Book Review: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes, I’m left bewildered by the gullibility of the general public. I don’t mean this cruelly, but, you know, I get a little upset when I see certain books become ‘bestsellers’ because these books are, frankly, pandering to the whims of readers and peddling the snake oils they want to buy.

James Nestor’s book, ‘Breath’ isn’t quite a snake oil, but it isn’t very far away from it. It’s not so much that the stuff he’s writing about is ‘fake’. It’s more that he presents the book in such a classic style as though it were. It’s the standard routine – tell a personal story, sprinkle a few facts or pseudo-facts, tell a ton of ‘personal story’ anecdotes of yester-year and – voila! – you have a hot elixir and customers with the cheque books open.

As I say, the actual facts about breathing Nestor presents aren’t wrong (though I’m suspicious of the extreme conclusions he draws from them). Most are solid facts, actually; so solid that they’re already well known and ‘out there’ in the public domain. This does feel a little bit cheating to me. In my early stages of learning to be a commercial writer, there were plenty of packages out there promising to show you how to write a book in 24 hours. They all revolved around fast google searches on some topic or other, download your information, rewrite it up quickly, edit, package up and ship out. Nestor’s book feels like a glorified version of this – just done with professional aplomb and considerable care.

But the fact remains, this stuff is already out there and it doesn’t take an eagle-eyed reader to spot that from the evidence Nestor provides himself. Almost every anecdote he gives about the ‘life-changing’ results of learning to breathe correctly come from several decades in the past. In cases, more like a century or more. The decades-old stories are the more science-based of the tales and, if there’s one thing that scientists do, it’s share their findings. This isn’t new information the author is giving us: it’s all on google. What’s more, Nestor boils ALL of it down to one single idea: breathe through your nose, never your mouth. It takes a book to say that. Honestly.

If ‘Breath’ was written by a hack, I would now be giving it a one-star rating – or two at most. But Nestor is no hack. His style is attractive and, importantly, he does have a personal story to tell is which is interesting. There’s a clear bias towards the spiritual and it feels like Nestor would rather be telling this spiritual journey rather than the physiological one. He plumps for something in between – a chronological personal story with smatterings of information along the way laced with anecdotes all but designed to make you forget that the message being told is a simple one. It’s an interesting concoction of ideas and, at the very least, it does collect research all together in one neat package which means you don’t have to go googling all over the place to find what you want to know. That, along with an appendix of breathing exercises to try for yourself, ties the bow on this pretty little package.

Is ‘Breath’ a classic then? No, definitely not. But it is a book which might find its way on to coffee tables without causing the host too much embarrassment. It’s also the kind of book which you might give to someone as a Christmas or birthday gift when you can’t think of anything decent to give them. But that’s about it. If you’re serious about learning the benefits of breathing well, you’re better off going to the sources themselves. Or even just go to your average GP or sports specialist. Chances are, they’ll already know this stuff.



Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

  1. Shame you didn’t like this book. I know 3 people who found it fascinating, they are all engineers. They liked the way this, old news to many, was presented. They are not into yoga and navel gazing. As the old saying goes, One’s Man’s meat and all that. Blessings Joy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. All reviews are the opinion of the person writing them and, of course, not everyone will agree. I would wonder though, if your three engineers could say their health has demonstrably changed for the better after reading the book? If not, then was the fascination worth the price of the book? For me, no it wasn’t!

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    2. I pulled into my driveway on a cold snowy night and an interview with the author came on. I was so fascinated I sat in my car for an hour listening. Did you read and review the same book? My dentist was discussing it with me and told me he can tell a mouth breather by looking at them including their teeth and sinus configuration. Also it is a major cause of people having their molars pulled for lack of space and causes periodontal disease. This is just one aspect. I don’t know what special interests your advocating for ,but your review is mind blowing incorrect and misleading. Thus is a must read book. As a martial artist I find this book 100% factual.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I appreciate that long length of time listening to someone must have been a deeply emotional moment for you, but I’ll throw the question back at you. Did you even even READ the review? Or did you just decide I must be wrong because I didn’t like it the way you did? The only ‘special interests’ I advocate are accuracy and honesty. The author is not wonderful at either but that is not to say that what is in the book isn’t (roughly) factual. It is merely that the information is already out there and has been for some considerable time. I point to you, again, the internal evidence of the book, that most of his anecdotes and evidence is really quite old. But I also turn to your own evidence – the dentist. How did he know such things unless he has already received training in the matter? My own family has used breathing techniques (some mentioned in the book) for the best part of twenty years. Those techniques came from medical training, from physiotherapists and from those working in counselling. My contention is that the author wraps this all up as something new and special, to make money from the book, and overhypes the facts in doing so.

