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Kumbhaka – Holding The Breath In Hatha Yoga

In hatha yoga, the word kumbhaka is often used as a synonym for pranayama (breath control. Kumbha means a pitcher. Just as a pitcher completely filed with water holds the water and does not allow any further quantity of water, in yoga, breath is held in practice of breath control.

In Kumbhaka yoga, breath can be held either in the lungs after deep inhaling or outside the lungs after deep exhaling. These two main varieties of breath restraint are called abhyantara (internal) and bahya (external), respectively. When practiced together they are called extra kumbhaka.

Kumbhaka practice is also separated into the two classifications of sahita and kevala kumbhakas. Hatha yoga describes eight forms of breath control which are all varieties of sahita kumbhaka.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutra:1.34, has recommended the practice of external retention of breath as a means of making the mind serene and steady.

The difference between sahita and kevala kumbhaka is that the former is performed with conscious inhaling and exhaling, while the latter is accomplished without there being any conscious effort to inhale, exhale or hold the breath.

It is said in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, II. 71-74, that the latter variety, kevala kumbhaka, starts happening only after intense and prolonged practice. Kevala Kumbhaka is the most significant type of breath control.

When that is mastered, nothing remains unaccomplished, and the highest goal of Yoga, i.e. liberation, is realized.

Patanjali has described this as “that which supersedes every outer and inner practice”. Yogasutra: II.51)

  • Patanjali Yogasutras (1990) by P.V. Karamblekar – published by Kaivalyadhama Lonavla
  • Pranayama (Part I and II) (1950) Swami Kuvalayananda - published by Kaivalyadhama Lonavla
  • The secrets of prana, pranayama, and yoga asanas (1974) – Swami Narayanananda - published by N U Yoga Trust Rishikesh
  • Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume VI page 181 - IHRF