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Kumbhaka Pranayama: Types, Steps, Benefits, and Precautions

By PRANA EDITORS | Reviewed by VINEET KAUL

 
  • The meaning and significance of the term “Kumbhaka” in yoga

  • Learn about its application in pranayama, meditation, and other yoga practices.

  • Steps to practice Kumbhaka Pranayama + their benefits

  • Also, check out our article on Pratiloma Pranayama (Prolonged Exhalation) in Yoga

 
Three yoga students practicing Kumbhaka Pranayama in Easy Pose (Sukhasana)

Having previously covered the parts of the breath cycle and kumbhaka in yoga, this article focuses on Kumbhaka Pranayama, which refers to yoga based breath-control practices (pranayama) that involve holding your breath for an extended period, either internally or externally.


Our regular breathing is characterized by an involuntary pattern of inhalation and exhalation. Breath retention, however, is less common and typically occurs in specific situations, such as strenuous physical activities, intense concentration, and startling events involving shock or fear.


Imaginably, we have relatively poor control over the breath retention mechanisms, as they are not as frequently engaged in our daily lives. Yogic texts emphasize developing the capacity to hold your breath while acknowledging that this process should be approached cautiously.


In essence, this process involves practicing a set of breathing exercises called kumbhaka pranayama. Below, we'll discuss their meaning, significance, steps, and benefits. We'll also share some tips to avoid common mistakes and side effects of breath retention.


What is Kumbhaka Pranayama?


The term “kumbhaka” originates from the Sanskrit word kumbha, meaning a pot. In yoga, the pot represents the human belly, which expands with inhalation and contracts with exhalation.


For this reason, antara kumbhaka is a "pot full of air," and bahya kumbhaka is an “empty pot.”


While the term “kumbhaka” means breath retention, “kumbhaka pranayama” refers to purposeful practices to develop breath retention skills in yoga, which can involve extending internal breath retention (antara kumbhaka), external breath retention (bahya kumbhaka).


When practiced mindfully and correctly, kumbhaka pranayama can have various physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. However, from a yogic perspective, the purpose of developing breath retention skills is to use them in advanced pranayama and yoga bandhas (energy locks).


It’s also worth noting that the term “kumbhaka pranayama” may also be used to refer to the eight types of Hatha pranayama techniques, as a foundational text called Hatha Yoga Pradipika uses the term "kumbhaka" instead of "pranayama" while referring to yogic breath control practices.


Significance and Potential Applications in Yoga


Here is a summary of why and how kumbhaka can be helpful in your yoga journey:

  • Advanced Pranayama: Kumbhaka is an essential component of advanced pranayama techniques. For example, yoga beginners generally learn Ujjayi or Nadi Shodhana without breath retention and add it later to enhance the benefits of their practice.

  • Prana Regulation: Internal breath retention traps prana within the body, allowing prana to be retained and absorbed in the upper energy centers. This is considered to promote healing and optimal functioning of various bodily systems.

  • Energetic Impact: Internal breath retention removes blockages from the subtle energy pathways (nadis), and external retention promotes the movement of prana in the Sushumna Nadi. Both types of kumbhaka activate various energy centers (chakras).

  • Yoga Bandhas: Yoga bandhas are muscular contractions applied in specific body areas over long periods of breath retention, typically ranging from 10 to 20 seconds. You cannot practice bandhas without the ability to hold your breath for extended periods.

  • Pratyahara: By mastering pranayama and bandhas, you gain complete control over the breathing rhythm, sense organs, and energy flow in the body. As long periods of breath retention feel effortless, you can progress to the next step in yoga – Pratyahara, which involves disengaging from the external world by turning the five senses inward.

  • Spiritual Benefits: According to yoga texts, effortless breath retention leads to stillness in the mind, described as "the cessation of mental activity" in ancient yoga texts. It is considered to be a prerequisite to attaining Samadhi (enlightenment).

  • Preparing for Meditation: Some types of Kumbhaka pranayama are also used as a preparatory activity for meditation, as they are known to induce calmness, enhance concentration, increase inner awareness, and lead to higher states of consciousness.

Preparing for Kumbhaka Pranayama


In traditional yoga, the correct progression involves mastering the primary asanas (physical postures) before commencing pranayama training. This ensures the body is strong and can provide a stable foundation for more subtle breath control practices.


However, kumbhaka-based practices come at a much later stage of pranayama training.


Before approaching kumbhaka pranayama, a practitioner must cultivate the ability to breathe slowly, deeply, and rhythmically. This can be achieved with pranayama practices like belly breathing, three-part breathing (Dirgha Pranayama), and Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama).


Once a strong breathing pattern is established, practice Viloma Pranayama to increase lung elasticity and enhance respiratory muscle strength. The next step is mastering Anuloma and Pratiloma, which focus on deliberately extending inhalation and exhalation.


By this point in your practice, you should be capable of inhaling and exhaling to a count of 8 or 10 without exertion. The next step is to practice Equal Breathing (Sama Vritti Pranayama) to develop a steady rhythm (8:8, 10:10) and sustain it for 5 to 10 minutes.


After attaining the abovementioned skills, you can safely progress to Kumbhaka Pranayama.


How to Practice Kumbhaka Pranayama: Step by Step


When you approach kumbhaka pranayama, you have two choices: working on your breath retention capacity after an inhale (Antara) or doing the same after an exhale (Bahya). As the latter is more challenging, it’s best to master Antara before Bahya Kumbhaka Pranayama.


