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Kumbhaka: the Secret to Pranayama



I wrote this for the Yoga Manual of my Yoga Teacher Training program and it wanted to be shared here with you all. In person instruction and consistency practice of these subjects is key to learning, of course, but being exposed to the topic is a good start.


Kumbhaka


Many yogic texts discuss the importance of kumbhaka. In fact, according to Hatha Yoga, there can be no pranayama without kumbhaka. What is meant by this? What is kumbhaka and why is it considered so important?


Kumbha refers to a water-pot or vessel, and the word aka refers to “winding; marked by twists or turns” so the word kumbhaka might be translated to mean “the water-pot which is filled through winding, twists and turns.”


Kumbhaka is the prized experience of suspending the breath – i.e. pausing at the end of an inhalation and holding the breath inside (antar kumbhaka) or pausing at the end of the exhale and holding the breath outside (bahya kumbhaka). During breath suspension, the vayu remains still and thus, thought motion is calmed. This plays a central and important role for meditation. It is said that kumbhaka is the doorway to dharana (concentration) and dhyana (absorption). It certainly invokes pratyahara (sense withdrawal).


According to Chandor Remete (Sundernath – founder of Shadow Yoga), when the breath is suspended, this “traps” or localizes consciousness further into the body. Why might this be the case? Think about the exchange of CO2 and O2.


What can you say about kumbhaka in your own experience?


Discussion Questions

- Why did the yogis make such a fuss about kumbhaka?

- What happens when our breath suspension is prolonged?

- How can we prolong our breath suspension, and what are the benefits of doing so?



The Breath Ratio


According to the yogis, we have a pre-determined amount of breaths to live with. When our breathing is sped up due to stress, worry, anxiety, or over-exertion of the wrong type, we can diminish our life span. Physiologically, increased breathing causes an increase of metabolism. You can think of the breath as “fanning the flames” of your inner furnace. Stoking our inner fire directly by specific breathing practices can sometimes produce a positive and desirable result, such as breaking down and digesting residual psychic tension, emotional “knots” or energetic obstructions. There is a time and place for breathing in excess – kriyas are a good example – as we can open up the pathways in the body for energy to move.


The forms of breathing that increase the heart rate without stimulating the muscle tissue (as through exercise) are incredibly beneficial for our overall health and well-being as they increase circulation, cardiovascular function, and the capacity for the body to uproot and transport waste products to the excretory organs to be released from the organism. The end result of these breathing practices often allows for a lower baseline breathing ratio, as in performing these exercises we improve the overall respiratory functioning. Think of Double Breathing Kriya – stimulating the entire respiratory system from the lower lobes to the upper lobes of the lungs and getting a “breath workout”. While the breath rate certainly INCREASES during a kriya like Double Breathing, if you are to observe the resulting difference in your breath ratio, you might be surprised.


Thus, temporary increases to the breath ratio though something like a kriya and ridding the body of impurities can minimize excessive breathing and – according to the yogis – increase your life span. This is one of the meanings of pranayamaprana meaning “life-force” and ayama meaning “extension of”.


But what is meant by “breath ratio”, and how can we work with this concept to advance our breath training?


The breath ratio is the overall duration & ratio of a breath cycle. On average, at rest, how long are your inhales? Do you experience a gentle pause at the top? How long are your exhales? Pause at bottom? In yogic science, this ratio is written like this:


Length of inhalation (puraka) : length of internal breath retention (antar kumbhaka) : length of exhalation (rechaka): length of external breath retention (bahya kumbhaka)


If you were to inhale for 5, hold for 2, exhale for 7, hold for 2, this would be written as follows:


5: 2: 7: 2


Simple, right?




According to scientists, most people breath for an average of 12 to 20 breath cycles per minute. At the high end, that is one inhalation:pause:exhalation:pause every 3 seconds!


That is a breath ratio like… 1.5 : 0 : 1.5 : 0


Can you imagine breathing like that all the time? No wonder stress is our biggest killer!


Breathing like this puts pressure on the heart because the heart has to work harder to transport the little oxygen it is receiving from the lungs into the bloodstream and to the hungry tissues. Certain tissues which are deemed “less important” or “less critical” by the command center in the brain are left on the back-log and never get adequate fuel for their purpose. This leads to entire regions of the body completely shutting down, unable to access adequate life-fore and "in the dark". The little metabolic fire inside of those cellular structures isn’t being fanned by the flames of a regular deep breath. Our bodies are incredibly resilient and adaptable, but you can imagine what the long term consequences of this lack of deep breathing are.


It must also be said that hormones are the chemical messengers in the body and will float through the blood stream to latch onto the walls of cells to communicate with the internal environment of the cell. This is one of the ways our body stays in coherence with itself. Remember that we are a community of 30-50 trillion cells which all need oxygen to function optimally. Proper circulation is key to getting the hormones to the right places in the body. This ensures that our glands and endocrine organs are secreting the right amount of the right substances at the right time. All of this is a cascade function of proper breathing!


Which leads us back to kumbhaka and the breath ratio. Again, why such a big deal? By understanding that we can train the breath and then taking the steps to do so, we can begin to alter the entire inner chemistry of the body. The breath ratio is a good place to “see” the results of our efforts through our asana, vinyasa, and kriya practices. We can begin to notice the actual, tangible product of having a “cleaner” vessel – one that is more resilient to CO2, has optimal circulation, and cells that are happy because they are receiving all that they need to thrive.


