The Retention of the Breath
Retention—A Key to Inner Transformation
Kumbhaka means “pot-like” and refers to retention, one of the phases of pranayama (conscious control and extension of breath). Retention is a condition without inhalation or exhalation that is associated with the act of increased awareness and the opening of the being toward subtle energies. Many yogis consider that retention is the main aspect of pranayama. Prolonging the duration of the retention is thought to prolong life itself, and is generally considered a key to inner transformation. It is also one of the most direct means of effecting changes in consciousness.
Because of its importance, the term kumbhaka is used many times in Hatha Yoga texts to designate all the breathing processes and the subtle phenomena associated with them: breathing in, breathing out, and the retention of the absorbed prana (subtle energies).
More specifically, this term refers to the fact that during the suspension of breathing, the body fills up with prana, which is retained just as a pot retains liquid. But, since retention of the breath also stabilizes the mind, the Yoga Tattva Upanishad (142) likens kumbhaka to a lamp inside a pot that does not flicker because no breeze can reach it.
Hatha Yoga texts speak about two kinds of retention:
- Sahita, “associated” with inhalation and exhalation
- Kevala, “isolated,” that is, without either inhalation or exhalation
Sahita kumbhaka is the retention of breath “associated” with inhalation and exhalation. There are two forms of breath retention: after inhalation and after exhalation. When the breath is retained after a complete inhalation, it is called antara kumbhaka (internal retention). When it is retained after a complete exhalation, it is known as bahya kumbhaka (external retention).
The various forms of sahita kumbhaka attract kundalini shakti (the “serpent power”) into sushumna nadi (the central channel), but the next form of retention, kevala kumbhaka, is the principal means of forcing kundalini along sushumna nadi to sahasrara.
Kevala kumbhaka means “absolute (or complete) retention.” It is the retention of breath without inhalation or exhalation, which leads to stillness of the mind. Kevala kumbhaka is an advanced form of pranayama (control and awareness of the energies associated with breathing). It is obtained after a perseverant practice of pranayama and should occur without strain.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2:73-74) affirms that for the yogi who is able to obtain kevala kumbhaka “…nothing in the three worlds is difficult for him to obtain.” It further states that such a yogi “…attains even the condition of Raja Yoga. There is no doubt about this.”
Referring to the way in which siddhis (paranormal powers) can be obtained, the Shiva Samhita (3:53) makes interesting affirmations: Yogis must be able to retain the breath for three ghatikas (i.e., 72 minutes) before they can hope to obtain siddhis. Further on (3:59), it states that when yogis are able to perform retention for a whole yama (i.e., three hours) their bodies become so light that they are able to balance on their thumbs. Kevala kumbhaka is also a condition that may appear during deep meditation.