To Breathe or Not to Breathe…That is The Question

by Brian Cooper

Pranayama is very popular these days, and, I suspect, often wrongly taught. Although many teachers use that famous quote from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

“Just as lions, elephants and tigers are controlled by and by, so the breath is controlled by slow degrees, otherwise it kills the practitioner himself”,

It seems that they disregard – or their students disregard – this advice almost from the start.

The reason I say this is comparing what I see now to what I was originally taught. Back in the 70s, before walking to Rishikesh, I stayed in an ashram in Haridwar. I am not going to pretend I sat at the feet of enlightened gurus, nor did I have to sit for months at a gate before being admitted, but strolled into what seemed a deserted courtyard. I was eventually approached by a wild-looking man who beckoned me to sit down and show him alternate nostril breathing. This was some kind of test for acceptance into the ashram. He seemed reasonably satisfied with my effort. He then signalled for me to pay attention, and blocking off one nostril started inhaling – or what I assumed was inhaling: the breath was totally silent and lasted what seemed a very long time. He then did Jalandhara Bandha for considerably longer and finally released the throat lock and exhaled, also completely silently. The whole round must have taken over 5 minutes. And so began my first lesson in Pranayama.

Now the yogis, contrary to popular western ideas, are very keen on measuring everything possible. One of those measurements is how far the breath moves to and from the nostrils. They have recorded typical lengths for a range of activities. This can be done by observing when a fine thread of cotton no longer moves when held in front of the nose. The ultimate aim is for the breath to remain within the nostrils; in other words, to become imperceptible. My teacher used another method: every few days he would lick the palm of his hand and hold it close to my nose as I exhaled. One can easily feel the cooling effect of the breath on the hand. It took me some time until his hand was touching the tip of my nose.

The cessation of movement of the breath is called Kumbhaka. This has to be practised very, very gradually. It should be acquired by a gradual diminishing of the distance covered by the movement of the breath in exhalation as well as inhalation. So what exactly is Kumbhaka? Is it just very, very quiet breathing, or is it breath retention? Is there a difference? What do the yoga texts say about it?

The Sutras of Patanjali

2.50  “Exhalation, inhalation, retention, technique, time and number must be very precisely regulated over a lengthy period”

2.51  “The fourth pranayama technique ultimately transcends breath retention after exhaling and inhaling”

The Bhagavad Gita

4.29  “Some others offer the outgoing breath to the incoming breath and the incoming breath to the outgoing breath”

Hatha Yoga Pradipika

2.73 “In the practice of Kevala Pranayama, when it can be performed successfully without Rechaka and Puraka, then it is called Kevala Kumbhaka

This fourth breathing state transcends the first three well-known phases of breath puraka, kumbhaka, and rechaka, and is the sought-after divine state of Kevala Kumbhaka. The sentence depicts the two gross breaths becoming one, as if the breaths neutralize each other, thus they stop. This is the first stage. The two outer gross breaths go away, but are then found and enjoyed within a subtle form. So the two breaths still exist. Then even these are ‘offered into each other.’

This is a tantalizing idea. The breath is transformed from the gross movement to the subtle movement of prana. It is as if it has been refined and refined until its essence – prana – is what remains. Is this the true Kevala Kumbhaka?

Let’s keep this real. In my experience, when the breath becomes imperceptible, it actually feels as if it has stopped, but it is a very different sensation to just holding the breath. And of course, it hasn’t stopped. Instead of feeling that panic sensation of forcing breath retention, this produces a deep calm, a stillness in both body and mind.

And what about the ‘buried alive’ experiments? Some have been rigorously investigated and it appears that yogis have slowed down their metabolism so they can live on the little air they have been buried with.

This suggests that if Pranayama is to be practised, the breath first and foremost must be refined until it is almost invisible. What is actually happening physiologically during quiet breathing or breath retention?

This blog post is from Yoga Alliance’s magazine Amrita. To read this and more click here!


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