Kumbhaka

Samadhi and Kumbhaka seem to be intricately related. Samadhi is the bliss one experiences during Savasana, or after a long meditation or yoga practice and Kumbhaka is the space between breaths, or between inhales and exhales. The more that I practice, the more I find bliss existing in each moment and not simply at the end of a day’s practice, or when the view is good. Finding peace in the present moment seems to lead to being peaceful all the time.

Patanjali taught that the mind fluctuates, between highs and lows, depression and elation. Yoga teaches that breath allows one to control and truly harness the breath; it is the doorway to the unconscious mind. By deepening Kumbhaka, or the time between breaths, a yogi can deepen their state of bliss, leading deeper into the mystical realm of nirvana. The space between the breaths is where the space between thoughts are found; the most blissful of all states. When one is able to simply feel and appreciate the world with gratitude, then all suffering leaves the individual.

The link between the mind and the breath is truly extraordinary. Consciousness, it seems, is the result of having a body; the mind is not only the brain, but by the entire nervous, muscular and skeletal system. We can then assume that the body influences the states of the mind and that breathing is a way to control the body. Breathing is actually one of the most powerful influencers of conscious states; it is functioning minutes after a child leaves the womb and doesn’t cease until death. Breathing even continues when you are unconscious and I believe it is the most powerful link to the unconscious mind, the deepest layers of thought that create consciousness.

Lately I have been playing with lengthening my breaths, to see how long my body can go without breathing while relaxed. Time seems to be constantly increasing between the need for breaths and my ability to slow my breath has improved enormously. At the end of a practice, once my nervous system has calmed, it seems like I can go into extended periods of time without breathing. Buddhist monks are said to be able to stop breathing completely; in fact, some meditate into death by slowing and stopping the organs through breath. Doctors agree that the lifespan of a being is not measured in the amount of time (minutes, seconds, etc) but by the amount of breaths. Breathing is your life force, known as prana in yoga; the lungs encompass the heart, feed and cleanse it and give the body ability to normalize itself to the environment. The breath, it seems, is also the doorway to long life.

Kumbhaka seems to be a pathway to enlightenment and the inner workings of the mind, having deep implications for the unconscious mind, the heart, and entire circulatory system. Poorak is the name for an inhale and Rechak is the name of an exhale in Sanskrit. The different types of Kumbhaka are also important to understand:

  • antar kumbhaka – after the inhale, when the lungs are full
  • bahya kumbhaka – after the exhale, when the lungs are empty
  • Sahit Kumbhaka – performed during the middle of an exhale or inhale
  • Kevali Kumbhaka – complete cessation of breathing, an advanced stage of Kumbhaka after intensive Pranayama and Kumbhaka exercises

Practicing these exercises will calm the nervous system and slow the breath rate, leading to increased vitality and focus of the mind. Humans are one of the few species that can voluntarily stop the breath, whales are a second species, and it gives tremendous insight into the inner workings of consciousness. Over time Kumbhaka exercises may very well lead to ultimate Samadhi, enlightenment, and the realization of god. But in any case, it will certainly bring your mind to a more peaceful state and allow you to be less reactive to the outside world, so that you can enjoy it more. Practice your Kumbhaka and look for the little nooks and crannies that you’ve never felt before; these will turn into new worlds for exploration.

 

The 8 Limbs of Yoga (Part 4: Pranayama)

lungs

Pranayama: The Fourth Limb

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and means life-force control, but is better known as the science of breathing. Prana is the vital energy that provides life through the breath and resides in the blood; it is most concentrated in the semen and vaginal discharge. Yama means self-restraint, control, or discipline. In Pranayama, the yogi learns to control the flow of life-force through the body by regulation of the breathing apparatus.

Yogi’s are renowned for having control over the breath and this can involve holding the breath for long periods of time. Kumbhaka is holding the breath between inhale and exhale
(antara kumbaka) or between exhale and inhale (bahya kumbhaka). Puraka means inhaling, rechaka means exhaling, and kumbhaka means retention.  In gaining control of the breath and in the science of pranayama all of these techniques are useful.

Two of the Bandhas (interlocking mechanisms in the body) are intrinsic for control over the breath and can help to refine technique. The primary lock is the Uddiyana Bandha, which is similar to the caving technique of Arnold. At the end of an exhale, suck the stomach up into your chest and notice how you can naturally hold it there. This is useful for increased abdominal and spinal control and can help in sun salutations as you jump forward and back. The second bandha is the Mula Bandha, which is interlock between the rectum/anus and the naval. This bandha is useful in all types of breathing exercises, and between both inhales and exhales and is often used in conjunction with the Uddiyana Bandha. Mula Bandha is also known as the perineum and is often referred to as the primary lock in yoga.

There are some techniques that are useful for deepening the relationship to the breath and the practitioner’s control over it. Bhastrika, or bellows breathing, is the forceful exhales and inhales of the breath to heat the internal system, kind of firing things up. It uses 3-4 second cycling and is really effective at the beginning of a practice. Kapalabhati, or fire-breathing, is forceful exhales that snap the naval to the spine and increase in speed as you do them. This also creates heat, but can simultaneously release tension of the abdominal muscles. Anulom Vilom, alternate nostril breathing, is a great way to equilibriate the brain and entire central nervous system. Exhale then inhale in one nostril, then switch sides and repeat 5 to 6 times. Calming feelings and stress relief should start to enter into the mind and body after you have completed. Breath retention is the process of elongating the breath as much as possible, keeping about equal inhales and exhales and holding in between each. Usually time between inhale and exhale is longer than between exhale and inhale, because it is harder to retain the breath when the lungs are empty. Shitali is a technique where you breath in through the tongue and exhale through the nose. This cools the central nervous system and is a great way to transition into Savasana, or the end of a practice. These techniques will grant increased control over the breath and body and with regular practice will help to alleviate a variety of maladies, illnesses, and inefficiencies in the body.

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga; according to Patanjali it comes after asana in terms of the progression of the yogi to enlightenment. Pranayama is not something you want to mess around with; improper use can easily lead to imbalance in the system and cause tension. It is a great way to enter into a practice or to cool-down afterwards, before entering corpse pose (which should always be done after intense asana practice). Use your bandhas and techniques to increase the efficiency of your breath and nervous system. It will also give greater emotional control, leading to relief from anxiety and stress.