Kumbhaka is what is regularly referred to as the retention of breath in a yoga practice. There are many pranayama (breathing) techniques that teach the use of kumbhaka, but the results are all the same: the pause. It's all about the pause.
Take a moment to sit up tall, breathe in deep, and hold. What do you feel? Notice.
I've heard that the pause is where we long to be. Suspended in that moment in between breaths, dimensions, and space. Frozen in time, but fully alive. In the pause there is seemingly nothing, but where we find EVERYTHING.
A frequent technique in movie making is the slow-motion animation, especially when something dramatic has occurred, like an accident of some kind. If you stop to consider it, you may recall a moment in your life when you felt like something was moving in slow-motion, where you felt a flush of life and a full connection to the moment until the fear snapped you back into reality.
I had a moment recently in class working on kumbhaka where I was immediately taken back to the moment of my car accident. There in my safe-haven yoga class, holding my breath, I recalled the moment my then boyfriend hit a ditch and the car began to flip upside down. I recalled so vividly that moment when we were suspended upside down above the ground - that moment before we hit the ground and my life changed forever. But it was more than recall, in that moment when I was holding my breath, that singular moment in time, I was transported back to that same moment in time when I held my breath for impact. Only there was no nearly 30 year time difference - it was all happening together at the same time. Well, that, and so much more.
In one singular moment in time, I flashed through my entire life...and near death. Now I wonder, had I momentarily left my body then? Now? What had connected me in that moment to all other moments when I had "paused" - not to think, but to truly be?
The 51st Sutra in Book 2 of the Yoga Sutras says: "Bahyabhyantara Visayaksepi Caturthah."
Translation: There is a fourth kind of pranayama that occurs during concentration on an internal or external object.
Swami Satchidananda describes this fourth pranayama as happening automatically when we do not concentrate on retention of breath because it will stop automatically. He calls this kevala kumbhaka, the easy, unintentional retention which occurs automatically in deep meditation. When deep enough in meditation, the breath stops, and when we reach samadhi (liberation/ bliss) it stops for several hours.
To be alive, we need a lot of energy (Prana). Every time we breathe in, we take in more prana. Even when we are still, the mind is still active, using prana. So, the only time when we cease to need prana, is when body-mind is still. Interesting. Even more interesting, is the next Sutra:
52. Tatah Ksiyate Prakasavaranam. Translation: "As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed."
There is a veil, a mental cover, over our inner Light. It keeps us from understanding Oneness. This Self is why we feel we are mortal and keeps us in pain and suffering. The Sutras go on to discuss some "super-human" powers that the yogi gains once this veil is lifted and samadhi is reached, like: becoming invisible, disappearance of the senses is explained, knowledge of your time of death, having the strength of an elephant, cessation of hunger and thirst is achieved, entering another's body, levitation, mastery over the elements, and so much more. This all leads me back to the knowledge that I was right when I was 7 years old watching the Justice League: I AM a superhero! I just haven't learned totally how to use my powers yet!
But in all seriousness, this information, these lessons, point to an understanding of what happens to us in life threatening situations, when we, out of survival instinct and in a singular moment, let go of the mind and truly connect. That same process happens during yoga, meditation, and pranayama practice. And the interesting thing is, that when you are in that moment, there is no time and space - all moments and all things are one...and, it's pretty cool.
As Pattabhi Jois said, "99% practice, 1% theory." You cannot try to understand without practice. The mind can only take you so far. So stop reading this blog, sit down, breathe, and pause!