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[Yoga Home][Postures][Breathing][HolisticOnline Home][Meditation][Prayer]

The Four Stages of Breathing

As we have explained before, each cycle of breathing, usually thought of as merely a single inhaling followed by a single exhaling, may be analyzed into four phases or stages, each with its distinct nature and its traditional Sanskrit name. The transitions from inhaling to exhaling and from exhaling to inhaling involve at least reversals in direction of the movements of muscles and of expansive or contractive movements of lungs, thorax and abdomen. The time necessary for such reversals can be very short, as may be observed if one deliberately pants as shortly and rapidly as he can. Yet they can be long, as one may notice if he intentionally stops breathing when he has finished inbreathing or out-breathing. The effects of these pause specially when they become lengthened, at first deliberately and then spontaneously-seem remarkable. Thus in our analysis of the four stages of breathing we shall pay special attention to these pauses, how to lengthen them and how to profit from them.

1. Puraka (Inhalation):

A single inhalation is termed puraka. It is a process of drawing in air; it is expected to be smooth and continuous. If a person should pause one or more times during the process of a single inhaling, the process might be spoken of as a broken puraka rather than as a series of purakas.

2. Abhyantara Kumbhaka (Pause After Inhaling) Full Pause:

Kumbhaka consists of deliberate stoppage of flow of air and retention of the air in the lungs, without any movement of lungs or muscles or any part of the body and without any incipient movements. A beginner may experiment by using some force to keep such pause motionless. Quite elaborate instructions and techniques have been worked out for this purpose.

3. Rechaka (Exhalation)

The third stage, exhalation, is called rechaka. Like inhalation, it too should be smooth and continuous, though often the speed of exhaling is different from that of inhaling. Normally, muscular energy is used for inhaling whereas exhaling consists merely in relaxing the tensed muscles. Such relaxing forces air from the lungs as they return to an untensed condition. However, a person can force air out with muscular effort; so when he sits or stands erect and has his abdominal muscles under constant control, muscular effort may be used for both inhaling and exhaling. Especially if one deliberately smoothes the course of his breathing and holds the cycles in regular or definitely irregular patterns, he is likely to use muscular energy at each stage, including the pauses. However, in a condition of complete relaxation, one should expect effort to be needed only for inhaling.

4. Bahya Kumbhaka (Pause After Exhaling) Empty Pause:

The fourth stage, the pause after exhaling, is also called kumbhaka, especially when the stoppage is deliberate or prolonged. The fourth stage, the empty pause, completes the cycle which terminates as the pause ends and a new inhalation begins.

Arrested and Resting Breath

Since the two pauses have great significance in yoga, we will examine them further. Four aspects of the problem, and the significance of arresting breathing, will be explored briefly. They pertain to

  1. length of time during a pause
  2. techniques for holding breathing,
  3. suggestions concerning practice and
  4. the nature and benefits of kevala kumbhakara or "perfectly peaceful pause"

A pause may be very short, even only a fraction of a second (eg., quick puffs) or it may be very long. As an illustration, try holding your lungs full of air and see how long you can do so. You will find that you can retain it for several seconds and even, perhaps, for minutes. If you happen to be fatigued and if your body needs constant replenishment of oxygen, you may be unable to hold your breath very long. But when you have become rested and relaxed and when your body is already well supplied with oxygen, you may hold your breath much longer. Practitioners of yoga extend the duration of a full pause by first breathing regularly for some time until the body becomes oversupplied with oxygen and then taking an extended pause without discomfort. When you try this, please remember to quit the practice when you fell the discomfort.

Advanced practitioners of yoga are said to be able to stop breathing for an hour or more without discomfort. Some of them eventually can remain almost completely motionless for days, even having themselves buried for such periods in order to demonstrate ability to survive without food, water or very much air. When buried, they do not stop breathing entirely, but their inhalations and exhalations become so long and slow and their pauses so prolonged that almost no energy is consumed and very little oxygen is needed. Even their heartbeats become so retarded that only a minimum of oxygen is needed by the heart muscles. Their cerebral activity almost ceases, so very little energy is needed to support the voracious capacity of the nervous system.

There are some significant ways of attaining relatively complete relaxation by use of these pauses between breathing. One cannot retain his breathing for an extended duration as long as he is nervous, anxious or fatigued. So, in pursuit of extended pauses, he will have to do what is required to attain a state of rest. When you have attained full state of rest, it will result in the reduction or elimination of nervousness. It is an extremely powerful technique to incite relaxation response.

