Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Ugh, I wish this book had been better. It was right at the edge of annoying with placing himself at the heart of the story, gallivanting to Brazil to meet with a famous yoga dude who was hurrying to the airport to get back to his NYC yoga studio (read: Nestor wanted to write off a trip to Brazil instead of simply meeting this guy in New York) and dismissing the people he encountered in the lobby as “giggling in Portuguese”. While Nestor thankfully didn’t veer into bloviating misogyny his presence in the tale was a bit too pitch perfect, it’s like you’re watching a character have a flashback with wavy images as he perches on a doctor’s table and then takes you to a related part of his research.

Anyway, there didn’t seem to be much “new science” in his discovering this lost art. He’s simply pointing a spotlight on science that’s been around for a while, like the research that points out our mouths started shrinking from disuse after humans started eating softer foods 300 years ago (more processed, not as much chewing required). This collapse of the mouth cavity causes breathing issues and we’re all breathing wrong, all the time. Chewing gum for a few hours a day can build bones in the jaw (Falim Sugarless Mint).

Breathe through your nose. Right nostril breathing increases heat & blood pressure, left nostril breathing relaxes & shifts blood to the part of your brain that assists with creative thinking.

Wim Hof method/Tummo (inner fire): lie on back with pillow, relax chest/shoulders, legs. Deep breath thru nose into pit of stomach, let out quickly, breathe like this for 30 cycles. Inhale inflates stomach then chest, exhale out stomach then chest. After 30 breaths, exhale & leave 1/4 of air in lungs and hold for as long as possible, then big inhale and hold for another 15 seconds. Move this fresh breath around thee chest and to the shoulders, exhale & start heavy breathing again. Repeat 3 rounds and add cold exposure a few times a week. The flip-flop forces the body into stress then relaxation, making the body more adaptable.

Resonant/Coherent Breathing: sit up straight, relax stomach & shoulders, exhale; inhale 5.5 seconds, expanding belly; no pause then exhale for 5.5 seconds, bring belly in. Each breath is a circle. Repeat at least 10 times.

Sudarshan Kriya: om chants, breath restriction, paced breathing (4 sec inhale, 4 sec hold, 6 sec exhale, 2 sec hold), then 40 minutes of very heavy breathing.

4-7-8 breathing into deep relaxation: exhale through mouth, inhale thru nose for 4, hold for 7, exhale thru mouth for 8, inhale 4, hold 7, exhale 8, (4 cycles).

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf

Alongside all the letters, diaries, essays, biographies, novels, and plays, I was also reading Woolf’s shorter fiction squeezed appropriately in chronologically. This excellent resource included all the stories collected in Monday or Tuesday and Mrs Dalloway’s Party plus many more. She frequently turned to short stories as a way of relieving her brain, to amuse herself, to give voice to the burst of words bubbling up inside as she worked on larger, more intense projects.

Her evolution as a writer is on display in this collection spanning 1906-1941. I was particularly struck by the sound design she evokes in In the Orchard, dated 1922, describing a woman sleepily reading beneath an apple tree. The sound of schoolchildren reciting the multiplication table is described as a “shrill clamour as if they were gongs of cracked brass beaten violently, irregularly, and brutally.” The sound of the church organ “floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of fieldfares flying at an enormous speed.” Then bells “thudded, intermittent, sullen, didactic…” And the weather vane squeaks as it turns, and the reader realizes she’ll be late for tea.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 6, 1936-1941

Reading the volumes of letters in tandem with the diaries is absolutely essential. I finished the diary yesterday, which means I finished the letters yesterday, too, only the volume included an Appendix of dozens of letters that had been discovered too late for inclusion in the earlier volumes. And so I lingered a bit with Woolf’s ghost, reading snippets from 1903 onward, after I had already read up to the point of her death. (Like this lovely 1923 ululation during a trip to Spain that “I am reading Proust, I am reading Rimbaud. I am longing to write.”)

The letters are always chatty and entertaining, light, meandering, poetic. As Nigel Nicolson notes in the introduction, a letter “was a wine-glass to hold her delights, or a sump for her despair.”

