Pranayama is kumbhaka

The actual pranayama is kumbhaka, the period of breath retention. The guiding of inhalation (pooraka) and exhala-tion (rechaka) aids in achieving kumbhaka, irrespective of where it is applied. In nadi shodhana pranayama, for ex-ample, kumbhaka is practised after inhalation and/or exhalation, but in bhastrika it follows a round of rapid inhal-ations and exhalations. In the Yoga Sutras (2:49), Maharshi Patanjali says: “Pranayama is the pause in the movement of inhalation and exhalation when that is secured.”
Yoga Yajnavalkya Samhita (6:25) also equates pranayama with retention, describing three grades of pranayama, depending on the periods of breath holding: i) adhama pranayama (produces sweating), ii) madhyama pranayama (produces tremors in addition to sweat) and iii) uttama pranayama (produces levitation).
Kumbhaka is difficult for a beginner, but it becomes easier, smoother and longer by systematic and regular practice. Breath retention may come more easily for those who have followed other yogic practices. The rare few, who are blessed with an awakened kundalini, may experience kevala kumb-haka (spontaneous retention) at their very first attempt at pranayama. However, it is of paramount importance for all practitioners that the practice be followed systematically, irrespective of initial experiences. Then only will the full potential of pranayama be experienced.

Importance of Kumbhaka:

The process of respiration has three components: pooraka, inspiration; rechaka, expiration; and kumbhaka, retention. In the classical yogic texts it is said that kumbhaka is pranayama and pranayama is kumbhaka; not pooraka and rechaka, which are natural processes. However, one must remember that inhalation and exhalation are a part of retention. In order to retain the breath, it is necessary to inhale as well as exhale. Therefore, the three components of the breath are also the three parts of pranayama.


The word kumbha means ‘vessel’, and thus implies holding or retaining something. In pranayama, this term describes the retention of breath. Kumbhaka can be performed after inhalation (antar kumbhaka) and after exhalation (bahir kum-bhaka). There are two types of breath retention: sahita kumbhaka, which is deliberately holding the breath, or kevala kumbhaka, where the breath is suspended spontaneously. Kumbhaka is a part of all pranayama practices. In the Yoga Sutras, Maharshi Patanjali described pranayama as kum-bhaka. The aim of all pranayama practices is to achieve kevala kumbhaka, which is equivalent to the state of samadhi.

According to the Amritanada Upanishad (v. 13-14):

“That is called kumbhaka when there is no expiration or inspiration and the body is motionless, remaining still in one state. Then he sees forms like the blind, hears sounds like the deaf, and feels the body like wood. This is the characteristic of one who has attained much quiescence.”

Physiology of kumbhaka

During the practice of kumbhaka the oxygen levels in the body fall and the carbon dioxide levels increase, depending on the speed of metabolism and how relaxed or tense one is. The main effect of kumbhaka is to train the nervous system to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body before signals from the primitive brain stem force one to take another breath. Many blood capillaries lie dormant in the brain and become active only when more blood is required. Increased carbon dioxide levels stimulate the brain’s capillaries to dilate. In this way, more capillaries in the brain are opened up to improve cerebral circulation.
The brain also stores a certain amount of carbon dioxide, which allows for a more efficient oxygen exchange and carrying capacity of the lungs. Often, when one cannot breathe deeply, it means that the brain’s concentration of carbon dioxide is  diminished. The lungs are not out of order, but the carbon dioxide concentration of the brain tissues is too low to allow a deeper respiratory process. Nature, it seems, has provided for carbon dioxide storage in the brain in order to activate the respiratory drive and make the oxygen consumption process more efficient. Kumbhaka restores the levels of carbon dioxide in the brain tissues, allowing the system to fully extract oxygen. Additionally, when carbon dioxide is retained in the brain, it increases the capacity for assimilating ions.
Increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood can lead to altered states of consciousness and feelings of expansive-ness. It is interesting that researcher J. Wolpe (Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, Stanford University Press, 1958) recommended what is called CO2 therapy. He suggested the administration of 65 percent carbon dioxide and 35 percent oxygen for treatment of anxiety based on his experiments, which indicated that one to four of such inhalations will reduce anxiety for several hours or in some cases, for weeks. In another experiment, there were three control groups of highly anxious subjects. One inhaled a carbon dioxide mixture, the second hyperventilated and the third inhaled only air. The anxiety levels became significantly lower in the first group. They also showed a trend toward reduced anxiety after a 24-hour period, not found in the other two groups.
Kumbhaka, in this light, may be called a self-administered C02 therapy. However, its effect is beneficial up to a certain optimum level only. Beyond this, it becomes distinctly harmful and may even cause disorientation and hallucination. Hence, it is always stressed that the practice of kumbhaka must be undertaken only under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Metabolic levels and brain activity must be adjusted to produce optimum conditions; only then it will become beneficial.
Another aspect of kumbhaka is that it trains one to control the part of the brain ruling the involuntary processes. One can move the hands, but not the hypothalamus. However, through the practice of kumbhaka, the brain can be trained to act according to one’s demands. One can stop its functions or accelerate them. This is how many yogis have been able to stop the heart for a number of days and revive it again. The heart is not an independent organ; it is controlled by a higher centre in the hypothalamus of the brain. With control of the brain, one can automatically control the coronary behaviour, body temperature, digestive system, and so on. In the advanced stages of kumbhaka the period of breath retention can be extended for long durations until all the vital functions appear to cease. In this way the breath may be suspended for days at a time. Yogis have been buried underground in this near-hibernation state, known as bhu samadhi, for days at a time.

Classification of pranayama
The various pranayamas are obtained by modulating the processes of pooraka, rechaka and kumbhaka. The main classical pranayamas are nine: nadi shodhana, bhastrika, kapalbhati (also a shatkarma), sheetali/sheetkari, bhramari, ujjayi, moorchha, surya bheda and chandra bheda. Some of these pranayamas increase heat and some cool the body down. Some pranayamas stimulate, while others harmonize and relax the nervous system. Nadi shodhana is balancing, bhastrika and kapalbhati are activating, and bhramari and ujjayi are relaxing. Sheetali/sheetkari and chandra bheda decrease the inner body temperature; surya bheda and moorchha increase the inner body temperature.

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