Eight Types of Kumbhaka (Pranayama Techniques) in Hatha Yoga
By PRANA EDITORS | Reviewed by GEERT MEIJER, RYT
A guide to the eight types of kumbhaka or classical pranayama practices.
The practices are presented in a table format for quick and easy reference.
We'll briefly discuss the history and origins of Hatha Yoga.
Also, learn more about Kumbhaka Pranayama (Breath Retention) in yoga
Hatha Yoga is one of the oldest-known branches of yoga, marked by its emphasis on physical postures (asanas), pranayama (breath control), and meditation practices. Given its prevalence through the ages, Hatha Yoga techniques laid the foundation for other schools like Laya Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa, and Iyengar Yoga. However, due to its secular focus on physical postures, Hatha Yoga has gained unrivaled popularity as a form of physical exercise in the West.
Pranayama is one of the crucial components of Hatha Yoga, and the term signifies yogic methods to regulate the flow and rhythm of breathing. While there are over 50 types of pranayama used across different yoga styles, Hatha Yoga, in particular, focuses only on eight types of pranayama, called kumbhaka, derived from foundational texts written between the 8th and 15th centuries.
Quick Answer: The eight kumbhaka (pranayama) in Hatha Yoga are derived from classic yoga texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, and Shiva Samhita. They are Surya Bhedi, Sitkari, Sheetali, Bhramari, Bhastrika, Murccha, Plavini, and Ujjayi Pranayama.
As of today, Hatha Yoga is the most widely practiced style of yoga worldwide, so it makes perfect sense to learn about these eight breath control practices. Below, we will delve into the origin and procedure while briefly explaining the benefits of incorporating them into your yoga practice.
Eight Types of Kumbhaka in Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga is one of the oldest and most popular branches of yoga worldwide. Its oldest known texts date back to the 11th century. This branch of yoga revolves around using physical techniques like asanas and mudras to preserve and channel prana (life energy) in the body.
From a theoretical standpoint, Hatha Yoga derives its teachings from three seminal texts:
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th-century text authored by Svatmarama,
Gheranda Samhita, a 17th-century text authored by Gheranda, and
Shiva Samhita, a text dating between 1300 and 1700 CE.
Out of these, Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the most revered text containing practical instructions for Hatha Yoga. It includes chapters on self-purification techniques, postures, kumbhakas, energy centers, body locks, and other topics – written in somewhat ambiguous Sanskrit verses.
So, how many types of pranayama are mentioned in this text?
In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the author briefly describes eight types of kumbhaka (a word used interchangeably for pranayama) in verses 48 to 77 of the second chapter. These practices have gained prominence as the eight classical pranayama of Hatha Yoga, which are as follows:
Surya Bhedana Pranayama (Right Nostril Breathing)
Sitkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath)
Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
Bhramar Pranayama (Bee Breath)
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
Murccha Pranayama (Swooning Breath)
Plavini Pranayama (Floating breath)
Ujjayi Pranayama (Ocean Breath)
Below, we discuss each of these techniques briefly, along with the translation of the sources.
1. Surya Bhedana Pranayama
Surya Bhedana, also known as Sun-Piercing Breath, is the first type of pranayama described in Hatha Yoga Pradipika (3: 48-50). This technique involves inhaling through the right nostril while blocking the left one, followed by exhaling through the left nostril while blocking the right one.
In essence, Surya Bhedana is designed to stimulate the Pingala Nadi, an energy channel associated with the right nostril and solar/masculine qualities of our being. This practice is believed to generate internal heat, promote mental clarity, clear blockages, and energize the mind and body.
2. Sitkari Pranayama
Sitkari, also known as the Hissing Breath in English, is described in verses 55 to 56 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This cooling and relaxing pranayama involves inhaling through the mouth while making a hissing sound, followed by exhaling through both nostrils with the mouth closed.
According to the source text, regular practice of Sitkari breathing makes a yogi attractive (like Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love and desire), strong, energetic, and free from hunger and thirst. It also activates the cooling mechanisms of the body, thereby reducing excess internal heat.
3. Sheetali Pranayama
Sheetali Pranayama, also known as the Cooling Breath” is described in verses 57 and 58 of Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This technique involves slightly protruding your curled tongue, inhaling through the mouth, holding your breath, and finally exhaling through the nose with the mouth closed.
This cooling breathwork technique is believed to cure diseases of the stomach and spleen while also reducing hunger, thirst, and the harmful effects of poisons. Sitkari and Sheetali pranayama are considered to have the same effects and are often used as alternatives to each other.
