Everyone knows that breathing is vital for sustaining life. Far fewer people, however, recognize this overlooked and simple action as a tool for transformation.
Pranayama is, however, much more than just a set of breathing exercises. Instead, it is also held as a central method of activating and regulating our vital life force or prana, which flows through and nourished our energy channels or nadis.
One of the most powerful yet misunderstood techniques of pranayama is kumbhaka, which involves the conscious retention of the breath. In this article, we will explore this ancient practice, including:
- History & philosophy of kumbakha
- The benefits of Kumbakha Pranayama
- Safety precautions of kumbakha
- Kumbakha Pranayama how to
- 5 kumbakha variations & how to practice them
History & Philosophy of Kumbakha
Origins of Kumbakha Pranayama
The origins of Kumbhaka Pranayama can be traced back to ancient India, with the earliest references to the practice being in the ancient texts of the Upanishads, which date back to roughly between 700 and 500 BCE (although estimates vary greatly).
In these texts, Kumbhaka Pranayama is described as a way to control prana – the vital force – contained in, but not synonymous with, the breath.
In the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, kumbakha is noted as one of the key modifications of breath.
- Pooraka (inhalation)
- Rechaka (exhalation)
- Antar kumbhaka (internal breath retention)
- Bahir kumbhaka (external breath retention)
According to both Patanjali and Swami Satyananda Saraswati, retention, or kumbakha, is the central element of pranayama.
There are many reasons why, but they mainly center around retention requiring complete control over the breath, as well as control over how to retain and direct prana contained in the breath to different and specific areas in the body.Kumbakha is an advanced stage of pranayama, as it requires the practitioner to master command over one’s respiration, the parasympathetic nervous system, and also over the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
In this sense, the initial emphasis in pranayama on controlling the motion of inhalation and exhalation is designed to strengthen the lungs, balance the nervous and pranic systems, and prepare for Kumbakha Pranayama.
As Swami Satyananda Saraswati says, it is the most important part of pranayama. However:
In order to perform kumbhaka successfully, there must be a gradual development of control over the function of respiration.
Therefore, in the pranayama practices more emphasis is given to inhalation and exhalation at the beginning, in order to strengthen the lungs and balance the nervous and pranic systems in preparation for the practice of kumbhaka.– Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
The benefits of kumbhaka pranayama
There are numerous recognized physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of practicing Kumbhaka Pranayama, which include:
#1: Physical benefits
- Improves lung function: Various studies evidence the positive effect that kumbakha and other pranayama practices have on lung function, by increasing lung capacity, strengthening the diaphragm, and improving the efficiency of the cardiovascular system.
- Increased energy and vitality: Kumbhaka variations of pranayama techniques have also been shown in studies to help increase energy levels, alertness and reduce fatigue by increasing the oxygen supply to the body.
#2: Emotional benefits
- Reduced stress and anxiety: Studies show that incorporating kumbakha into pranayama practices reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, and encourages the release of endorphins to support a better mood.
- Improves concentration: Studies also evidence that regular kumbakha practice also develops focus and concentration in participants.
#3: Spiritual Benefits
- Improves the control and balance of prana: regular practice and mastery of breath retention are believed to help us balance, channel, and control the flow of prana, the energy that gives us vitality and animates us, supporting physical and spiritual health.
- Contributes to spiritual awareness: by developing focus, calmness, and encouraging meditative reflection on changes in minds and bodies, kumbakha fosters an awareness of self and of the present moment that contributes to greater spiritual awareness.
Safety Precautions of Kumbhaka
As noted above, Kumbakha Pranayama can have various advantages for the body and mind. However, as a powerful and advanced practice, it’s crucial to approach it with caution and practice it safely to prevent any possible harm.
For example, as Kumbhaka Pranayama involves holding the breath for an extended period, the practice can have potential risks for certain individuals.
Those with cardiovascular or respiratory issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, should avoid Kumbakha Pranayama.
Although, it may be possible for some under the guidance of an experienced guide and the approval of a medical professional.
This is because the retention may lead to a sudden increase in blood pressure, heart rate, or carbon dioxide retention, causing dizziness, fainting, or even heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, pregnant women, people with a history of panic attacks, or those with anxiety disorders should also perform kumbhaka with extreme caution, as it may trigger hyperventilation or panic attacks.
Kumbakha is also not recommended for anyone under the age of 12, as children’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems are still developing and are more sensitive to changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
If you have any underlying health conditions or concerns, have recently undergone surgery, or are over the age of 50, it is essential to consult a qualified pranayama guide and healthcare professional before attempting Kumbhaka Pranayama.
kumbakha Pranayama how to & Variations
There are two main types of kumbhaka
- antar kumbhaka (internal retention), which involves holding the breath after inhaling
- bahya kumbhaka (external retention), which involves holding the breath after exhaling
- Find a quiet and peaceful place to practice where you won’t be disturbed. Then, begin by sitting in a comfortable position with your spine straight, either in a chair or on the floor.
- Close your eyes and prepare by taking a few deep breaths to relax your body and mind.
- Next, start inhaling deeply through your nose, filling every corner of your lungs completely with air.
- Once full, hold your breath on the inhale for between 3 – 5 seconds, retaining the air in your lungs.
- While holding your breath, try mentally chanting the sound “OM” in a soft tone. Focus your attention on the sound vibration as it resonates throughout your body – this may help relax your mind and prolong internal retention.
- When you’re ready to exhale, do so slowly and steadily, engaging your diaphragm and abdomen to release all the air from your lungs.
- Repeat this process for several rounds, gradually increasing the duration of the retention and the length of the inhalation and exhalation.
- As you practice, try to keep your breathing smooth and even, and focus your attention on the sensation of the breath moving in and out of your body.
- When you’re finished with the practice, take a few moments to sit quietly and observe any changes in your body, breath, or mind.
Remember, it’s important to practice pranayama with awareness and respect for your body’s limits.
If you experience any discomfort or strain, ease off or stop the practice altogether. With regular practice and patience, you can gradually increase your capacity and experience the many benefits of pranayama.
Both antar kumbhaka (internal retention) and bahya kumbhaka (external retention), are said to have different benefits for the body and mind, and can be practiced in various pranayama techniques to enhance their effects. Here are some examples:
- Nadi Shodhana: After inhaling through one nostril, hold your breath (antar kumbhaka) and then exhale through the other nostril, hold your breath (bahya kumbhaka). Repeat on the other side.
- Bhastrika: After inhaling deeply and exhaling forcefully, hold your breath (bahya kumbhaka) for a few seconds before releasing the breath slowly.
- Kapalabhati: After performing several rounds of rapid inhalations and exhalations, hold your breath (antar kumbhaka) for a few seconds before releasing the breath slowly.
- Surya Bhedana: After inhaling through the right nostril, hold your breath (antar kumbhaka) and then exhale through the left nostril.
- Ujjayi: After inhaling slowly and deeply, hold your breath (antar kumbhaka) for a few seconds before releasing the breath slowly through your nose while making a soft hissing sound by restricting the back of your throat.
Kumbhaka can also be combined with bandhas (energy locks) during yoga practices to intensify their effects and to create a more profound and transformative experience.
Check out our guides on bandhas for inspiration!
If you want to go further into everything yoga & pranayama, why not try reading the text we mentioned earlier, Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha?
If you’ve enjoyed this article on Kumbakha Pranayama, why not check out our other breath control articles below: