Pranayama is a key part of a yoga practice, literally meaning ‘Life force’ (Prana) ‘Control’ (Yama), as the breath is seen as both the bridge between the mind and the body, as well as the drishti (focal point) for meditation and secret to longevity.
There are many different types of breath control, each designed with a different objective in mind. Today we’ll be explaining a pranayama called Kumbhaka – or breath retention.
As with any pranayama, it is always encouraged to start small and build up from there, so a few cycles are enough. By relaxing and using your awareness fully, you’re effectively training your lung capacity, as well as your mind. A pranayma practice should never feel forced, although it may take some getting used to, over all most pranayama should feel soothing to the soul.
So What Does Kumbhaka Entail?
As mentioned, Kumbhaka means ‘retention’ which involves holding or stilling the breath the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. The retention at the top of the inhale is known as Antara Kumbhaka and the retention at the bottom of the breath is called Bahya Kumbhaka.
The principle of this type of breath control reflects the two key elements of the mind; desire and avoidance. By holding on to the breath and not allowing the next inhale or exhale you’re playing on the edge of cravings or desire and observing how you react, softening despite them.
Another part to this type of pranayama is observing the different type of energy at the top of the inhale (puraka) (lightness, airy, yang, faster) compared to the type of energy at the bottom of the exhale (rechaka) (darker, deeper, yin, slower). Let’s start with Antara Kumbhaka….
- To begin you would find a comfortable seat, relax tension in your face and shoulders and close your eyes
- Take a couple of slower deeper breaths through the nose to centre yourself
- Empty out all of your breath completely followed by a slow deep inhale. Allow the chest to lift and expand to fully stretch the lungs
- At the top of the breath, gently drop the chin towards the chest to lock it in (this is jalandhara bandha or throat lock, also said to activate the vishuddha or throat chakra).
- Hold for 5 counts. Lift the chin and exhale slowly.
- Repeat this process for around 1-3 minutes
Pause for a few moments in a normal breathing pattern observing how you feel. Then try a few rounds of Bahya Kumbhaka:
- When ready, inhale fully through the nose and then exhale to the very bottom of the breath. At this point try to relax the base of the lungs and chest and observe the energy here
- Hold for 5 counts
- Inhale slowly
- Repeat this cycle of holding the exhales for 1-3 minutes
Once you’re comfortable with this practice, you may wish to increase the hold to anything up to a count of 8. You may also wish to alternate the retention on first the inhale and then the exhale, which encourages more immediate balance in your energy. As with all pranayama there are modifications and alternates.
Classes at the Mary Ann Weeks Aveda studio on Guildford high street often cover pranayama within yoga sessions. These learnings can be applied in other areas of your life to help decrease stress levels, increase concentration and deliver higher lung capacity, which benefits your entire body!
Classes start from just £10 each with a number of fantastic, committed and devoted local yoga teachers.