Kumbhaka: know the essence of Pranayama
All the great yoga masters of the past and the present speak specifically about the importance of breathing in the practice of yoga. Ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika together with gurus such as Pantanjali and BKS Iyengar , emphasize the importance of practicing the art of conscious breathing. To learn more about the art of breathing, we will speak of Kumbhaka, the essence of pranayama .
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Breathing is extremely important to life in countless ways, it is truly the essence of life. Although breathing has numerous positive physiological effects and is vital for survival, it is also important to see how it promotes emotional, mental and spiritual health.
What does it mean?
Kumbhaka is a term that means ” breath hold “. It is based on a technique with a key component of pranayama breathing exercises linked to meditation and some yoga asanas . This breathing technique is created for the purpose of providing numerous physical and mental health benefits .
Technique of full and empty lungs
The transitions from inhalation to exhalation and exhalation to inhalation involve, at least, reversals in the direction of muscle movements and the expansive or contractive movements of the lungs, thorax and abdomen. The time needed for such reversals can be very short, such as when you pant deliberately, as fast as you can. But they can also be long, like when you stop breathing intentionally at the end of exhalation. The effects and technique of these pauses, especially when they last, at first deliberately and then spontaneously, seem extraordinary.
- Puraka (Inhalation)
A single inhalation is called puraka. It is a process of drawing in the air that is expected to be smooth and continuous . If a person must pause one or more times during the process of a single inhalation, the process could be mentioned as an interrupted puraka.
- Abhyantara Kumbhaka (pause after inhalation)
It consists of the deliberate stoppage of the air flow and the retention of air in the lungs, without any movement of the lungs or muscles or any part of the body and without incipient movements. A beginner can experiment using some force to maintain that motionless pause. The experts have designed quite elaborate instructions and techniques for this purpose.
- Rechaka (exhalation)
The third stage, the exhalation, is called rechaka. Like inhalation, it should also be smooth and continuous, although almost always the speed of exhalation is different from inhalation. Normally, muscle energy is used to inhale, while exhalation is simply relaxing the tense muscles . Such relaxing forces release air from the lungs as they return to a non-combined condition.
However, a person can force the air by exerting pressure on the muscles, so when he sits or stands erect and has his abdominal muscles under constant control, the muscular effort can be used to both inhale and exhale.
- Bahya Kumbhaka (pause after expiring)
The fourth stage, the pause after the exhalation, is also called kumbhaka, especially when the stoppage is deliberate or prolonged . This stage completes the cycle that ends when a new inhalation begins after the pause.
Duration of Kumbhaka
A pause of breathing can be very short, even only a fraction of a second, or it can be very long. As an essay, it is recommended that people try to keep their lungs full of air and see how long it can stay that way. You will probably notice that you can hold it for several seconds and even, perhaps, for minutes. If the person is in a state of fatigue and the body needs constant replenishment of oxygen, it is likely that he will be unable to hold his breath for long. But when the body has rested, is relaxed and is already well supplied with oxygen, it will be able to hold the breath much longer.
Yoga practitioners prolong the duration of a full break regularly, for some time until the body is over supplied with oxygen and then they can take a long break without discomfort. During practice, it is important to know how to abandon it when it is not a comfortable activity .
Some masters of this technique can remain almost completely immobile for days, even being buried during such periods to demonstrate ability to survive without food, water or much air. Of course, even when they are buried, they do not stop breathing completely, but their inhalations and exhalations become so long and slow and their pauses so long that almost no energy is consumed and very little oxygen is needed. Even your heartbeat becomes so retarded that only a minimum of oxygen is necessary for the movement of the heart muscles. His brain activity almost ceases, so it takes very little energy to sustain the voracious capacity of the nervous system.
Techniques or aids to prolong Kumbhaka breaks
There are some traditional techniques or aids to prolong the breathing pauses during Kumbhaka . These involve deliberate attempts to block the respiratory passages in such a way that the air does not escape by itself when the chest and abdominal muscles relax. These aids are called “Bandha” and each of them is used to prolong the breathing pauses that binds the air to our lungs or closes and blocks the air channels so that no more air can escape or enter.
We will see four important bands where four parts of the body are mainly involved: lips and palate, glottis, chin and diaphragm. The first two are more important to prolong the complete pauses and the last two to retain the empty pauses.
