Kumbhaka: Breath Retention in Yoga Breathing
Kumbhaka - the Breathless State - is the key to cultivating stillness and clarity.
What is kumbhaka?
Antara and bahir kumbhaka
The benefits of kumbhaka
Kevala Kumbhaka: The Goal of Pranayama
There are four aspects of yoga breathing: Rechaka, Puraka, Kumbhaka, and Shunyaka. You can start with an overview that we have presented in a previous post.
In this article, we will zone in on kumbhaka (breath retention) and view it through the lens of Hatha Yoga and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
What is Kumbhaka?
In Hatha Yoga texts, Kumbhaka (kuhm-BAH-ka) is the Sanskrit term for breath retention. The word literally translates to a pot and alludes to the human torso (or belly). Retention is of two types – inner and outer. Inner retention follows inhalation and outer retention (suspension) follows exhalation.
Kumbhaka Pranayama is a breathing exercise practiced in the Hatha Yoga tradition. It is also used as a preparatory practice for deep meditation as it enhances concentration. There are two terms for it:
Antara Kumbhaka (inner retention)
Bahaya or Bahir Kumbhaka (outer retention or suspension of the breath)
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states "Pranayam is Rechaka (exhalation) and Kumbhaka (retention)" (1: 34). In other words, Pranayam is a practice to learn how to lengthen exhalation and hold out the breath.
In some traditions, two separate terms - Shunyaka and Kumbhaka - are used during instruction to avoid confusion. Kumbhaka refers to the inner retention of the breath. Shunyaka refers to the outer retention of the breath.
Kumbhaka in Hatha Yoga
In Hatha Yoga, Kumbhaka is the sole point of focus of pranayama. The classical text states that pranayama's primary goal is to remove impurities that block an energy pathway called "Sushumna Nadi".
This takes us to the concept of the three nadis in yogic sciences - Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna. Sushumna is the passage in the vertebral column through which the spinal cord passes. Ida and Pingala are two sympathetic cords adjacent to it.
The Sushumna is blocked by impurities caused by a poor diet, lifestyle, and other imbalances that occur due to stress, ignorance, and the environment. Kumbhaka serves to cleanse the Sushumna and allow prana to enter and flow through it.
Kumbhaka awakens Kundalini awakens and Sushumna becomes free from impurities. - Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter 2, Verse 75
Read more about it in the second chapter on Pranayama of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
What are the benefits of Kumbhaka Pranayama?
Increases lung capacity and strengthens the diaphragm
Reduces stress and anxiety
Activates the respiratory center to improve oxygenation
Purifies the energy pathways (nadis) and respiratory system
Cleanses and unblocks the Sushumna Nadi
Stillness of the mind (Vritti Nirodha)
What is Kevala Kumbhaka?
Kevala Kubhaka refers to an advanced pranayama practice, which is the ultimate goal of the pranayam at large. It is the fourth form of breathing attained by a true yogi who has mastered prana after rigorous practice. There are two parts to it:
Sahita: Retention coupled with inhalation and exhalation
Kevala: Retention not attached (or devoid of) inhalation and exhalation
Kevala is a Sanskrit term that translates to 'only' or 'alone'. It is a state when you are 'only' retaining the breath. The breath is not attached to inhalation and exhalation. In other words, you can suspend your breath without thinking about it.
The roots of Kevala can be traced to a classical text called Vashistha Samhita. This 13th-century text describes various non-seated yoga asanas, mantra-chanting, and other Vedic traditions.
Incidentally, Hatha Yoga Pradipika borrows heavily from Vashistha Samhita.
A pranayama practitioner who attains mastery will be able to hold his breath for a very long time. This state is known as Kevala Kumbhaka. Anyone who attains it will achieve perfection in Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga. Such a person is called a true yogi.
Kevala is an ultimate and absolute (pure) state, described as "roaming in spaces unseen" i.e. a person is floating in the vast expanse of consciousness, unchained to the physical and material world by inhalation and exhalation.
Kevala in the Context of Ashtanga
Pranayama is the fourth step in Ashtanga (Eight steps of yoga). The goal of pranayama is to attain "the Kevala state" through mastery of the breath and prana. Kevala enables a person to experience consciousness without any activity in the mind.
Prana is carried by the breath. The breath creates activity (vritti) in the mind (chitta). These activities keep us from recognizing our true nature or experiencing the Absolute. When a yogi achieves or experiences Kevala, he or she attains clarity. It prepares them for Pratyahara - the next stage of Ashtanga Yoga.
How to Practice Kevala Kumbhaka
Kevala is attained when you can perform Sahita Kumbhaka for a prolonged period without any strain. It represents the opening of the Sushumna (Nadi) and the entry of prana into it. It is a state attained by gaining mastery over Sahita Kumbhaka.
Sahita Kubhaka is practicing how to confine air without inhalation or exhalation. This must be till you can do it with ease. Through success, Kevala is gained. - Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ch 2, Verse 72
The goal of Sahita is to try to make the mind objectless during breath retention and suspension of the breath. The more you practice it, the longer you will be able to do it. The continuous practice of Sahita Kumbhaka will lead you to Kevala without any need for special practice.
This video provides some basic instruction:
Please ensure that you don't force yourself to hold or suspend your breath. Work within a rage that feels natural and comfortable. Gradually increase the count (by one) every week.
The goal of this post is to spread awareness and information regarding the practice. It should not be treated as instruction. Readers are encouraged to practice pranayama cautiously and consciously, and, if possible, under the guidance of an expert.
Breathing is a critical physiological process, one that is not to be taken lightly. I recommend doing it in the causal order of Ashtanga i.e. Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama. Work on breath retention and suspension only after you are proficient in postural yoga and basic pranayamas.