This volume contains many examples of the unease with the coming of war, like this 1936 to Victoria Ocampo, “Here we live under the shadow of disaster. I’ve never known such a time of foreboding. Even the artists mope and pine and cant get on with their pictures.” And in Jan 1938: “Lord what a year of incessant catastrophe–but that years over, so lets hope the best for this one.” Aug 1938: “As for politics, I feel as if we were all sitting downstairs while someone slowly dies.” Feb 1941: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget…”

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1936-1941

It seems appropriate that it’s a grey drizzly morning when I finally close the pages of this last volume. I’ve gently sipped at this diary for the past four months, admittedly dragging my feet for the last few weeks not wanting to get to March 1941.

I am prepared for it as I head to the end, we all know what’s coming. And this project of reading everything she wrote chronologically has prepared me better than anything I could have comprehended. I’ve been with her all these years, and with the onset of the second world war, the nightly bombing raids which destroyed their London flat and sent all their possessions scavenged from the wreckage (thankfully including all volumes of the diary) stowed in barns across the village, it makes sense. Her deteriorating mental condition is completely understandable when there is no future to look forward to. But up to the last entry, what a romp, what a delight it has been! Thank god Leonard disobeyed her injunction to destroy all her papers. This five-volume series of diaries is one of the most magnificent documents in the history of literature.

I have dozens of markers glittering along the pages noting things I wanted to remember here, but I’ll start at the end and work backwards:

24 December 1940: “By shutting down the fire curtain, though, I find I can live in the moment; which is good; why yield a moment to regret or envy or worry? Why indeed?”

She envisions what death by German bombing would feel like (Oct 2, 1940): “I shall think—oh I wanted another 10 years—not this—& shant, for once, be able to describe it. It—I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light,—painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so—Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness—& then, dot dot dot”

Relieved to have the servant gone and cooking for herself: “Domestically, a great relief & peace, & expansion, it’ll be tomorrow, into merry kitchen harum scarum ways.”

Thinking again of what death by German bombing would be like (Aug 28, 1940): “It wd have been a peaceful matter of fact death to be popped off on the terrace playing bowls this very fine cool sunny August evening.”

In July: “So, the Germans are nibbling at my afternoon walks.”

General feeling of unease during the war: (June 1940) “I mean, there is no “autumn”, no winter. We pour to the edge of a precipice … and then? I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.”

22 June 1940: “I would like to find one book and stick to it. But can’t. I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. I feel oughtn’t I to finish off P.H.: oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety and recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk…. The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work. And now dinner to cook. A role. Nightly raids in the east and south coast. 6, 3, 22 people killed nightly.”

May 30, 1940: “And was very happy—the moment can be that: only theres no support in the fabric—if you see what I mean, as Charlie Sanger used to say—theres no healthy tissue round the moment. It’s blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., ones certainly happy.”

August 7 1939: “Oh & I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, & the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; & to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, & not as unconscious at least in its approaches, as birth is.”

July 30, 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it will books, as a sponge with water.”

Jan 18, 1939: “I am going walking & adventuring going to see pictures of an afternoon; & often come face to face, after tea, at odd moments, with the idea of death & age. Why not change the idea of death into an exciting experience?—as one did marriage in youth?”

Watching the world march into war (Sept 22, 1938): “The prospect of another glissade after a minor stop into abyss. All Europe in Hitler’s keeping. What’ll he gobble next?”

Sept 17, 1938: “Just as in violent personal anxiety, the public lapses, into complete indifference. One can feel no more at the moment.”

June 23, 1937: “Its ill writing after reading Love for Love—a masterpiece. I never knew how good it is. And what exhilaration there is in reading these masterpieces. This superb hard English! Yes, always keep the Classics at hand to prevent flop.”

