A while ago I published an article on why the kind of managed breathing we do in yoga is so good for you in terms of mindfulness and general good health.
The ANZA Yogis have been practicing different forms of yogic breathing, all of which have a specific purpose. We regularly practice kumbhaka, a breathing technique which controls the breath flow, interrupts the body system, and helps focus the mind.
It will be one of the breaths we become very familiar with in our Breath and Meditation workshop starting on Wednesday 13 September 2017.
What is Kumbhaka?
It is controlled breathing, where we emphasise the stop between our inhale and exhale. There is an internal kumbhaka, which makes use of bandhas (chakra locks in certain parts of the body), and external kumbhaka, where the inhale, exhale and stop are managed either through force (exhaling loudly through the nose or the mouth) or time (holding the stop between breaths for lengths of time).
BKS Iyengar says it is the “retention or holding the breath, a state where there is no inhalation or exhalation”.
You cannot have Kumbhaka without the inhale and exhale – otherwise, you are dead, right?
Kumbhaka interrupts vital body rhythms and affects brain waves (yoga is all about helping still fluctuations of the mind). In broad terms, the body and mind learn to stay calm under stress.
Why do it?
The yogi answer is: External kumbhaka causes the mental process to stop. This action is very useful in the practice of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), and dharana (concentration), important prerequisites to meditation. And meditation is one major pathway to achieving a peaceful and happy state, in all circumstances, and under all conditions.
In the practice of kumbhaka, or breath retention, tolerance to starvation of oxygen and buildup of carbon dioxide is achieved.
“Learning to manage build up of carbon dioxide is good for the body” Lee Carsley, WanderingYogi
Wait… Carbon dioxide is what I exhale. It is a gas my body wants to get rid of.
The biochemistry of respiration
Carbon dioxide plays a large role in oxygen transport from the blood to the cells of the brain and body. A reduction in carbon dioxide levels brings with it reduced oxygenation of blood. And the reverse, the higher the carbon dioxide levels in the body, the more effective the distribution of oxygen. There is of course, a time when too much is not a good thing, and when too little is a bad thing, too.
Blood is circulated with great precision throughout our body based on local and prioritised metabolic requirements – there is a hierarchy (the brain having first dibs).
Higher levels of CO2 causes our blood vessels to dilate, relaxing smooth muscles, increases the formation of carbonic acid. Our body responds – our blood pushes more oxygen and glucose to the associated area – and voila! strength and flexibility, clarity and calm are restored.
Lower levels of CO2 causes blood vessel constriction, higher levels of blood and extracellular fluid pH (i.e., less carbonic acid). Our body sees this as a sign to send oxygen and glucose elsewhere, where metabolic requirements are greater.
Breathing technique can build or reduce the requisite level of CO2 for our body, at that time, which then allows us to live longer, more healthy lives – one of the major benefits of pranayama.
What are the benefits of increased CO2?
Vessels: Insufficient carbon dioxide can cause spasms throughout the body, including the brain, the bronchi, and other smooth muscle tissues. If you are an asthmatic you can probably recall some of the muscle spasms, ditto if you suffer migraines.
The Cardiovascular System: Carbon dioxide helps regulate the cardiovascular system. Too little carbon dioxide can result in many problems, including angina, high blood pressure, chest pain, strokes.
The Digestive System: A direct relationship exists between the level of carbon dioxide in the body and the functioning of the digestive glands. Too little carbon dioxide can lead to poor digestion and eventually ulcers.
The brain – not enough CO2 causes you to space out – or worse, pass out.
Khumbaka, practised over time, allows the body to retain carbon dioxide and become accustomed to reduced oxygen levels. This leads to a state of hypo metabolism, a slowing down of the metabolic rate. Think turtle – they live for years, and have one of the slowest metabolic rates known in the animal kingdom. And look at how long they can hold their breath.
Kumbhaka should not be practiced without an experienced yogi or yoga teacher around, as you can end up with way too much CO2 with dire consequences. (this link is a long and medically written article but has some great insights into the consequences of ‘over breathing’).
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