Practicing The Breath Ratio


In order to train our breath ratio, there are two main ways we can do this. The first is to simply observe and count how long the breathing is, and attempt to slowly, with every breath, lengthen and expand the ratio. You may find that when you first sit down to the do this, you have a shortened ratio, say 6 inhale and 6 exhale, which is written just as 6:6. If you remember from Sama Vrtti Pranayama, this is an equalizing breathing ratio which balances the two hemisphere of the brain and coordinates the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Then you start to try to lengthen the breathing – after several minutes, ending up at something like 8:10. Some people may notice that lengthening the exhalation is easier and comes more naturally. You hover at 8:10 for a few breath cycles with great concentration and focus before thoughts creep in, you start thinking about lunch, you wonder how much longer you are going to go for, and your ratio suffers. Or maybe, as you deepen into your nervous system and start to access more energy in the subconscious, and an old memory surfaces and distracts you. You begin to process this undigested life-energy that was stuck in your system until your practice revealed it to you, and your breath ratio gets shaky. You drop to a wobbly 5:6 as your mind becomes distracted and caught in the scene that is happening in your inner environment. You lose the focus on your goal of lengthening your breath ratio and are suddenly wrapped up in a mental process.


What is explained above is a common result when we sit down to breath with no specific form, structure or system to follow.


These practices – and working with the subtle body through the breath – are designed to invoke the inner fire (kundalini) and lead to transformation. There are specific preparation processes to help us handle this end result more efficiently. This is exactly why “systematization” is so important and adhering to a practice that works for you and works FOR you.


Make your sadhana work for you.. and FOR you!

The second and more preferable way of practicing our breath ratio would be by using a timer. The wood-block timer on the Insight Application is a great example of what I am talking about. We can set the timer for a specific time allotment with a specific ratio and we can begin to “train” our breath, which in turns trains our mind and all the life-energies. With practice and time, our life-energies, mind and breath become entrained to the particular rhythm that we have set out to breathe within. The timer is the “container” which we can adhere to. No, we don’t always get it perfect and sometimes what was mentioned above can still happen. But we have something to keep bringing our attention back (the wood-block) and an objective to hold our focus. This leads to the higher stages of yoga (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana) and will set a person’s physiology up nicely for successful meditation. This is a healthy & safe container we can submit ourselves into.


How does this look?


We start by choosing a number that feels good – 6 seconds, for example – and we make the priority to breathe in this ratio of 6:6 for at least 10 minutes. As we get better at this and more comfortable with it, we can try 7:7 or 8:8, gradually increasing the ratio. If you keep going, maybe you’ll get to “one minute breath”, or 30 in and 30 out! The point is to set a time, set a number, and train. You are strengthening your physiological response to breathing. As energy arises in the system, it can be digested and re-absorbed for newly directed and creative life-energy!


Kumbhaka and the Breath Ratio


Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.Krishnamacharya

The final stage in this process of training kumbhaka and the breath ratio is to add breath retentions in between your breaths.


You can start back with your 6 second timer – adding a 6 second pause at the top of the inhalation, but no pause at the bottom: 6:6:6:0


This feels good? Try doubling your antar kumbhaka: 6:12:6:0


This is a 1:2:1:0 ratio. Once you arrive here, you can try to double the length of your exhalation (i.e. 6:12:12:0)


If this is still good for you, your next step is to try to increase your internal retention… with the eventual goal of 1:4:2:0, or 6:24:12:0. From here, you can stay at this level until you feel comfortable enough to slowly increase your overall breath duration and breathing count. (i.e. from 6:24:12:0 for 10 minutes to 7:28:14:0 for 10 minutes and maybe eventually 7:28:14:0 for 15 minutes)


Known as the “golden ratio” in many yogic texts, this ratio of 1:4:2:0 is seen as a very desirable result in pranayama practice. The reason for this is debatable, but what we know for sure is happening is you are accumulating time spent in kumbhaka, where the mind and prana vayus (inner wind) become still and CO2 levels build up in the body. If you did a whole 10 minutes with the 6:24:12:0 time, you would have only breathed 14.2 times in that entire 10 minutes, and spent 5.5 minutes holding your breath! Imagine what this is doing for your entire system… We can speculate, but the true results can only be experienced.


According to the yogis, by focusing on kumbhaka in pranayama, we can reach deep states of inner purification through our practices that are not possible from outer methods such as asana/vinyasa. The outer methods prepare our system to handle deeper inner cleansing processes such as prolonged kumbhakas and extensive breath training sessions. Remaining calm and stable whilst undergoing advanced kumbhaka training such as the 1:4:2:0 ratio is a feat in itself and does require a slow, gradual, step by step process to arrive at such a point.


Do not underestimate the power and value of these yogic methods. They have the power to completely transform and rejuvenate the entire system. Even if living to be 120 isn’t your thing, you can still benefit from the profound vitality and creative life energy that arises from a dedicated breathing practice.


The goal of yoga is not to touch our toes. It is to become free. Correct application of pranayama is a undervalued and overlooked aspect of yoga sadhana and must be integrate to reap the full benefits that this practice has to offer.


Advanced Practices During Kumbhaka


There are advanced practices that can happen during our breath retention period. These include techniques such as bandha, mudra & mantra. This is to be discussed in imparted in person.


Master your breath, master your life.

Happy breathing,

Grant


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