Pranayama: Puraka, Kumbhaka, Rechaka + Shunyaka

Puraka | Kumbhaka | Rechaka

woman doing pranayama

In yoga, Puraka Rechaka Kumbhaka are Sanskrit words used to describe the parts of the breathing in the context of pranayama (seated breath work). Puraka = Inhalation, Rechaka = Exhalation, and Kumbhaka = Breath Retention.

The yogic body sciences have always upheld the power of the breath. Now, a voluminous pile of scientific literature also indicates that breathing has an undeniable biological impact on our moods, emotions, and physical state.

According to yoga philosophy, our consciousness is always engaged with our breath, albeit with passive attentiveness. The nature of this breath-consciousness relationship depends on our awareness, which can be improved by correct and controlled breathing exercises.

A daily regimen of breathing exercises will prepare you for pranayama. It improves lung capacity, general health, and enables you to witness the natural, exuberant, and rhythmic state of breathing - at every moment.

In the Pranayama Basics Series, we’ll cover the parts of aspects of breathing that every practitioner should know before they hit the mat and delve into pranayama.

Pranayama: The Parts of Breathing in Yoga

In yoga, the breath (shvasam - shva-SAHM) is a process that occurs in four steps or stages.

The count is called a 'matra'. One matra equals one second, and it is a count used to measure, regulate, and improve breathing during pranayama.

When you start learning or practicing pranyama, you will bump into some Sanskrit terms such as Puraka Rechaka Kumbhaka and shunyaka. They refer to four aspects of the breath and can be understood as:

  1. Puraka = Inhalation or the Inhaled Breathing

  2. Kumbhaka = Internal Retention (holding the breath within the body after inhalation)

  3. Rechaka = Exhalation or the Exhaled Breath

  4. Shunyaka = Suspension or Exhaled Retention (holding the breath after exhalation)

1. Puraka or Inhalation

Puraka is the Sanskrit term used for the inhaled breath in yogic literature. In Light on Pranayama, B. K. S. Iyengar calls Puraka the "pure cosmic energy" that feeds and stimulates our system. Inhalation brings prana inside the body to nourish us physically and mentally.

Good inhalation is gentle, noiseless, and effortless. It fills the lungs entirely without inflating the stomach (lower abdomen) too much. The shoulders, tongue, and throat remain completely relaxed as one inhales. One should avoid exaggerated breathing and/or stomach breathing. It hinders the lungs from expanding optimally and puts undue strain on the brain and cardiovascular system.

Correct and efficient breathing can be attained by Pratiloma Pranayama or breathing exercises to prolong inhalation. Generally, you practice 5 rounds of breathing with 3 to 5 seconds of inhalation as per your capacity. The count is increased gradually to build the in-breath.

That said, Puraka doesn't get a lot of attention in the yogic texts because inhalation is a natural and mandatory process. Instead, the bulk of pranayama exercises focus on Kumbhaka and Rechaka - breath retention and exhalation.

2. Rechaka or Exhalation

In yogic texts, the Sanskrit term for exhalation is rechaka. It refers to the exhaled breath that has no beneficial qualities or interaction with the body. It is air devoid (or depleted) of prana, which carries the impurities of the body, thus cleansing us.

The exhaled breath should be odorless, steady, and smooth. A person should feel warm and moist as the breath leaves the body. Unsteady or bumpy/jerky exhalation causes discomfort to the brain and nervous system.

In pranayama, exhalation is the second most important aspect of breathing (after retention). The classical texts state that we surrender the Ego in exhalation - the Individual Self momentarily dissolves into the Universal Self.

Rechaka based pranayama or breathing can calm the nervous system. Typically, exhalation should be twice the length of the inhalation. This 1:2 ratio of inhalation-exhalation needs time and patience to develop. It should be done systematically and gradually.

Once achieved, it improves the elasticity of the lungs and negates the ego. The dissolution of the ego draws us away from material desires and allows us to journey inward. This 'turning inward' is called pratyahara - the fifth step of Ashtanga (the eight steps) in Yoga.

3. Kumbhaka or Retention

Kumbhaka is the term used for breath retention in yoga texts. In Sanskrit, kumbha means a pot. As you can imagine, a pot can either be empty or filled with something. Thus, kumbhaka can either refer to -

a) retention after inhalation (a full pot) or

b) suspension of the breath outside the body (an empty pot).

Antara kumbhaka: Antara means within. Thereby, Antara kumbhaka refers to the retention of the inhaled breath within the body. To be precise, it refers to retaining the full breath (inside the lungs) – after natural inhalation, without any force. During antara kumbhaka, we invite prana (the life-energy) to reside within us. The yogic texts say that this is when the Individual unites with the Universal Self by merging into it.

Bahya Kumbhaka: Bahya Kumbhaka refers to “holding” the empty breath (outside the lungs) – after exhalation. The five sense organs become still when the breath is held outside the body. To avoid confusion, bahaya kumbhaka is called suspension instead of retention.

The Sanskrit term for suspension is Shunkyaka - the pause of “no air” between breaths. Shunya can be (loosely) translated as void or nothingness. Shunyaka embodies the momentary void where the practitioner has surrendered his breath to the Universe.

Shunyaka, Bahir Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka mean the same thing. They are different terms used for breath retention after exhalation.

Importance of Kumbhaka in Pranayama

In the Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali labels Pranayama as the pause between two breaths or the retention of breath between inhalation and exhalation. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that "pranayama is breath retention". At least, that's how Patanjali views it.

All pranayamas, at heart, are structured around the permutation and combinations of these two pauses. Inhalation and exhalation are merely levers to manipulate retention to achieve different results. The breath can be retained in two ways:

  • Sahita Kumbhaka: Intentional or Deliberate Breath Retention

  • Kevala Kumbhaka: Natural Breath Retention

Sahita Kumbhaka is unnatural. You should never force your body to retain the breath. It results in the tensing of the muscles, which can lead to anxiety and/or a spike in blood pressure. That's the opposite of yoga breathing, which is relaxed and laid back.

The point of yoga breathing is to push your breathing capacity just a little each day to increase your natural capacity. That way, you can go from 2 seconds of breath retention to 5 seconds within a few weeks. Over months, you can attain Kevala Kumbhaka and mastery in various forms of pranayama.

However, it's important to learn from a reliable resource and under expert guidance. Pranayama is about learning to control your breath. As with resistance training, we breach the limits and allow the body to rest and recover. This is done in small doses to avoid side effects or harm.

Every individual has a different capacity to retain their breath naturally. Any sign of tension, anxiety or stiffening of muscles indicates that you are exceeding your limitations. Never encourage this as it will do more harm than good.

Foundations of Breathing in Yogic Practices

The yoga mat is just the seat of your physical body. The breath, on the other hand, is the seat of your consciousness. It’s the breath and not the body that is the essence of yoga. Yet, we don't have direct access or control over our consciousness.

Therefore, we use the breath to direct, control, and regulate the mind. The two are deeply connected. The breath acts as a steering wheel that drives you to the different levels of consciousness-awareness. With this post, we hope you are acquainted with the parts of breathing so that you will be able to better understand pranayama instructions as you proceed.

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Recommended Books for further reading:

Light on Pranayama – B K S Iyengar (Amazon)

Prana and Pranayama - Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (Amazon)

Hatha Yoga Pradipika - Swami Muktibodhanand

The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama – Swami Satchitananda Saraswati