A Breath of Frustration

Awhile back I listened to Terry Gross interview James Nestor about his book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. From the interview, it appeared that the book was about both the long-held knowledge about breath and breathing and the way science was now confirming that those old systems had a lot of value.

I was intrigued, because I have learned something about breathing in martial arts and qigong training and have studied a little bit of yoga breathing as well. I wanted to know about more of those practices and about what science was finding. From the way Gross did the interview, I assumed the book was built on quality reporting and good science.

I downloaded a sample and while I wasn’t impressed with the writing style (which, perhaps because Nestor primarily writes for Outside magazine and similar outlets, was overly personal and casual), I decided getting the information would be worth putting up with the style. So I bought the book.

And was terribly disappointed. There wasn’t as much information as I’d hoped for about traditional breathing practices (though there is good material in the appendix) and much of the scientific research came from the kind of people who go off and research on their own because no one else gets their genius. Every so often, such people are real geniuses, but most of the time, they’re cranks or quacks.

Nestor is clearly obsessed with extreme breathing practices — he wrote another book on free-diving — and with obscure men (and it’s mostly men) who are working outside the system.

In addition to writing about breathing, he raised the issue of whether we have evolved to have faces that cramp our sinuses, but since so much of what he wrote about that was based on work by some dentists who find it important to write famous people and tell them they’re holding their heads wrong, it was hard to take all that seriously. And the actual scientists he did talk to did not take their work to the places where he took it.

The whole book reads like a collection of magazine articles. He even skipped doing a chapter on someone teaching real yoga breathing to do one on a person using breathwork to give people the elevated state common to psychedelic drugs — something he then dismissed as not particularly well-proven.

But it’s not the fact that it’s a bad book or even the fact that I was disappointed when I was hoping to get a lot of useful information that made me want to criticize this work. It’s the fact that this book has had reams of publicity and promotion despite being a bad book that does not do what it purports to do.

Not only was Nestor on Fresh Air, but this book has received favorable reviews in publications ranging from the AARP magazine to New Scientist, not to mention all the usual magazines and newspapers. It made The New York Times best seller list for at least a short period.

Somehow this not very good book got amazing amounts of positive promotion and publicity. One assumes Nestor also got a nice advance, because he was able to travel around the world and buy some equipment to do his research for it. I assume the publisher gave less attention to substantive editing, which might have improved it substantially.

I understand that even bad books can get good promotion and have good sales. It happens all the time, and it particularly rife in books on health topics.

But three things about this one really pissed me off.

First, this book is promoted as if the author was looking at a combination of traditional breathing practices and modern science, when the bulk of what he was doing was a lot of self-experimentation and interviews with people who, to put it bluntly, sound like cranks.

Secondly, the reviewers and interviewers I count on to analyze such books did a poor job. They apparently took Nestor and the book at face value.

And thirdly, this is a damned important topic and needed much better treatment. Learning effective breathing practices can improve our health. Anyone who has studied meditation, good yoga, qigong, T’ai Chi, or lots of martial arts knows that. It would be great if someone would look at all that and look at what we’ve figured out about it through research.

Instead we got this sloppy book. Odds are no one will publish another on the subject anytime soon, because it’s been done. And that’s the biggest shame of all.

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