BOOK REVIEW: Breath Taking by Michael J. Stephen

Breath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our FutureBreath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our Future by Michael J. Stephen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


This book explores the crucial role of breathing in human existence, discussing evidence of how breathing practices can contribute to healing of numerous illnesses, investigating the range of threats — from pollution to smoking to toxic dust — that can threaten our ability to breath, and examining a number of diseases that can disturb a person’s breathing. This book is primarily a popular science look at pulmonary medicine. Unlike other breath-related books that I’ve reviewed, this book is mostly about what can go wrong with our lungs and what medical science is doing to combat these threats. The story of how breathwork and changing breathing patterns can improve health and well-being is addressed, but that’s not the book’s central focus. The book uses plenty of stories (e.g. case studies) and what I call “fun facts” to keep the reading from becoming too dry or clinical for a neophyte reader.

The book consists of fifteen chapters. The first two chapters provide basic background information to help understand how the Earth happens to have the oxygen-laden air necessary for our type of life (Ch. 1) and how the lungs exploit that air in fueling our bodily activities (Ch. 2.) Chapter thee explores how breathing begins in newborn babies, explaining that the lungs are the only major organ that doesn’t start working until we are out in the world, and lung inflation doesn’t always go smoothly. The fourth chapter discusses how breathwork (including — but not limited to — yogic pranayama) has been shown to improve health for those experiencing a range of conditions, including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and pain, as well as how breath and meditational practices contribute to better health, generally.

Chapter five investigates the intersection of the respiratory and immune systems, explaining how autoimmune conditions, allergies, and asthma come to be. In chapter six, the author discusses one of the most common and widespread diseases in the world, tuberculosis (TB,) a disease which not only threatens the lives of many, but also sits dormant in a huge portion of the population.

Chapters seven through nine each deal with hazardous materials that are inhaled into the lungs. The first of these chapters is about smoking, and it focuses on the question of how nicotine acts in the body to create intense addictions – as well as what has and hasn’t worked to help people break said addiction. Chapter eight is about pollution. (As resident of a city of twelve million people, I found this to be a particularly disturbing chapter because air pollution is a hazard that is too easy to be blind to if one doesn’t suffer from respiratory problems.) Chapter nine investigates a range of breathable hazards including smoke, dust, and asbestos, and it does so through the lens of the rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center after the dual collapse of the twin towers on 9-11, an event which released all sorts of toxic material into the air, hazards for which most responders were ill-equipped.

Chapter ten through twelve are about ailments that may or may not be linked to environmental causes like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above. The first of these is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which, by definition, is a condition that arises from an unknown cause, an ailment which involves a stiffening and thickening of lung tissue (which must be thin and supple to allow gas exchange and the expansion and contraction of the breath cycle.) Chapter eleven focuses on lung cancer, which is often due to an inhaled hazard (most notably, smoking,) but not necessarily. While the other chapters of the book focus on breathing as a process by which we take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, chapter twelve turns to a different role played by breath, one that is crucial to the activities of our species, breath as a means to control the voice.

Chapter 13 describes the process and challenges of lung transplant. As mentioned in the discussion of pulmonary fibrosis, lung tissue is rather delicate material, and so it was no easy task to transplant it. Furthermore, because the lungs are a point at which the external world (air) contacts the body’s internal systems the challenges are even greater than for those organs that are hermetically sealed within bodily tissues.

The last two chapters focus on cystic fibrosis (CF.) Chapter fourteen explores the nature of the disease and the slow, but promising, path towards treating it. CF is a genetic condition in which the lack of a single amino acid wreaks havoc on the ability of cells to process minerals. The last chapter tells the story of two cases of CF. The first story – involving a ten-year-old whose family had to struggle against a policy that essentially locked their child out of the lung transplant list – is particularly engrossing.

As someone who practices breathwork, I found this book to be interesting and insightful. While it is heavily focused on pulmonary medicine, it does offer insights that will be beneficial to those who are not afflicted by respiratory ailments. If one wants to know more about medicine as it pertains to respiration, this is definitely an interesting and readable choice. However, even if one is infatuated with breath more generally, I believe you’ll find in this volume a great deal of beneficial food-for-thought.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. IX [Streaming Poetry]

As I continue to look at variations in consciousness, it occurred to me that poetry writing (or at least pre-writing) often involves an altered state of consciousness. Often, I do an exercise akin to freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise that has been popular for a long time for beating writer’s block. You just write: fast, without judgement, and without concern that you’re taking a reader to any particular place. (It’s somewhat like “brainstorming” in process, but usually solitary and producing sentences or phrases and not bullet-point lists.) The point is to break the grip of self-consciousness and lay waste to the idea that every word has to be pure brilliance to be worthy of your time.

