Indians right again!

My friend Mark, a retired woodwind player—sax and bassoon—dropped a book off for me that he said I had to read. The book is Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, and the author is James Nestor.

Nestor was a middle-aged man with a number of respiratory maladies who’d just recovered from a bout of pneumonia and still coughed and wheezed enough so that his doctor recommended a breathing class. The class, held in a small, dusty, four-flights up room, featured a staticky recording of a man in an East Indian accent guiding breathing. After a few minutes, Nestor was ready to quit, but his doctor had suggested—and the class was free; after 30 minutes, he actually felt better.

Which sent him into deep history and across the world, chasing stories on breathing and lungs. He read the Buddhists and the Hindus, and he visited and eventually wrote a book about Greek divers who descended up to 300 feet and could hold their breath for 10 minutes, who had, against all medical knowledge, as much as doubled lung capacity. Healthy lungs and healthy hearts, the ancient texts and modern practitioners said, was due to proper breathing. And that means breathing through the nose!

Nestor went to ancient archeology and paleontology, and discovered that the skulls of earliest humanoids had larger nasal and mouth cavities, that they seemed to have shrunk with the growth of the human brain. Along the way, humans, many of us at least, have become mouth breathers. And our smaller mouths feature crooked teeth and cavities. Because the nose is built to filter out bacteria that lead to so many tooth and mouth maladies when it doesn’t get its filtering done.

Nestor’s research continued, and at a point—page 46 in the book, he comes across the artist George Catlin. Catlin was an unsatisfied lawyer in poor health who, in 1830, had taken up painting Philadelphia high society. His ill health continued, and a desire to get into “nature” caused him to pack up paints and canvases and go West. He went up the Missouri to the Lakota Sioux, met Pawnee, Omaha, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Crow. He took notes and created some 600 paintings among the Tribes, remarking that the Mandan had blue eyes and stood over six feet tall. He found the Crow even taller, some seven feet tall! They were broad shouldered and muscular, and the women were almost as tall and striking as the men.

Tribal diets, Catlin found, differed greatly. Some ate mostly buffalo and maize, others mostly venison, and some flowers and vegetables. They shared impressive physical characteristics, including perfect teeth, “as regular as keys of a piano.” They were extremely healthy (remember that this is before European diseases had done their worst with the Plains Tribes). Catlin said that their “secret of life” was in breathing.

They breathed through their noses, and claimed that mouth breathing distorted the face and caused stress and disease. Their breathing philosophy mirrored what Nestor had read in ancient texts. Mothers would pinch babies’ mouths shut after feeding, and check on them in sleep. Cradle boards promoted nose breathing over mouth breathing as well.

The book goes well beyond nose breathing and Ancient Buddhists and American Indians. He participates in a Stanford study that plugs his nose completely for 10 days and watches heart rate and blood pressure climb. He explores Tibetan Buddhists and European and American followers who pair maximum breathing with exposure to extreme cold and heat—and thrive. He finds sicknesses, sleep apnea, and snoring cured by breathing and simple mouth devices. Researchers have not been traditional M.D.s, but choir directors and, increasingly, dentists. Some of his interviewees tell him that air is free and can’t be patented—ditching traditional medications in favor of nose and lung exercises is not a profit center.

I have not talked to friend Mark to know why he gave me the book. Has he watched me reach for breath? suspected bad teeth? More likely he saw that George Catlin story within the larger story and thought about me and my fascination with all the things Native Americans knew and white settlers ignored as we moved across the continent and through the decades.

I asked a couple of Nez Perce friends, and they had no notion of such traditional breathing practices. But—we almost extirpated their languages, and we introduced white sugar and flour to their diets. The perfect teeth—the “keys of a piano” that Catlin noted—might have gone the way of language, diet, and nose breathing over the last 150 years. The perfect teeth that attracted grave robbers and caused some Native skulls to be displayed in dental offices.

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Photo: Catlin paints Hee-oh’ks-te-kin, a Nez Perce he meets in St. Louis. Smithsonian American Art Museum.


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