal passages are too small for an animal our size. Don't forget that "Lucy" was under 4 feet tall, and less than 100 pounds by a fair shot. Our upright posture plus our big brains combined to squeeze those nasal passages. Dr. Gelb also speculates, with an actual scientific mindset, that epigenetics may play a role in our problems.

The non New Agey pseudoscience starts on page 60 with emphysema, which, first of all, is not the medical term used to day, rather, of course COPD.

The claim that emphysema is mainly due to poor breathing rather than cigarettes is a howler. So is the hint that COPD is curable. It is not. Its progression can be slowed and some of its symptoms can be ameliorated, in part through breathing exercises and related items, yes. But it can’t be cured.

From here, Nestor drops hints, while carefully avoiding direct statements, that other medical maladies can be cured just by breathing right.

The bad stuff is when he goes New Agey on yoga 30 pages before the end. And yes, dude, that’s what it is.

He talks about the “invisible energy” of our breath called prana in Sanskrit, etc., which he equates to chi and other things, which (setting aside the New Agey bullshit that any of this is real), no, they’re not the same.

He next raves about acupuncture. Reality? As Western medicine, starting in the 1700s, started making scientific discoveries, it started replacing acupuncture in China, which only rose again with the aid of the Great Helmsman (Wrecking the Ship of State), Mao.

He then talks about the spiciness of Chinese and Indian food. In reality, Chinese food, especially, was pretty bland before the Columbian Exchange. Beyond that, a lot of Chinese and Southeast Asian food today isn’t that hot. (Contra the claims of someone on Quora, Szechuan pepper is NOT “hot.” Indian long pepper, of the same genus as black pepper, is somewhat hotter, but not that hot.)

He then gushes about Swami Rama, ignoring that good skepticism has shown with other yogis, they’ve never been able to actually stop their heart for more than a second or two; rather, they’ve used body control to muffle their heartbeat and other things. …. And ignoring that outside of that, he behaved like many another modern Indian guru, complete to the point of losing a sexual assault lawsuit.

He then says rocks differ from birds and bees based on the level of energy or “excitability of electrons.” This of course ignores uranium and radium ore rocks in his attempt to put a pseudoscience veneer on things.

After that, no, the Indus Valley Civilization of Harappa et al has nothing to do with pre-Hindu Aryan religious ideas. Since we still can’t translate their language, in fact, we don’t know what it has to do with anything! And, calling the Aryans “black-haired barbarians from Iran” is all wrong. They came from today’s central Asian “stans,” first of all, not Iran. The Indo-Aryans split from Iranians before this migration. And, of course, we have no way of knowing their predominant hair color. And, if this was an attempt to separate Indo-Aryans from Nazi ones, well, the Hindutva-fascism of today’s RSS, the backbone for the BJP political party of Indian PM Narendra Modi, has muddled that back up.

Beyond that? Contra Nestor, though all the main types of yoga may not have evolved at once, ancestors of all of them were in place, not just the postures one, by the time of the turn of the Christian era. 

The postures yoga may have been brought by the Aryans completely, in part and merged with the Harappa civilization, or it may have been a pollination synthesis after the Aryans were on the ground. We do have some good evidence that the postures were originally used by priests as part of sacrifice. (Yep, just like the Israelite cult in Jerusalem and Samaria, and Greeks at Olympos etc., pre-Hindu Indian religion involved bloody killing of animals. The New Agers won't tell you that!)

In addition, the use of the scientific-sounding word "pulmonaut" seems deliberate hand-waving to obscure the yoga background.

One further science-based note. I noted that he doesn't account for upright posture's effect on our sinuses. He does talk about American Indian, Indian and Chinese accounts emphasizing the value of nasal breathing. These were long before white flour, etc., especially in the New World. Why would such emphasis be needed unless mouth-breathing were already a partial problem back then?

As for the actual breathing ideas? Why precisely 5.5 seconds? What makes this better than either 5 or 6 seconds? Outside of a modern “app” (the stress of whose use might negate breathing benefits) who’s counting half-seconds?

Beyond that, Nestor misses an even simpler exercise that I’ve known about for years: the 8-8-8 breathing. Breathe in for 8, hold for 8, out for 8, preferably nasally in and orally out. Maybe the orally out doesn’t address mouth breathing, but that’s only one part of his breath focus, so I can go beyond that, too. It does “ground” one by doing it this way, both on the counting which is full seconds (or if you count a bit fast, still 6 seconds or so), and on focusing on breathing by alternating the nasal in and oral out. In addition, the ‘hold’ part mimics Nestor’s push for a long exhale.

Pursed-lip breathing is something else simple, but non-New Agey connected, that Nestor doesn’t mention. Wiki specifically says, per one health thing that Nestor does hammer, that pursed-lip breathing works on the parasympathetic nervous system.

That then said? There’s little controlled evidence for benefits of alternate nostril breathing, and very little for one nostril controlling one nervous system, and the other the other. Most studies that DO claim benefits are of yogic-influenced alt-med research.

Other things not mentioned? Many of Wim Hof’s records have been broken by others. Multiple people have died following the Wim Hof method.

That said, the subtitle of his “Deep” book containing the phrase “renegade science” should say something.

Now, the classism.

You and I the scrubbeenies don't have either the time or the money to spend a month at a Stanford nasal clinic unless we're highly compensated. I'm guessing Nestor and his Swedish buddy got SOME money but not THAT much. If Nestor did, it's an ethical violation not to disclose any major payments.

Of course, it was the same way 3,000 years ago. The priestly class, rather, CASTE, was moving past the warrior caste as top dog with having settled in on the subcontinent. They may have sincerely believed in the religious efficacy of the postures, of course. But, they had the time. They had the equivalent of money, like the Israelite priesthood, in a cut of sacrificial meat. Money in terms of coinage didn't generally exist then; not sure when Croesus' idea percolated east.

It's true today, beyond Nestor. Look at the Jack Dorsey types, among libertarian and quasi-libertarians. Or tech-neoliberals that are barely distinguishable. Or, going back, non-tech neolibs like Jane Fonda.
Ultimately, this part of the book pissed me off as much as the New Ageism.

So, I won’t even recommend this book for the breathing exercises. (Part of them are yogic, to boot.) Find another.

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