Holding the Breath vs. Natural Breathlessness



You said breathlessness can’t be done by force. I am doing a certain meditation and was asked to hold my breath for as long as I wish and feel comfortable to. Though I do it purposely by holding my breath, I do feel very comfortable in doing so and can go for 3 mins without breathing. Why? And that, can I practice this 'holding my breath' meditation as long as I feel comfortable? In this way, my chattering mind quiet down more!

Thank you very much, Ananda!

—Sunshine, Hong Kong


Dear Sunshine (shining bright today, I hope!),

In yoga there are two forms of breathlessness, or kumbhaka: one is intentional, done with will; the other one occurs naturally, spontaneously, and effortlessly, which is called kevali kumbhaka. Both have their purpose.

First about the intentional kumbhaka: Yogananda for example taught the even-breathing technique, in which you inhale, hold the breath, and exhale, for the same counts. So in this case you do hold the breath, which is good. This kind of technique, as you correctly say, calms the mind. Yogananda recommends to take this technique gradually to a count of 20-20-20. The crucial point, however, is to listen sensitively to your body. Let there be a calm, relaxed, natural feeling to it. Your teachers in fact told you to hold the breath to the point where it is “comfortable.” That is the key. Don’t go beyond is, don’t force, never be violent.

Yogananda explains it like this: “It is extremely unwise to hold the breath in the lungs to the point of discomfort. Although you cannot kill yourself by holding the breath too long in the lungs (the medulla takes over and produces unconsciousness), you can injure the lungs and heart. When unconsciousness comes, breathing automatically starts again. Do not follow any teacher who tells you to hold your breath in the lungs for a long time, or tells you to practice violent breathing exercises.”

3 minutes sounds quite extreme to me, almost like a sport. However, you write that you feel “very comfortable” with it. However do make sure that it doesn’t take you too much into a practice of physical control (almost like sports). It should always take you into a calm and relaxed state of inwardness, of stillness, of receptivity.

Now about the natural breathlessness: all advanced breathing exercises are done to achieve that spontaneous, calm, and happy state, kevali kumbhaka, in which the breath stops by itself. Natural breathlessness is the door to transcendence. Swami Kriyananda writes about in his marvellous book, Raja Yoga:

“Transcendence is the goal of life. Rest is the goal of action. Breathlessness is the final goal of all breathing exercises. Spirit is the eternal silence out of which all sound and vibration are born. Deep yoga practice is not possible until superficial movements, including the movements of breath, have been stilled, leaving the mind free to soar in superconsciousness.”

So here is his recommendation for you, from the same book:
“After practicing the breathing exercises, go into inner stillness. Feel the connection between your breath and the Cosmic Breath, as if your breath were but a function of the breezes of cosmic consciousness. In your breathing, as in your working, feel that you are an instrument of the Divine.”

To conclude, I would recommend that you do your breathing exercise, holding the breath to the point in which you feel comfortable, calm, and relaxed. Then stop that practice and observe your breath. Watch it and you might notice that it gradually becomes calm. Sometimes it might even disappear for some time. Enjoy these yogic moments. “Breathlessness is deathlessness,” Yogananda taught, because “the breath is the cord that binds the soul to the body.” Once you enter into kevali kumbhaka, your consciousness is on the road to freedom: “Breathlessness and calmed internal organs free the mind, so that it can concentrate upon the soul.”

Good luck in your inner breathing explorations, keep spreading your sunshine,