With the physical practices you are able to fine-tune your body, remove the blocks, the stiffness, the tensions, free your body, promote circulation of blood and vitality. Once the body has come to its optimum state of wellness, then you move into the practice of pranayama.
The subject of prana has to be understood first by controlling and regulating the breathing process. The total capacity of your lungs is about six litres of air. However, in a normal inhalation, you take in only about 500 millilitres of air. The vitality, health and stamina of your body depends on these 500 millilitres. Therefore, the first practice in pranayama is learning to take deep breaths, to breathe in more than 500 millilitres, may be 1,000, maybe 1,500. You increase your ability to utilize the existing capacity of the lungs. This is the first result of pranayama.
When you begin to utilize your lung capacity, much more air enters your system. At present you are surviving with what you receive from 500 millilitres of air. If you begin to use even half your lung potential, two or three litres, it is a big improvement. Everybody knows that respiration should not be shallow, and emphasis is always given on long and deep breathing. Psychoanalysts advise people to take long and deep breaths for anger management. Common sense says that when you are under stress and tension, the breathing is rapid and shallow. When you are rested and relaxed, the breathing is long and deep. Nobody will accept this commonsensical fact until a doctor says so, for then it is medically and scientifically confirmed. This is the state of our understanding of life.
There is no commonsensical understanding of life. There is no natural living. There is always a projected lifestyle. For people who live a projected lifestyle it is difficult to imbibe the yogic lifestyle, as in the yogic lifestyle you have to work with yourself. You have to re-tune and refine yourself, and the training begins with the breath.
A longer and deeper breath reduces nervous, cerebral and muscular tensions. If you are nervous before taking an injection, the doctor says, “Look the other way. Take a deep breath in,” and then he sticks the needle in.
Breathing is used by everybody to create a condition in the body. While it is an important aspect of life, people do not fully utilize this ability. Therefore, the shakti which would normally be in you if you utilized the full capacity, is reduced to less than one-fourth.
Your stamina, strength, vitality, health and buoyancy can be much more if you breathe in more. Your body can be buzzing with energy as it is receiving more. So the first stage of pranayama is always important, for it is here that you learn to regulate your breathing, increase the capacity of the lungs and master the process of inhalation, exhalation and retention.
In yogic scriptures, you will come across the term kevala kumbhaka. It means external retention of breath for as long as possible. In that state you experience prana. When you practise internal kumbhaka, inner retention, the filling of the lungs creates pressure on your heart. With internal kumbhaka the heartbeat increases as the heart has to pump harder and faster to compensate for the pressure of air from the lungs. When you practise external kumbhaka there is a bigger gap. There is no pressure and your heartbeat will not increase until you begin to gasp for breath. Then your heart will begin to beat faster. This is a physiological activity: while inhaling and holding the breath you will be able to feel your heartbeat increase. Holding the breath out you will feel much more comfortable and the heartbeat will increase much later. According to yogis, it is when you are in external kumbhaka that you experience prana shakti vibrating in your body.
Sri Swamiji says that the actual experience of pranayama takes place in the gap between inhalation and exhalation. There is a break between inhalation and exhalation, and it is during that break that you can experience prana shakti. There is no inhalation and no exhalation at that time. That is the state of kevala kumbhaka.
However, there is a difference between regular external kumbhaka and kevala kumbhaka after exhalation. The first is a practice of breath control where you are deliberately and consciously holding the breath after exhalation. Kevala kumbhaka is a spontaneous, effortless suspension of breath when the pranas have awakened and reached a certain level. In the regular external kumbhaka, the exhalation and the next inhalation are the supports of the kumbhaka, but kevala is support less – it is kevala, which means ‘only’ kumbhaka, ‘kevala’. There is an experience of total relaxation and ease after emptying out completely with the exhalation and the breath is held out naturally. Of course, to come to this experience requires not only years of practice in pranayama but also a higher state of mind which is able to connect with that experience of emptiness or space. That is why kevala kumbhaka is equated with samadhi.
Most practitioners find internal retention easier than external retention as they are working only with the breath, and the desire to inhale again during external retention overrides the ease of emptying out. The body systems and the heart are also at ease only in that gap where the desire to inhale does not arise. The moment you feel you need to breathe, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and if you try holding any longer you will turn black and blue. Nevertheless, you can get a glimpse of kevala kumbhaka in external retention by forgetting about the ratio, count etc. and instead practising exhaling, holding, and connecting with the experience of emptiness or space while holding. If you do this, you might discover that the kumbhaka extends naturally.
Kevala kumbhaka can also take place after inhalation. You inhale, hold the pranas in a higher centre, and the breath just stops. For as long as the pranas are held, the desire to exhale is not there. However, in internal kevala kumbhaka the pranas come to a standstill, there is no movement of prana at all, whereas in external kevala kumbhaka the pranas become more vibrant.
Published in Progressive Yoga Vidya Training, Series 5