Philosophy & Science of Kumbhaka by Jaipal Singh SignUp
Philosophy & Science of Kumbhaka
Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

The life of every living entity, be it human beings or any other animals, begins with the breath at birth and ends with the breath at death. Thus the breath is synonymous with life without which the life ceases to exist. Apparently, this is the reason why the ancient Indian sages and scholars had concluded that the breath contained “Prana”, an invisible life energy sustaining all forms. Accordingly, the yoga of Pranayama is in vogue since the Vedic age with the accomplished yogis and common practitioners practicing it in various ways.

Kumbhaka is an important state in the practice of Pranayama, which is normally defined as the retention of breath during the two processes of inhalation and exhalation. This is also believed to be the ultimate goal of the practitioner of the yogic Sadhna (devotion). The name itself is derived from Sanskrit word Kumbha, which means a pot or vessel; wherein the torso (i.e. trunk or main body parts excluding head and limbs) is symbolized to a vessel full of air. After inhalation, the breath is retained in the lungs for a while, which is referred to as Antar Kumbhaka. Similarly, the lungs remain empty for a while after exhalation, which is referred to as Bahya Kumbhaka. Between the two processes, the outgoing breath gets suspended in the incoming breath and vice versa during the period of suspension.

Between the processes of the Antar Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka, the ultimate goal of the practitioner is set to achieve Kaivalya Kumbhaka akin to the complete suspension of the breath for as long as the he (or she) can do it. The state of Kumbhaka itself appears in two stages: The Sahaja or Sahit Kumbhaka, which is an intermediate process when breath retention is naturally achieved on withdrawal of the senses, known as Pratyahara finding a mention as the fifth limb of the Ashtanga Yoga described in Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; and, Kaivalya Kumbhaka as the ultimate stage of Kumbhaka wherein the practitioner is able to suspend the inhalation and exhalation at will, parallel to the state of Samadhi described as the 8th and final limb of the Ashtanga Yoga.

The literal meaning of Kaivalya is solitude or detachment and the term also finds a mention as Kevala or Kaivalya-Mukti in different Hindu scriptures and texts. According to some scriptures, Kaivalya is tantamount to the isolation or detachment of Purusha (Divine element) from Prakriti (Material world), thereby leading to Moksha or emancipation from the karmic-cycle. Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Chapter 4) deals with the karmic impressions of the endless cycles of birth and the reasoning why such impressions are needed to be erased. There it is concluded that the Yogi who has attained Kaivalya automatically gets entry into the league of entities having achieved freedom from all bondages experiencing the absolute consciousness or Ritambhara Prajna as described in the Samadhi Pada of Yoga Sutras. The virtue of Ashtanga Yoga and Kaivalya could be learnt from the following quotes:

The terms Kaivalya, Kevala or Kaivalya-mukti and its virtues also find mention in several Upanishads such as the Svetasvatara, the Kaivalya, the Amritabindu, the Yogatattva, and the Muktika Upanishads. For illustration, the Muktika Upanishad (1.18–29) refers to the discourse of Sri Ramchandra to Hanuman, wherein Kaivalya is explained as the most superior form of emancipation even higher than the four types of Mukti (Moksha) explained as Salokya, Saameepya, Sarupya and Sayujya in other Hindu texts. Then in the Section 2 of the same Upanishad, Sri Ram reiterates the Kaivalya-Mukti as the ultimate liberation inclusive of both the Jivan-mukti and Videha-mukti. It is onerous but can be achieved by the practitioner / aspirant under the supervision of a realized teacher (guru). According to the Dattatreya Yogashastra, a 13th century Hindu text, once unaccompanied breath-retention (Kaivalya) free from exhalation and inhalation, is mastered, there is nothing in the world that remains unattainable.

Undoubtedly, the Kaivalya Kumbhaka is a rare yogic state that only the accomplished yogis are able to achieve and the ordinary practitioners usually practice and accrue the mundane benefits of Pranayama. Some such accomplished yogis are Adi Shankaracharya, Abhinavagupta, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Lahiri Mahasaya, Swami Yukteswar Giri, Raman Maharshi and Paramhansa Yogananda – the list being suggestive and not inclusive. In this context, an accomplished yogi Paramhansa Yoganand has explained the science of Pranayama and Kumbhaka under the chapter “The Science of Kriya Yoga” in his autobiographical work in the modern age. According to him, this yoga is a simple, psycho-physiological method by which human blood is decarbonated and recharged with oxygen. The atoms of this extra oxygen are transmuted into the life stream to rejuvenate the brain and spinal centres. By stopping the accumulation of venous blood, the yogi is able to minimize or prevent the decay of body tissues transmuting his cells into energy.

According to Paramhansa Yoganand, Shree Krishna (BG: 4.29-30) refers to this Kriya Yoga only when he mentioned “Offering the inhaling breath into the exhaling breath and offering the exhaling breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both breaths; thus he releases Prana from the heart and brings life force under his control.” According to Paramhansa’s interpretation, the yogi arrests decay in the body in this process by securing an additional supply of Prana (life force) through quieting the action of the lungs and heart as also arresting mutations of growth in the body by controlling Apana. Thus by neutralizing the decay and growth, the yogi learns the art of life-force-control. By giving the illustrations of animals like snake, elephant and tortoise known for their slower breathing and longevity of life, Swami Yoganand also tried to establish the mathematical relationship between the man’s breathing rate and variations in his state of consciousness in his autobiography.

The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on Earth, is intimately interwoven with breath. Breathlessness is deathlessness. Realizing this truth, the ancient rishis of India seized on the sole clue of the breath and developed a precise and rational science of breathlessness.( Paramahansa Yogananda in “Autobiography of a Yogi”)

Paramhansa Yoganand himself entered mahasamadhi i.e. the yogi’s final conscious exit from the body, in Los Angeles, California on 7 March 1952. The following extracts of an eye-witness account of Mr Harry T. Rowe, Los Angeles Mortuary Director should be suffice to vindicate the spiritual significance of Pranayama (Kaivalya Kumbhaka) in the context of this accomplished yogi of the twentieth century. The body of yogi was kept under the casket with a glass lid under observation for approximately three weeks following his mahasamadhi.

“The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramhansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience….No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death…No indication of mold was visible on his skin, and no visible desiccation (drying up) took place in the bodily tissues. This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparallel one…” (Extract derived from Mortuary Director’s notarized letter).

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