Breath Retention + Pranayama: the Performance-Enhancing Effects (EPO, Stem Cells, Nitric Oxide + More!)

In This Article

Superhuman Effect of Breath Retention

Who would think it possible that a simple breathing practice could induce your body to produce regenerative stem cells, nitric oxide (the Nobel Prize-winning “panacea molecule”), and EPO (the performance-enhancing molecule that carried Lance Armstrong to seven Tour de France victories)?! Modern science backing these ancient breathing techniques is in.

Breathing techniques employed in Ayurveda are called pranayama. Prana means life force and ayama means to extend, control or to expand, suggesting pranayama techniques are designed to expand life force.1

Considered the key component of pranayama by many experts, (getting much attention lately in the scientific community) is breath control in the form of breath retention or kumbhaka.

Why Pranayama?

According to the Laws of Manu and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, pranayama alone that would be sufficient to overcome desires of the mind and sense organs.4

Pranayama is a time tested tool for improving physical health, while helping the student to gain control of the mind and senses (as opposed to them having control over the student). With practice, the student begins to feel unattached to the needs of the mind and senses, allowing for a more fulfilling inner focus in life, rather than only being satisfied by outer stimulation.

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4 Parts of Pranayama1

  1. Inhale (puraka)
  2. Exhale (rechaka)
  3. Breath retention on inhale (antah kumbhaka)
  4. Breath retention on exhale (bahih kumbhaka)

Note: There is also an advanced stage of pranayama called kevala kumbhaka, a spontaneous breath retention during meditation.1

Research on pranayama with kumbhaka suggests regular practice can change and improve brainwave function and calm down fight-or-flight responses (sympathetic nervous system), while boosting rest-and-digest responses (parasympathetic nervous system). Pranayama has been found to support healthy pulmonary function, blood sugar, heart health, and blood pressure, while improving cerebral vascular circulation.1

Science of Breath Retention / Kumbhaka

Benefits of brief intermittent hypoxia (breath retention) were studied in the USSR some fifty years ago, when they were cut off from the rest of the world. When the USSR broke apart, research on intermittent hypoxia that confirmed Ayurveda’s research and practice of pranayama with retentions started to trickle out.

Russian scientists have used several techniques to produce hypoxia, including:2

  1. Hypobaric chambers
  2. High-altitude training. Quick ascent to high altitudes for short durations.
  3. Normobaric hypoxic gas mixtures, where low oxygen gas mixtures are delivered.

Brief intermittent hypoxia training or breathing techniques produce a molecule called hypoxia inducible factor 1 (HIF-1),2 responsible for what some call superhuman effects.

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Benefits of Hypoxia / HIF-1

  1. Hypoxia has been shown to increase hemoglobin levels through formation of erythropoietin (EPO).2 EPO was made famous when Lance Armstrong was caught doping his blood with EPO and was stripped of his six Tour De France victories. Yes, science suggests intermittent hypoxia from breath retention can boost EPO and enhance athletic performance.2
  2. Hypoxia boosts stem cell production. This was discovered when scientists measured stem cells in fetal circulation. The embryo in a mother’s womb breathes in a very low partial pressure of oxygen, about equal to that on Mount Everest. This hypoxic environment is so important for multiplication and growth of stem cells. After birth, when oxygen levels rise, stem cell production declines and future stem cell production is restricted to various locations in the body, such as bone marrow. Researchers suggest stem cells from bone marrow migrate to various tissues, and such migration may be facilitated by even a few minutes of hypoxia every day.2
  3. Hypoxia supports formation of growth factors, such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which leads to formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis). With heart patients, this can lead to formation of coronary collateral circulation.2
  4. Hypoxia induces the enzyme nitric oxide synthase (NOS), whose role is to produce nitric oxide.3 Nitric oxide (which, incidentally, is produced during nose breathing, but not mouth breathing) is perhaps the body’s most potent defense against damage of oxidative stress (free radicals).2 Nitric oxide contributes to dilatation of coronary arteries when needed. It is also involved in the quick vasodilatation required for erection of the penis, and intermittent hypoxia can be an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction.2
  5. Hypoxia has been shown to increase resistance of tissues to various insults and injuries, including radiation and aging.2
  6. Hypoxia has been shown to protect and repair damaged DNA by inducing production of a transcription factor called p53, called Guardian of the Genome.2

Starting Breath Retention Pranayama Practices

This practice requires knowledge of a pranayama technique called bhastrika. If you’re not familiar, please watch my instructional video.

Practice One

Note:  Before staring any breathing exercise or pranayama with breath retention, it is important to check you’re your primary healthcare provider to make sure such a practice is safe for you.

The first practice starts with 10 breaths of bhastrika, followed by a comfortable breath retention after the inhale. This completes one round. Complete three rounds daily.

  • Bhastrika: 10 breaths
  • Follow with comfortable breath retention after inhale
Note: Breath retention should be comfortable without any strain. As soon as there is an urge to breathe, take a breath and start your next round of 10 bhastrika breaths.

The second practice can be started after two weeks of successfully completing the first practice without any discomfort or complications.

Practice Two

This practice is the same as the first, except that following the inhale breath retention, you perform another 10 bhastrika breaths, followed by a breath retention after the last exhale. Perform three rounds daily. Do three rounds of this practice, totaling 60 bhastrika breaths and six comfortable breath holds.

  • Bhastrika 10 breaths
  • Follow with comfortable breath retention after inhale
  • Bhastrika 10 Breaths
  • Follow with comfortable breath retention after exhale
Note: Stop at any point if you feel dizzy or light-headed. Breath retention should be comfortable without any strain. As soon as you feel the urge to breathe, take a breath.

Have you experimented with breath retention, aka kumbhaka? What have you noticed?

This article originally appeared in Elephant Journal.


  4. Swami Kuvalayananda, Pranayama. The Sky Foundation, 1931, 1966, 1978. Pg. VI