4. Bhramari Pranayama
Bhramari Pranayama, also called Bee Breathing in the West, is described in verse 68 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This pranayama practice involves breathing with a humming sound that resembles the buzz of a bee while closing the eyes and plugging the ears with the thumb (Shanmukhi Mudra).
The Gheranda Samhita describes this technique in more detail, categorizing it as a Nada (sound-based) pranayama. The text claims that regularly practicing Bhramari enables a yogi to hear the unstruck sound (Anahata) rising from the heart. This breathwork technique has gained worldwide popularity based on its ability to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and induce restful sleep.
5. Bhastrika Pranayama
Bhastrika Pranayama, also called Bellows Breath or Breath of Fire, is described in verses 60 to 66 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Categorized as a warming and energizing breathing technique, practicing Bhastrika involves sitting in Lotus Pose and engaging in rapid, forceful breaths through the nostrils.
The breathing rhythm of this pranayama resembles the “bellows” of a blacksmith stoking a fire. According to the source text, its benefits include strengthening digestion, rousing Kundalini energy, and shattering the three granthis. Ancient sources also claim that regularly practicing Bhastrika Pranayama can cure diseases related to bile, phlegm, and excess wind (Vata disorders in Ayurveda).
6. Murccha Pranayama
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes Murccha Pranayama (verse 69) as a breathwork technique to withdraw from the external world, reduce the activity of the mind, and experience bliss. The technique involves inhaling slowly, gazing at the eye-brow center while holding your breath, assuming Jalandhara Bandha (Throat Lock), releasing the lock, and exhaling through the nostrils.
This type of pranayama is believed to slow the flow of prana to the "mind," creating a swooning feeling and inducing a state of “nothingness” in which supreme bliss can be experienced. However, Murccha Pranayama is no longer in vogue and rarely, if ever, taught in modern yoga classes.
7. Plavini Pranayama
Plavini Pranayama, also called the “Floating Breath,” is mentioned in the seventieth verse of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in ambiguous terms. Some yoga sources describe it as an advanced technique of gulping air through the mouth and holding the breath for an extended period.
This type of pranayama is supposedly useful for “floating” on water, which is how it gets its name. However, very little is known about the actual technique, and like Murchha Pranayama, Plavini pranayama is no longer taught to students in modern yoga pranayama schools.
8. Ujjayi Pranayama
Ujjayi Pranayama, also called the "Ocean Breath" or "Victorious Breath," is described in Verses 51 to 53 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This pranayama involves breathing deeply through both nostrils while slightly constricting the glottis to create airflow resistance. Doing so results in a gentle hissing sound during both inhalation and exhalation, which sounds somewhat like the waves of an ocean.
Ujjayi Pranayama is one of the most popular types of pranayama in Hatha Yoga, often taught as a foundational technique to beginners. It is also widely practiced in other styles like Ashtanga and Vinyasa, but in those cases, it is combined with yoga poses to synchronize the movement of the body with the breath and to create a sense of internal heat and energy.
How many types of pranayama are mentioned in Gheranda Samhita?
In Gheranda Samhita, the author Gheranda describes six pranayama techniques, namely Surya Bhedana, Sheetali, Bhramari, Bhastrika, Ujjayi, and Murccha (or Kumbhaka). Unlike the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it does not mention Sitkari breathing and Plavini Pranayama.
What types of pranayama are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras only mention four types of pranayama, one for each phase of the breath cycle: Puraka, Rechaka, Kumbhaka, and Shunyaka. Among these, inhalation is given the least importance, and breath retention (holding the breath) has the most importance.
Is Kapalbhati a type of Pranayama in Hatha Yoga?
While many yoga sources describe Kapalbhati as a classical pranayama in Hatha Yoga, it is a purification technique (shat-karma) aimed at cleansing the five elements (earth, air, wind, water, fire) in the skull for improved concentration and mental clarity during yoga practice.
How many asanas are mentioned in Hatha Yoga Pradipika?
Hatha Yoga Pradipika provides detailed written instructions on 15 asanas, including Lotus Pose, Corpse Pose, Cobra Pose, and others. However, the number of asanas and their variations have been expanded to over 100 in modern Hatha Yoga schools.
Hatha Yoga texts have played a pivotal role in shaping other yoga styles, and classic texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika provide valuable insights into the art of yoga and its traditional context. However, ancient texts contain brief descriptions of yogic practices rather than step-by-step instructions.
It’s also important to note that both classic and modern yoga texts emphasize the need for preparation and proper guidance to incorporate pranayama in your yoga practice.