- Bandha with lips and palate
It is a technique used by swimmers that consists in closing the lips with force so that no air escapes through the mouth and pressing the lips against the teeth to help keep them tight. If the nostrils are clear, simply lift the soft palate against the roof of the pharynx and close the passage in the nostrils. This can be done deliberately or you can learn to allow this to happen automatically after some training time. A little air pressure from the lungs can help keep the palate in a closed position.
- Bandha with the glottis
With this Bandha it is possible to avoid that the air leaves the lungs closing the glottis, which happens automatically when it is swallowed. All that needs to be done is stop the swallowing movements at that point where the trachea is closed. This may be difficult to do at first, since an automatic reflex pattern has been incorporated into your autonomic nervous mechanisms. However, a small effort in trying to achieve voluntary control over involuntary processes may help to master this technique. Of course, it is possible to combine the lips and the closing of the palate with the closing of the glottis to produce an even more strict lock.
- Bandha with the chin
The jawandhara bandha consists of pressing the chin close to the chest and dropping the head to help maintain the immobility of the muscular and air movements. This position is very useful to maintain an empty pause, since the pressure of the chin against the chest pushes the base of the tongue and the larynx to the pharynx and against the palate, thus providing the necessary help to resist the pressure caused by the vacuum in the lungs.
- Bandha with the diaphragm
This bandha consists of lifting the diaphragm and keeping it immobile during an empty pause. The abdomen should be pulled up as high as possible. Before testing this aid, all air must be expelled, in order to achieve complete control and greater comfort. One can make the effort to carry out one or more false inhalations, without leaving any cavity for the air. Before assuming the greatest possible relaxation during this pause, chin lock and high diaphragm techniques can be combined to retain an empty pause.
Important aspects to consider
Prolonging the duration of a pause in breathing entails a great responsibility, therefore, the practice must be carried out with great patience and requires important precautions and the assistance of a professional .
- It is important to gradually increase the duration of a pause by counting.
- It is recommended to use your fingers to count the duration of each break.
- If an attempt is made to achieve a prolonged pause in the first attempt, it is very likely that the individual will suffer some discomfort, nor will he be able to perceive the beneficial or relaxing effects of the exercise.
- If by making a series of extended pauses, the individual feels the need to exert an effort to maintain the longer pause, he should abandon the attempt immediately.
- By repeating such a series once a day for several days or even several times a day for several days, a gradual increase in the duration of the pauses that can be completed comfortably can be observed.
- Progress is totally individual, some people can achieve the goal much easier and faster than others.
When is it used?
The Kumbhaka breathing technique is part of the regular practices of pranayama . In fact, in his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali equates pranayama with Kumbhaka, and it is because the goal of all pranayama practices is based on performing kevala kumbhaka.
What is physiology?
The Kumbhaka breathing technique does not intend to intensify the absorption of oxygen in the bloodstream. The processes of diffusion of gas between the lungs and the bloodstream depend mainly on the area available for the diffusion of the alveolar membrane state and the partial pressures of gas on both sides of the membrane.
The time factor hardly comes into play: after equalizing the gas pressure on both sides of the membrane, the diffusion stops. It follows that a prolonged retention of breath does not offer a real advantage in terms of oxygen absorption. On the contrary, during kumbhaka, oxygen levels fall in the body and carbon dioxide levels increase. The rhythm of this process depends on the acceleration of the metabolism and the levels of relaxation or tension.
Main objective of the Kumbhaka
The main effect of kumbhaka is to cause the nervous system to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body , before the signals from the rhinencephalon cause an alteration in breathing. This may seem contradictory if only a simple method of effective breathing is seen in Pranayama. However, the main purpose of pranayama is to control the prana and the central nervous system .
It is important to note that high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood can induce modified states of consciousness and feelings of expansion, then in an extreme state, disorientation and hallucination.
In the brain, there are latent amounts of blood capillaries that expect additional blood flow. The increased levels of carbon dioxide exert an expansion effect on the cerebral capillaries, which, opening in greater numbers, improve brain circulation. We must bear in mind that this effect, positive up to a certain optimum level, becomes clearly negative if we cancel it.
Consequently, it is always emphasized that the practice of kumbhaka must be carried out absolutely under the guidance of an experienced teacher . Metabolic levels and brain activity must be adjusted to produce optimal conditions. Only with this condition does the kumbhaka provide positive effects.