This pranayama, or breath work, component can be a practice in an of itself. Learn the benefits of breath retention.
Dealing with Stress
Have you ever noticed your breath when you’re stressed? We have all heard of hyperventilation, which typically happens when someone has a panic attack or is extremely stressed out. The home remedy is to breathe into a paper bag, in order to rebreathe carbon dioxide (CO2) and calm you down.1
The reason why breathing into a paper bag works is because CO2 is a natural nervous system tranquilizer or sedative.1 When CO2 levels rise, we calm down. When CO2 levels fall and oxygen (O2) levels rise, we become stimulated. Oxygen has a stimulatory effect on the nervous system, while CO2 has a calming effect—a perfect balance of these must be maintained.1,2
During a panic or stressed state, breathing tends to become shallow and more rapid. Shallow, rapid breathing will cause you to overbreathe oxygen (O2), which means more oxygen in and more CO2 out. In short, this is the definition of hyperventilation.
During stress and states of anxiety, overbreathing can overexcite the nervous system due to increased levels of O2 and decreased levels of CO2.2
Pranayama Breath Holds on Inhale or Exhale
Pranayama breathing has long employed the knowledge of how to delicately balance or therapeutically manipulate the O2/CO2 balance in the body. Some breathing techniques will shift the balance to holding onto more O2 and others will hold more CO2.
Many of these O2/CO2 adjustments can be made during states of breath retention, called kumbhaka. Many experts in pranayama claim the original intention of pranayama in Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika was to always include a kumbhaka. Put simply, if the breathwork is not combined with a kumbhaka (hold), it is not a pranayama technique.3
Pranayama kumbhaka (breath retention) is classically performed on either the inhale, exhale, or both. In general, there was always an emphasis on either extending the exhale or inhale hold.
An exhale breath hold is called bahih kumbhaka and an inhale breath hold is called an antah kumbhaka.
Prescribing the Correct Kumbhaka (Breath hold on Inhale or Exhale)
4 Parts of Pranayama4
- Inhale (puraka)
- Exhale (rechaka)
- Breath retention on inhale (antah kumbhaka)
- Breath retention on exhale (bahih kumbhaka)
Note: There is also an advanced stage of pranayama called kevala kumbhaka, a spontaneous breath retention during meditation.4
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During an antah kumbhaka (or inhalation breath hold), the emphasis is on breathing in maximum levels of oxygen (O2). In this practice, the O2/CO2 balance is shifted to be oxygen-dominant.
This is typically prescribed to boost energy and mood for lethargic, depressed, and hypometabolic individuals.5 Remember, a rise in O2 will act as a nervous system stimulant. Overbreathing O2 in excess can lead to hyperventilation, panic, and anxiety.
During a bahih kumbhaka or exhalation breath hold, the emphasis is on holding the breath after a full exhalation. In this situation, the lungs are emptied and quickly CO2 levels begin to rise. Typically, it is much easier to hold the breath after a full inhale than after a full exhale.
During bahih kumbhaka, CO2 levels rise, eliciting a sedative, calming effect on the nervous system. Again, this is why breathing into a paper bag will calm someone in a panic due to hyperventilation. Traditionally, bahih kumbhaka is prescribed for overactive, hypermetabolic, stressed, anxious, worried individuals. Bahih kumbhaka was used to quiet and still the mind in order to enhance self-awareness and spirituality.5
So, which breath hold do I choose?
Traditionally, each of the breath holds was prescribed as needed. Today, it seems that few really need the benefits of stimulating the nervous system (with antah kumbhaka), as we all seem to be chronically overstimulated and extremely fast-paced.
If one is exhausted due to being overstimulated, the better practice would be long, slow, deep ujjayi breathing to restore and rebuild the nervous system without stimulating an already exhausted individual.
If you feel you are in either of these categories, choose the exhalation breath hold, bahih kumbhaka.
However, if you normally function with lower energy and tends to be a bit melancholy, then you may want to consider the inhalation breath hold, antah kumbhaka.