The radio after the King died only allowed official pronouncements, and so “if you turn it on you only hear the ticking of a vast clock” (Jan 1936).

actual air

There was such a rush to get this book after Berman’s death that the library ended up removing it from their listings, leaving the lucky 30 or so of us who had made it onto the list as part of a secret group and slowly the book made its way to me, then of course the pandemic stopped everything and books froze in people’s apartments from March – August and one patron got to spend quarantine with this beautiful book, but it wasn’t me, I eventually got hold of it a few weeks ago and each sip from these poems made me dizzy so I was careful not to gulp and here I am at last, closing the final page and immediately looking to see where I can buy a copy.  The phrases are so perfect, “Hedges formed the long limousine a Tampa sky could die behind” (and hundreds others). This is a book of poems everyone should have access to.

(From Self Portrait at 28: ) “All this new technology will eventually give us new feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and split in two.”


What Are You Going Through

It’s hard to declare that this may be the best book I read all year with 11 months left to go, but the gorgeousness of her writing is coursing through me right now and I feel exuberant. I love this style of writing, is it Rachel Cusk-ian? The voice of a detached narrator describing, well, what she’s going through. She visits a friend dying of cancer, stays at a local airbnb, sees that her ex is lecturing about the end of civilization due to climate change. She ends up deepening her friendship with her dying friend, agreeing to be there to help her in her final days as the cancer-riddled friend has obtained drugs which will end her life.

Such beautiful writing. And always always breadcrumbs of films and books, little signposts that point me to recommendations. (I watched Jesus, Du Weisst [Jesus, You Know], a 2003 documentary featuring six Catholics praying to Jesus out loud for the camera, based on her mention.)

The narrator is a writer and plans to keep a journal of her friend’s final days, but quickly abandons that plan. Language would falsify the experience. “Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about—these are the only writers I want to read anymore…”

The meaning of life? That it stops (Kafka). Camus says the literal meaning of life is whatever you do that stops you from killing yourself. And then that old graffiti “God is dead — Nietzsche, Nietzsche is dead —God.”

The Mars Room: A Novel

I discovered Rachel Kushner by way of The Hard Crowd and fell in love with her prose, the way she conjured old San Francisco like a native, reminding me of Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies. In the New Yorker piece, Kushner mentioned The Mars Room as a place where she further explored the scenes and people from her childhood and teenage years in SF so I jumped on getting it from the library. The novel has pockets of exactly the kind of detail I was hoping for, but the pressure of a novel made her flesh out too many pages devoted to characters I couldn’t care less about, Doc and the lady who’s on death row, Betty LeFrance. Otherwise it was a great story, the narrator locked up for life in prison for killing a man who stalked her when he became infatuated by her at a strip club. Lots of reminiscing about sights, smells, events in SF.  The guy who teaches literature at the prison who brings her wire cutters she eventually uses to escape; you gotta love a guy who wonders “Why was Thoreau Thoreau, while Ted Kaczynski was Ted?… It was more familiar to be angry and bad. Maybe that was why.”

What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing, and Why

The inimitable David Sibley has another bird book out? Yes, please. This oversized guide is packed full of odds and ends, tidbits of fascinating facts, gorgeous illustrations. Grebes are more closely related to flamingos via DNA analysis than any other bird?! And the entire North American population of eared grebes gather in two places (Mono Lake, Great Salt Lake) in early fall before flying to their wintering location along the Pacific Ocean?! Waxwings are named for the patch of red on their wing that looked to people like sealing wax. Small birds lose 10% of their body weight each night as they sleep. Birds have two balance sensors: inner ear (like humans) and in their pelvis; this is how they’re constantly balancing on one leg. The introductory chapter alone took me a week to get through, brimming with interesting things. Good for birders & non-birders alike.

Daddy: Stories

Emma Cline has got the goods. Her precise, sharp writing encapsuled in these tight stories (all involving a father, natch) was exactly what my pandemic brain needed. The fathers are sometimes shadowy figures on the edge of the story and sometimes the main blundering character. Across these ten stories she manages to capture people at various points in their lives, stabbed on a pin and put onto a bulletin board to examine. I wonder if I tried and bailed on reading The Girls, her other book? Perhaps time for another look.