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Breath Retention (Kumbhaka)

I would like to start this discussion by quoting two of the yoga sutras which lay down the foundation and guidelines for the breathing practices (pranayama).

"After mastering posture, one must practice control of the prana (pranayama) by stopping the motions of inhalation and exhalation" – Sutra 2.49

"The modifications of the life-breath are either external, internal or stationary. They are to be regulated by space, time and number and are either long or short" – Sutra 2.50

Let us try to understand the meaning and significance of these two sutras.

Sutra 2.49

"tasmin sati shvaasaprashvaasayorgativichChedaH praaNaayaamaH"

In this sutra, the term "vichCheda" has been interpreted and translated differently by various authors. Some of the terms used to translate it are "control", "stoppage", "cessation", "management", "regulation" etc. I personally prefer to go with "stoppage" or "cessation" which basically implies that pranayama means not only to control the flow of inhalation and exhalation but also to control the retention of the breath both after inhalation and exhalation.

Sutra 2.50

"baahyaabhyantarastambhavRuttirdeshakaalasaMkhyaabhiH paridRuShTo dIrghasUkShmaH "

This sutra expands upon the concept mentioned in sutra 2.49. Here, in addition to controlling the inhalation, exhalation and breath retention, a few other parameters that can be controlled have been added – space, time, number, long, short. Let us look at these terms briefly:

"Space" has been interpreted in two different ways:

  • Space may mean the nostril through which you are breathing. So, one could breathe either through the left nostril, the right or through both.
  • It represents a location in the body where you fix your attention while practicing pranayama. For example, you may focus on the "third eye" (ajna chakra) – the spot between the two eyebrows or you may focus on one of the other chakras – the heart chakra, the throat chakra, or the root chakra etc.
  • You may even pick some other spot on the body as your point of focus.

"Time" refers to the duration of each inhalation, exhalation and retention.

"Number" refers to the number of rotations of each of the pranayama cycles. For example, while practicing "kapalabhati" you may go for 50 expulsions of air or, if you are more experienced, you may go for up to 100 or even more number of breaths in each round.

Long and short signify if the breath is deep or shallow. For example, in ‘alternate nostril breath’ pranayama, each breath is very deep and soft. On the other hand, in kapalabhati, the breath is brisk and short.

Based on these guidelines provided by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, a large number of breathing techniques have been developed. One of the main sources of information on various pranayama techniques is the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika", a classic yoga text which was written by Swatma Ram about a thousand or so years ago. This contains a complete section on Pranayama techniques.

In most of the pranayama techniques, breath retention (kumbhaka – कुम्भक) plays a very major role. In essence, we can look at the breathing cycle as composed of four components:

  1. Puraka – inhalation
  2. Rechaka – exhalation
  3. Antar-kumbhaka – breath retention after inhalation
  4. Bahya-kumbhaka – breath retention after exhalation

In the two sutras quoted above, the words "gativichCheda" (sutra 2.49) and "stambha-vRuttiH" (sutra 2.50) have both been translated as ‘breath retention’ by most commentators. Thus breath retention (Kumbhaka) becomes an integral part of a pranayama practice. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), eight pranayama practices involving kumbhaka have been given:

  1. Surya Bhedi (सूर्यभेदी): inhalation through the right nostril and exhalation through the left
  2. Ujjayi (उज्जायी): deep breathing with contraction of the epiglottis, making a soft hissing sound at the base of the throat
  3. Seetkari (सीत्कारी): breathing in through the mouth using the opening between the teeth
  4. Sheetali (शीतली): breathing in through a rolled tongue, shaped in the form of a tube
  5. Bhastrika (भस्त्रिका): rapid, forced breathing
  6. Bhraamari (भ्रामरी): making a soft, deep humming sound while exhaling
  7. Murccha (मूर्च्छा): breath retention to create a fainting feeling
  8. Plavini (प्लाविनी): swallowing air into the stomach

I plan to cover several of these kumbhaka-based practices in future blog posts.

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