Techniques or Aids To Prolong Pauses

There are some traditional techniques or aids available to prolong the pauses. These involve deliberate attempts to block breathing passages in such a way that air does not escape of its own accord when chest and abdominal muscles become relaxed. These aids are called bandha. Bandha is a Sanskrit word related to our English words "band," "bind," "bond" and "bound." Each of the bandha employed for prolonging breathing pauses binds air in our lungs or closes and locks the air channels so that no air can escape or enter. We will look at four important bandhas. The parts of the body mainly involved are the (a) lips and palate, (b) glottis, (c) chin and (d) diaphragm. The first two seem more important in prolonging full pauses and the last two more necessary for retaining empty pauses.

a. Bandha involving Lips and Palate:

This is a technique used by swimmers. Closing our lips tightly so no air can escape through the mouth. Pressing lips against the teeth may aid in tightening them. If your nostrils are clear, simply lift your soft palate against the roof of your pharynx and close the passage into the nostrils. This may be done deliberately or you may learn to allow this to happen automatically after some training. A little air pressure from your lungs may aid in holding the palate in such a closed position.

b. Bandha involving Glottis:

You can prevent air from leaving your lungs by closing your glottis. Your glottis closes automatically when you swallow. All you need to do is to stop your swallowing movements at that point where your trachea is closed. This may be difficult to do at first, since an automatic reflex pattern has been built into your autonomic nervous mechanisms. But a little effort at trying to attain voluntary control over your involuntary processes should give you mastery of this technique. Of course, you may combine both the lips and the palate closure with the glottis closure to produce a still tighter lock.

c. Jalandhara Bandha (Bandha involving Chin):

The jalandhara bandha or "chin lock" consists in pressing the chin close to the chest and dropping the head to help in maintaining immobility of muscle and air movements. This position is very useful in holding an empty pause, for the pressure of the chin against the chest pushes the base of the tongue and the larynx up into the pharynx and against the palate, thus providing aid in resisting the pressure caused by the vacuum in the lungs.

d. Uddiyana Bandha (Bandha Involving Diaphragm)

A fourth bandha, uddiyana bandha, involves raising the diaphragm and keeping it immobile during an empty pause. The abdomen must be drawn in and up as far as possible. Expel all air before using this bandha. In order to attain complete control and more comfort, one may put forth some effort in one or more mock inhalations, without admitting any air, before assuming fullest relaxation possible during this pause. You may combine both chin lock and raised diaphragm techniques in retaining an empty pause. Both of these techniques can be employed in either a standing or sitting position and they are commonly employed together during sitting postures. These two bandhas appear to serve as strenuous and circulation-stimulating exercises rather than muscle- and will quieting attitudes, though they do aid a person in attaining thorough mastery over his respiration cycle.

The problem of prolonging the duration of a pause should be approached with caution, patience and practice. Gradually lengthen the duration of a pause by counting. Use your fingers to count the duration of a pause. After each successive pause, add one unit of pause to the rest. If you try to attain a prolonged pause on the first attempt, you are very likely to overdo it, suffer some discomfort and feel no beneficial or restful effects. Whenever a series of increasingly extended pauses reaches the point where you feel the need to exert effort in order to hold the pause longer, stop immediately. By repeating such a series once a day for several days-or even several times a day for several days-you can observe a gradual increase in the length of the pauses which may be held with comfort. The progress you make is mainly an individual matter. Some persons can do this much easier than others.

Kevala kumbhaka (perfectly peaceful pause) involves not only complete cessation of movement of air and muscles but also of all awareness of such movement and tendencies. The state experienced is one of complete rest. Urgency, interest, motive, will, desire, etc. all disappear momentarily along with the disappearance of specific interests and anxieties, such as those of hatred, fear, ambition, love, hunger and thirst. You will also feel detached from tendencies such as to hate specific tasks, to fear particular persons, to demand specific rights or to zealously force oneself or others to attain indicated goals. During such a peaceful pause, quiescence is experienced as perfect. For anyone writhing under the pressures of multiple anxieties, the experience of the utter peacefulness of kevala kumbhaka even for a moment, provides a very restful and blissful moment.

The experiences of kevala kumbhaka helps in retarding progressive over-anxiety that is common in our society. Suicides and suicidal tendencies, which result from the development of unbearable anxieties, may be retarded and prevented by sufficiently assiduous practice of yoga. The automatic mechanisms which spontaneously induce inhaling and exhaling, as well as heartbeats and hunger and thirst, can be modified and inhibited for short periods.

The experience of kevala kumbhaka is self-terminating and, in spite of some slight reversal of anxious tendencies, one is soon again immersed in the more usual anxieties. The experience must be repeated again and again, and even then, although it may aid in temporary reversal, it cannot be expected to overcome or counteract the much more powerful drives which nature, culture and individual ambitions have established so deeply within us. Yet, its pacifying effects should not be overlooked by anyone who has become over-ambitious and overanxious.

The power of kevala kumbhaka and the breathing exercises are effectively tapped by combining it with the benefits of undertaking the other elements of yoga such as asanas. Although breathing can be undertaken independent of asanas and vice versa, the combination is many times more effective than doing each one of them separately. The beauty of this technique is that it is available to everyone – regardless of age, sex, occupation, religion or kind of ambition. It may be convenient to do this in the morning and evening; but you can do this at your place of work. Performing it is more relaxing than going for a cup of coffee or going to the water cooler or going for a smoke.

Go To: Safety of Breathing Exercises:

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