An illustration of a woman exhaling against a calming background of reeds and sky.

Stop, breathe: why the breathwork trend might be the key to a healthy 2021

From James Nestor to Wim Hof, bestselling authors are exploring how learning to breathe properly could be the key to good health – for lockdown and beyond.

Last October, I called Wim Hof to ask what movies, music and art could possibly inspire the world-famous ‘Iceman’ – a man who, in 2007, made it three-quarters of the way up Mount Everest wearing nothing but shoes and shorts, who in 2000 set the world record for the farthest swim under ice, almost drowning in the process. (For those curious: Hof’s corneas froze in the ice-cold water during his first attempt, blinding him; he was rescued, then returned and broke the record the next day.)

He told me about King Kong and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but what Hof really wanted to talk about was breathing.

"You have all the tools to change your biochemistry by the greatest tool on Earth: breathing," he said. "Deep breathing changes you; do it in the morning. Covid-19 is absolutely very stressful, but if you do deep breathing, you can cleanse yourself, and feel light and unburdened.”

'You have all the tools to change your biochemistry by the greatest tool on Earth: breathing.'

Hof makes a living pulling off extraordinary, superhuman feats; I had no doubt the technique he advocates in The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Potential, Transcend Your Limits – which focuses on deep-breathing exercises that alternate between the nose and mouth, fast and slow breathing, and held breath – worked wonders for him. But how much could breathing actually change the average person?

Turns out, a lot. In Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor decribes himself as someone whose “job was stressing me out” and whose “house was falling apart” – until he discovered how to breathe properly, and changed his whole life in the process.

Drawing on a range of sources, from the Chinese Tao in circa 400 BCE to a 21st Century Stanford University study, the book explains how breathing can be “powerful medicine”: it can alter your athletic performance, boost your organ health, halt snoring, allergies and asthma – even fight autoimmune disease.

Nestor’s Breath begins with the discovery that human beings are breathing, well – wrong. In early chapter ‘Mouthbreathing’ he explains, using himself as a guinea pig, how humanity has neglected their nasal cavities, and the multitudinous ways that breathing through our mouths negatively affects our health. For the rest of his captivating book, he explores an astonishing number of breath exercises, and touches on the ways we can better our breathing health with elements borrowed from practices as far-flung as yoga, singing, and even chewing. Depending on the outcome you’d like, Nestor outlines at least a dozen different approaches to try. Breath is now an international bestseller.

Beyond Nestor and Hof, breathwork – the health concern du jour – has countless advocates: it’s a central part of Kalisa Augustine’s recent The Energy Book: Supercharge Your Life by Healing Your Energy, and it’s the entire focus of Rebecca Dennis’s audiobook Breathe: A practical guide to breathwork exercises, a breathwork toolkit meant to guide listeners towards higher energy levels, better sleep health and lower anxiety. Richie Norton’s forthcoming Lift Your Vibe includes breathwork as one of the daily rituals “to help you unlock and develop your full physical and mental potential”. Celebrities are getting hyped about it, too: Chris Evans, a Nestor fan, swears by it; Will Smith, too.

Bostock stumbled upon breathwork as a way to treat his father’s muscular sclerosis diagnosis. Years later, his father’s MS had ceased to progress.

UK breathwork expert Richie Bostock, the author of Exhale, even made the bold prediction to the Huffington Post that “in a couple of years, there will be breathwork classes being offered in many gyms and studios around the world. Looking at the way people breathe will be a primary focus in the mental health industry as it has such a huge impact on how we think, feel and act.”

Bostock’s expertise comes from a place of experience: he stumbled upon breathwork when he was searching for a way to treat his father’s muscular sclerosis diagnosis. Years later, his father’s MS had ceased to progress, and Bostock had become an obsessive breathwork convert. His guru? None other than the ‘Iceman’ himself, Wim Hof.

Whether or not breathwork becomes ‘the next yoga’, the new health trend already has the backing of celebrities, word of mouth and – crucially – research and lived experience shared in some brilliant books. As the pandemic stretches on and people seek ways to maintain good health in lockdown, more sceptics might just find themselves compelled to slow down, stop – and take a deep breath.  

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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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