        I must confess your last sentence did make me chortle. I’m not aware of martial artists being renowned experts on medical issues. I say this as someone who trained in some of the arts for many years and whose brother has been a top instructor in several martial arts for well over thirty years. I wouldn’t trust his advice on breathing or any other medical advice any more than I would trust my car mechanic. I’ll go to the medical services for that, thanks. They’re the ones with the training and most up-to-date information.

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      2. Every “body” tells a story. It is such a shame that some people think that only medics can help us, when in reality many people can read the body and come up with solutions much better than many with a medical degree. I am not a martial arts expert by any means, but I do understand that many see the breath as important, and you only have to listen to some tennis players to know that they exhale noisily when they hit the ball. Blessings J x

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      3. Joy, if you mean allied professions with rigorous methods of learning, I’ll agree with you. Hence, physiotherapists, Occupational therapists etc., and potentially coaches working with athletes and other sports trainees.

        If you mean those who have touchy-feely ideas such as holistic practitioners, alternative therapies and theological perspectives, then no. We part company at that point. There are far far too many examples of people being led to extremely bad health by such fakers. Again, I point out that at no point am I saying the information in this book is ‘false’. It is already out there and, contrary to what your comment suggests, the author DOES refer to medical practitioners. I do wish people would read…

        Not sure what your observation about tennis players was trying to say. It seems to me such an obvious point that even GCSE students would know this and understand the biology involved. Have a nice day!

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      4. How many “touchy feely” practitioners have previously worked in the allied professions do you think? And why do you think they leave the medical field and go into the touchy feelly paradigm?

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      5. Well Joy, for your benefit I did a few google searches and found that out 1.7 million medically qualified practitioners in Europe only 150,000 have any CAM -related interests. Complementary or alternative medicine therapies are completely unregulated in the UK which means, literally, anyone can strike up as a ‘touchy feely’ practitioner. This probably explains why a) so few medical practitioners move over and b) why anyone with any scientific understanding rejects them as ‘quackery’. For my part, I’ve been involved professionally and personally medical practitioners for probably around 30 years now, counting as friends, doctors from around the world. Not one of them has gone over to CAM. Why would they? It would be a rejection of scientific scrutiny and common sense. This is not to say that some natural herbal therapy and possibly some acupuncture or pressure therapies don’t have some slim measure of practical application nor that mindfulness is a complete waste of time. But most of the CAM therapies have one use and one use only – as a placebo to help patients help themselves in the healing process. As Harari espouses, we all need myths to live by and those myths are exceedingly powerful.

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      6. Please don’t do anything for my benefit. I am very capable of doing my own research, as well as making my own choices for my health and how I chose to deal with it.

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      7. I’ve never suggest you can’t make your own choices or how you deal with your health – it’s none of my concern! I will assume now though that the original subject of the veracity of this book is now done with and the conversation can close. Thank you!

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    1. I understand it perfectly well, thank you. If it changed your life then great, I’m very pleased for you. It still doesn’t change my criticisms which boil down largely to that everything in the book is already out there in the public domain.

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    1. Yes it is very much a reproduction of similar ‘self help’ books flipped out at the public over the decades. It is well written, I’ll give him that, but still very formulaic.

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  2. I’m happy to have had the chance to read through your review. I appreciate your honesty and that you took the time to research his claims. The truth of the matter is I’m about halfway through the book and as much as I’m enjoying learning about all of the benefits he describes (some of which are new to me), I can’t help but wonder about the validity of some of the things he writes about. Some seem a little far fetched and it brings up red flags whereby if he’s exaggerating in some aspects, where does he draw the line? Things like breathing through the nose and slowing down breathing, taking deeper breaths and such are pretty obvious but areas where he says building up CO2 in the body is crucial and such on top of all of the medical wonders made me a little skeptical. Either way, the fact that you mention his information is essentially true and out there in the medical field brings me comfort. I’ll continue on with the book from an educational standpoint to supplement my own understanding of the topic (which I admittedly need a little more of). I don’t mind how he presents the information so long as it’s true. I’ll likely take it as fundamentally correct but will maintain the notion that a lot of his observed benefits and referenced studies likely came from more than just breathing but that proper breathing was a strong factor in the result all the same.

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      Yes, I don’t think anything the author says is going to do you any harm (I’m pretty certain the publisher’s lawyers will have been over this book with a fine toothcomb for this reason!) and there’s nothing which is directly false. But also yes, the claims are overstated (on the whole) and the author does give too much of an impression that your health and well being will be utterly transformed by breathing techniques.

      There will be improvements for sure, and you may well feel more content in yourself from following the ‘myth’ (and we all need these to some extent) but the science of his claims are well known to doctors and other medical practitioners. There’s nothing genuinely ‘new’ here, despite the author’s attempts to seem otherwise.

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