Science journalist and award-winning author James Nestor will give a talk at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival on beneficial breathing practices and the recent physiological changes that keep human beings of recent vintage from proper respiration and good health.
Nestor will speak at the Argyros Theater on Main Street in Ketchum on Friday, June 25 at 6:30 p.m., available to passholders or for the cost of a $60 ticket.
James Nestor’s 2014 book “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells us About Ourselves” explored the amazing breath-holding skills of free divers, the echolocation of sperm whales and cultural practices thousands of years old that demonstrate humanity’s long-standing relationship with the ocean beneath the waves.
His new book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” explores the ancient breathing practice of yogis and the rapid changes of human skull and face anatomy that have taken shape since the beginning of the industrial era, changes he says have led to dysfunctional respiration.
“We take more than 20,000 breaths each day,” Nestor said in an interview Monday. “And how we breathe affects our nervous system, and vice versa. When you can control your breath, you can control aspects of immune function, your mental state, heart rate and more.”
While researching “Deep,” Nestor said he was introduced to scientists studying respiration. In “Breath” he explores the connection between breathing techniques and health and outlines beneficial practices that at first can seem counterintuitive.
“The yoga of ancient India was all about breathwork,” he said. “But with pranayama yoga, for instance, there are about 400 different styles. It can be confusing.”
Nestor said changes in facial structure since that time, including narrower nasal passages and shorter snouts and jaws, have altered our respiration, leading to shorter and shallower breaths. This in turn can lead to shorter lives, he said. These changes are due primarily to the lessening need for chewing in the modern era, he writes.
Nestor lumps the anatomical changes in facial structure (and an increase in respiratory illnesses) with modern increases in diabetes, heart disease and obesity, diseases that came along with modern food production and lifestyles. He said he worked with a scientist who studies the physical characteristics of pre-industrial hunter-gatherer skulls and found that they never had crooked teeth.
Nestor attributes this rapid shift to epigenetic causes, wherein the stresses of one generation, or lack thereof can lead to a quick transformation in subsequent generations, including maladaptive traits.
“Charles Darwin was writing about this during the 1800s,” he said.
In order to overcome the challenges posed by such maladaptive evolution and breathe correctly, Nestor said it is important to follow three simple guidelines: Breathe through the nose, breath less and more deeply, and remember to exhale deeply.
“Twenty to 50% of us breathe through the mouth,” Nestor said. “But nasal breathing is deeper and more efficient. Our noses are also our first line of defense against infection from the environment.”
Nestor said exhaling deeply to release carbon dioxide from the lungs serves to expel “stale air” and mobilize the diaphragm more effectively, increasing function in the lymphatic system.
“Exhaling fully pushes blood to the heart and moves lymph fluid,” he said.
He likens slower breathing to lower RPMs in a car.
“If you are taking many shallow breaths, you are unnecessarily jacking up the heart rate and blood pressure,” he said. “Breathing slower brings more oxygen and helps to organize our neurons more effectively, which is our thinking.”
For more information about the Wellness Festival go to www.sunvalleywellness.org.