Antara Kumbhaka Pranayama: Steps


Antara Kumbhaka Pranayama is designed to enhance your internal retention capacity, and here are the steps to practice it:


1. Posture: Assume Sukhasana (Easy Pose).

2. Inhale: Inhale to the mental count of six.

2. Retain: Retain the breath for three counts.

3. Exhale: Exhale to the count of six.

4: Rest: Take two to three normal breaths.

5. Repeat: Attempt another round.

6. Duration: Practice for 5 to 10 minutes, per your capacity.

7. Conclude: Rest in Corpse Pose and breathe naturally.


When you start your pranayama training, the duration of the in-breath and out-breath should be equal (Sama Vritti), and the period of breath retention should be 1/2 (or 1/3). For example, if you inhale for eight counts, retain the breath for 4, and exhale for eight counts (8:4:8).


After every cycle, pause and take two normal breaths before attempting breath retention again. As you progress, reduce the resting breaths between cycles from two to one and zero.


Once you can maintain an 8:4:8 ratio on successive breaths for five minutes, you can progress to increasing the duration of breath retention from 4 to 5, implying an 8:5:8 ratio. Follow the same process as before – start with two breaths between cycles, progress to 1, and eliminate it.


When you can maintain the 8:5:8 ratio, increase the duration of breath retention to 6, implying an 8:6:8 ratio. Keep progressing until you reach 8:8:8, and breathe continuously for five minutes using eight counts for inhalation, retention, and exhalation.

Editor’s note: Remember, these counts are for reference only. You can adjust the number and pace of counting to suit your comfort level, but it’s crucial to maintain the ratio.

Bahya Kumbhaka Pranayama: Steps


Let’s preface this section by reminding you that you should not practice Bahya Kumbhaka until you have mastered internal breath retention. All classic yoga texts warm against this, noting that holding your breath after an exhale can be harmful if not practiced correctly.


Enhancing your external capacity is similar to Antara Kumbhaka Pranayama, except you'll add the external retention component. Here are the steps to practice it:

  1. Posture: Assume Sukhasana (Easy Pose)

  2. Inhale: Inhale for six counts

  3. Internal Retention: Hold your breath for six counts.

  4. Exhale: Exhale for six counts.

  5. External Retention: Hold your breath for two counts.

  6. Rest: Take three (or four) normal breaths.

  7. Repeat: Attempt one more cycle with breath retention.

  8. Duration: Practice for 3 to 5 minutes, per your capacity.

  9. Conclude: Rest in Corpse Pose and breathe naturally.

As you've noticed, we are working with all four parts of the breath cycle. Inhalation, internal retention, and exhalation are of equal duration, and external retention is 1/3 the value. We have also increased the pause to three normal breaths between cycles of breath retention.


This cautious approach is because external retention is significantly more challenging than internal retention. So, instead of starting with an 8:8:8:4 count, we start our kumbhaka pranayama practice with a 6:6:6:2 count with a slightly longer rest period.


The practice progression is the same as noted in the previous exercise, meaning you first reduce the rest period between cycles to zero, followed by increasing the duration of breath retention. Keep at it until you can breathe with an 8:8:8:8 (Box Breathing) count for 5 to 10 minutes. Once this is achieved, you can safely incorporate kumbhaka into other yoga pranayama techniques like Ujjayi Pranayama, Surya Bhedana, and Nadi Shodhana Pranayama.

Editor’s note: Remember, these counts are for reference only. You can adjust the number and pace of counting to suit your comfort level. However, it's crucial to maintain the ratio.

Kumbhaka Pranayama Benefits


Here are the benefits of practicing kumbhaka pranayama in yoga:


1. Kumbhaka Pranayama can enhance lung capacity and elasticity.

2. It develops greater control over your breath and increases your breath awareness.

3. Kumbhaka Pranayama promotes relaxation, leading to reduced stress and anxiety.

4. It improves cognitive functions and cultivates mindfulness.

5. Kumbhaka pranayama strengthens the diaphragm and respiratory muscles.

6. It improves endurance, which can be advantageous in everyday activities.

7. Some research suggests it may have cardiovascular benefits.


Safety and Precautions


A safe kumbhaka pranayama practice starts with learning the proper steps under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher. As these practices can be intense, it’s best to conclude your practice by resting Corpse Pose for a few minutes to allow your energies to return to normal.


Incorrect practice or exertion can also lead to temporary dizziness, headaches, and heart rate and blood pressure changes. It's advisable to stop your practice immediately if you experience any discomfort. Rest in Corpse Pose and breathe naturally until you feel normal again.


Kumbhaka Pranayama Contraindications


While kumbhaka pranayama has many applications and benefits, it is not for everyone, especially those with underlying medical conditions. According to yoga sources, breath retention is contraindicated in the following:

  1. Nasal congestion, sinus issues, and ENT infections

  2. Lung disease and respiratory conditions

  3. Cardiovascular conditions and blood pressure issues

  4. Nervous system disorders

  5. Clinical anxiety and panic disorders

  6. Migraines, Epilepsy, and Vertigo

  7. Pregnancy

It’s also important to note that forcefully holding your breath can adversely affect the breathing mechanism and nervous system. Therefore, it's advisable to practice cautiously and gradually progress under the supervision of a qualified yoga instructor.


Wrapping Up


When practiced correctly, kumbhaka pranayama can play a significant role in advancing your yoga and pranayama practice. In closing, we'd like to emphasize that this guide's steps, benefits, and side effects are for informational purposes, not medical advice.

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