How to do Kumbhaka Pranayama - Full Breath Retention
Kumbhaka pranayama is one of the traditional pranayama's breathing exercises of Hatha yoga. Kumbhaka (kuhm-BAH-kah) is Sanskrit word that means pot. This is not just any pot but the human torso as seen as a pot with two interiors (one at the throat and the other at the base of the pelvis).
It is practiced in two types: antara and bahya. Antara (ahn-TAH-rah) is Sanskrit for interior while bahya (BAH-yah) is Sanskrit for outer. These two retention techniques are therefore practiced on the inhale and exhale respectively. In this tutorial we focus on Antara (the pause between the in and out breath).
Kumbhaka is practiced at first in a 1-1-2 ratio so whatever you're inhaling is for, you hold your breath for the same amount and exhale is the double amount. When you become comfortable in stage two the ratio becomes 1-2-2, then 1-3-2 and final step 1-4-2 so if your inhale is for 10 you hold for 40 and exhale for 20.
Step by Step
- Start by sitting in a comfortable meditation posture. You can do the Sukhasana (easy pose) for instance. If you are unable to sit in any of those postures, you can sit on a chair. Ensure that your back is straight with the spine, neck, and head aligned. Place your hands on your knees in jnana mudra. You may also place one hand on your chest and the other on the abdomen. Close your eyes.
- Start by doing simple natural breathing. Breathe naturally through both of your nostrils. This will help you to gain control of your breathing and prepare your body for the practice.
- Antara Kumbhaka – this is internal retention. Start by taking a deep breath to the count of five. Counting should be done in the mind or you can use your fingers or use a metronome as help. After you have filled your lungs with air, tuck your chin into your chest in jalandhara badha, close nose with thumb and ring finger, hold your breath to a count of five.
- Release hand and lift head, exhale normally through both nostrils. Exhalation should be done for double count 10 as in this example of ratio 1-1-2
- Repeat cycle for 10 - 15 minutes
Bahya Kumbhaka – this is external retention. To practice this, take a deep breath, to the count of five. Now exhale deeply but slowly also to the count of five. Hold your breath when you are done exhaling. You should also hold the breath for the same duration as inhalation and exhalation. Endeavor to make the three steps all be the same duration.
- Kumbhaka has to be practiced in a relaxed state of mind to revitalize the nervous system
- Don't hold your breath by force, don't go beyond your capacity.
- Don't practice Antara Kumbhaka before mastering puraka (inhale) and rechaka (exhale), start with ujjayi or other technique
- Don't practice Bahya Kubakha before mastering Antara Kumbakha
- Always practice sitting or laying down, never standing
- Practice this pranayama on an empty stomach
- This pranayama is believed to strengthen the diaphragm as you hold your breathe deeply and hold your breath.
- It is also very good at increasing lung capacity due to the deep inhalation.
- Kumbhaka pranayama cleanses the respiratory system. It cleanses the residual air or dead space air and alveolar air.
- It activates the respiratory center in the brain. This is due to the increase in carbon dioxide during retention which triggers the brain for better oxygen retention and interchange.
- Increases oxygen retention and the amount of oxygen in the blood. This, in turn, improves health and enhances concentration. When your body is yearning to take a breath when in retention, your body focuses on that which improves the concentration
- This pranayama relieves the body and the mind of stress and anxiety. It clears thoughts and enhances memory
- It reduces strain on the circulatory system of the body.
- It is very ideal as pre-meditation pranayama. It settles the body and the mind grounding it and preparing it for meditation.
- It can relieve complications such as blockage, acidity, gastric problems, allergies, asthma, constipation and problems with reproductive organs.
The three major bandhas Mula bandha, Uddiyana bandha, and Jalandhara bandha particularly used here in the Kumbhaka practice when holding the breath. As a beginner practice, only Jalandhara bandha until you master the technique.
- For beginners first, focus on mastering Antara kumbhaka and start slowly with holding breath for a few seconds.
- Ensure that you keep your mouth closed throughout the entire pranayama. Opening the mouth messes with intake of air and retention so you do not get the full benefits.
- Watch the rhythm, if it is disturbed by holding your breath you have gone too far. If it is undisturbed the practice is correct.
- This pranayama should not be practiced by children under the age of 12 years. It also should not be performed by people who have serious cardiac and hypertension problems. As you become proficient and master the technique, increase the duration with which you inhale, exhale and hold the breath.
Other breathing exercises
Before attempting Kumbhaka a regular practice of other pranayama exercises is recommended such as:
- Anuloma viloma: alternate nostril breathing
- Bhramari pranayama: humming bee breath
- Ujjayi: Victorious breath
- Bhastrika Pranayama: bellows breath
Kumbhaka together with other pranayama techniques
- Kumbhaka is very well practiced together with ujjayi (victorious breath) pranayama. Combining the two can bring in more benefits for you. To perform ujjayi, first, inhale normally to gain rhythm. Then constrict the throat muscles on an exhale. Inhale filling your lungs to capacity.
- On the exhale let the air pass through the constricted throat muscles as you make that soothing HAAAH sound. To combine this with kumbhaka, hold your breath after the inhalation for internal retention and after inhalation for external retention.
- Repeat for the number of cycles needed or for the duration you want to practice this technique.
- Breathe naturally as you finish the pranayama. Ensure you breathe through both nostrils and slowly without haste or jerking breaths.
Dictionary Kumbakha pranayama
- Kumbakhka: "pot" or "breath retention"
- Antara: "interior"
- Bahya: "outer"
- Kevala: "by itself" "whole" or "complete"
- Puraka: "inhalation"
- Rechaka: "exhalation"
- Jalandhara bandha: "throat lock"