My process begins by quieting my conscious mind, typically with long exhalation breathwork (pranayama.) For those unfamiliar with yogic pranayama or other forms of breathwork, drawing out one’s exhalations (in conjunction with relaxing the body) slows the heart rate and otherwise activates the rest and digest functions of the body. (The curious or dubious can look up “cardiac sinus arrhythmia” or “respiratory sinus arrhythmia,” which is the same thing alternatively labeled by the cause [respiration adjusted] or the effect [heartbeat changes])

After my conscious mind is tranquil, I set pencil to paper and just start writing quickly — without looking back or forward, but just trying to be present with whatever my mind vomits forth. Usually, there is an understandable grammar, but no understandable meaning (at least not beyond the granularity of a phrase.) But building meaning isn’t the point, and I don’t care. Sometimes, I fall into a rhythmic sound quality, but other times I don’t. To give an idea of what the raw feed of this looks like, here’s an example from this morning:

Turn ten, run the nines. I found a fever down the line and could not bend the wall to weep, but heard the conveyor line… beep – beep – beep. Oh, so some fucking wisdom says let live the demons that I dread, but there’s a cold magnolia leaf on the ground and I can hear it skid at the break of dawn, but what sign is that to feel it out. I killed a monk and stole his doubt, but you’ll never blame away the triple frame…

So, it’s a collection of words and phrases that has no discernible meaning collectively. Once and a while, I go through some of these flows of verbiage and underline words, phrases, or ideas that have some spark or merit, and then — if I can — unshuffle and word-cobble until I have a poem.

However, my point in this post isn’t to describe how a poem gets its wings. Instead, it’s to discuss the process by which the consciousness “presents” us with something from out of nowhere. (The conscious mind would claim it “created” it, but I have my doubts. I’ve learned the conscious mind routinely takes credit for many things that are not its doing.)

It’s not like I have an idea (stolen or otherwise) and then I think it through, and then I order those thoughts into an outline. (The usual writing process.) On the contrary, I go to great lengths to make my conscious as quiet as possible as a precursor. I think about the term William James coined, “stream of consciousness” which became a prominent literary device. Is it streaming into consciousness, from consciousness, or through consciousness? Where does it come from? 

You might say, “Why worry about where it comes from because it’s a garbage heap?”

But once in a while there are epiphanies and flashes of insight amidst the rubble and dung. Sure, maybe I grant detritus post-hoc gold status, but there’s something there I feel I have yet to understand.

In consciousness, we seem to have awareness of [something] and meta-awareness (i.e. we are aware of what we are aware of [something.]) Sometimes that meta-awareness is a grand and beneficial tool, but sometimes it’s just another word for self-consciousness. Sometimes having a one-track mind is a beautiful thing.

I said that my practice was “akin to freewriting,” and it might seem exactly freewriting, but the main difference is that it’s purposeless. Sure, once and a while I go back through and rag-pick, but mostly I do the practice just to revel in the experience of being completely with whatever words are streaming. The writing and being consciousness of what is surprising me on the page takes enough of my mental faculties that I have none left to be self-conscious.

Who knows where this journey will take me next month? There’s still a lot of territory left in the altered states of consciousness. Fasting, dance, shamanic drumming, tantric sex, psychonautics, etc. Who knows?

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VI [Breathwork]

This month’s post will explore breath as an influence on one’s state of consciousness. My apologies for getting into the weeds at the start with a long discussion of the minutiae of this breathwork practice, but this is a topic that can create confusion for a couple different reasons.

First, there are a number of ways breath could be used to influence one’s state of consciousness, and the practices I’m talking about are of one specific type. For example, I often use a balanced pranayama practice (breathing exercises that mix calming, exciting, and balanced breaths) as a lead-in to meditative practices because it helps to put me in a state of mind that is neither groggy nor mentally agitated, allowing my mental chatter to quiet rapidly without making me drift off. However, that’s not the kind of practice I’m referring too in this post. I’m talking about breathing in a way that is excessively deep and / or fast for an extended period such that the blood becomes more alkaline (i.e. blood is slightly alkaline in homeostasis, but the pH goes up in this type of practice) as carbon dioxide is purged.

Second, there’s no terminology that’s commonly agreed upon. For one thing, the breathing that I’m discussing could be called “hyperventilative” or “over-breathing.” However, those terms are usually used to describe medical conditions that may have similar physiological effects, but aren’t controlled activities done on purpose. While there are some similarities physiologically, equating this practice with involuntarily rapid breathing caused by a physical injury, mental condition, or consumption of a toxic substance can create confusion. After all, whatever is causing involuntary hyperventilation is likely to have other effects (at a minimum, increased anxiety) over and beyond those seen in a voluntary practice. This means the list of adverse effects will also be different. I wouldn’t want a reader to look at a Wikipedia or WebMD page for “hyperventilation” and think I’m insane for undertaking the practice.

For another thing, this type of breathing is employed in a number of different systems — each of which has its own particular approach and particular context in which the breath practice occurs (and variations in terminology.) Tibetan Buddhist Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, and Holotropic Breathwork all use kinds of breathing that create a similar effects. However, it should noted that the breathwork is just a part of each of these practices that occurs within a more extensive context. In Tummo, visualization in conjunction with the breath is an essential element of the practice. The Wim Hof Method has a defined sequence including breath retention, not to mention other practices — most famously, cold exposure. Holotropic Breathwork employs an observer and encourages practitioners to make sounds and movement as they feel fit as part of the practice, basically responding freely to the impulses one feels. It should be noted that Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislav Grof after psychoactive substances like LSD became illegal, and he was looking for a way to generate similar results endogenously, having seen positive therapeutic effects using LSD. 

It should be noted that yoga also has breaths that create this type of effect: Kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) and Bhastrika (bellows breath.) However, these breaths are more self-regulating in that they are generally done in and out through the nose (as opposed to exhaling through mouth which allows a greater tidal turnover of breath) and because the rapid contraction of the abdomen to force the exhalation tends to be self-limiting. In other words, the capacity of one’s nervous system to keep up with breath will — for most people — give out well before one’s blood chemistry is so out of whack that it is likely to create any bizarre or potentially dangerous effects. For this reason, kapalbhati and bhastrika can be safely practiced daily in a seated position (though if one is doing unusually large sets or numbers of sets, one might be wise to lay down.) It should be noted that the basic breathwork of the Wim Hof Method involves three sets of 30 breaths (though with breath retention in between), and most people would probably be fine doing that seated as well (though it seems to done laying down most frequently,) and it can be done daily.

I focused on the breath entirely — as well as observation of the after effects upon my mind and body. The practice I did involved a full and rapid in breath through the nose and a blowing exhalation through the mouth, repeated as quickly as sustainable for as long as 30 minutes at a time. I always did this practice lying down, and I always allowed the same amount of time I did the practice before attempting to get up. (i.e. if I did the breath practice for 30 minutes, I would reset the alarm for 30 minutes after I was done and lie still, watching the sensations, at least until the alarm went off.) I only did half-hour sessions once a week, though I would sometimes engage in shorter practices or specific practices (e.g. trying out the basic Wim Hof breath exercise.) While stimulating yoga pranayama (e.g. kapalbhati) and relatively small repetitions done in a few sets (e.g. the basic Wim Hof breath practice), can be practiced daily, I wanted to give my body lots of time to restore homeostasis because of the extensive and relatively long-lasting effects of these sessions.

The experience of doing the practice was interesting. I almost always face a challenge at the very beginning of the practice. Forcing such over-breathing feels burdensome at first, and its hard to image getting through a half hour of it. However, before long I would catch a rhythm and by the end of the practice I was usually stunned at how quickly the time went. I suspect having to focus on maintaining the breath keeps one from internally referencing time, and that’s why one seems to lose track of it altogether.

I wish I had more of a culinary sense and set of terminology, because I found there was definitely a subtle flavor associated with my changed body chemistry. I could taste the experience of respiratory alkalosis, but I have no way of describing what the taste of it was like. Of course, the most dramatic sensory experience associated with the practice was tingling all over the body. It wasn’t just in the usual parts (e.g. the extremities), but I also felt it — for example —  along both sides of my abdomen. While the intensity of the tingling began waning as soon as I was done, it often would more than last through my post-practice observation period.

As for the effect on my state of consciousness, in general I came out of it feeling loose and blissful. I haven’t had any trippy, psychedelic, or hallucinatory experiences, but there is definitely a sense of calm and clarity (not to mention a slightly inebriated feel.) I generally finished with a kind of rhythmic, music ready state of mind. I don’t know if that was a feature of the rhythm of the breathing or just a quirky sensory craving. It should be noted that I also had sensations that weren’t particularly pleasant (though they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either — like a faint trace of a headache.) I’d recommend being as slow and gentle as possible when coming out of such a practice.

As for recommendations, for this practice my recommendation would be the same as it was in my January post about an experience with psilocybin tea. That is, “know thyself.” In other words, I wouldn’t make a wholesale recommendation that someone try this type of practice. Certainly, people who have anxiety when everything isn’t in perfect homeostasis in the body should steer clear of it. If one doesn’t have an extensive background with breathwork and how one’s body responds to it, I’d, furthermore, recommend that one only try it under the guidance of (and in the presence of) someone who does. This practice has had a more drastic influence on mind and body than any of the other consciousness-altering practices thus far and may be the most potentially dangerous. All that said, I have found it beneficial, and believe others may too under the right circumstances.

Continuing this series, next month (July) I’m going to try to jump-start my practice of lucid-dreaming (a.k.a. dream yoga.) [It’s something I’ve never excelled at, though I do have a few lucid dreams a year.]