Simple Breath Work for Stressful Times
Caring for ourselves—body, mind, and spirit—might be more challenging these days. We’re all feeling the effects of social distancing and the change to our routines.
Meditation helps us relax and see situations from various, possibly more helpful, perspectives. Still, despite our best intentions, it could be difficult to settle into the practice. When life is stressful, we can’t concentrate.
This post presents a tool that will help you relax, concentrate, and meditate more easily. The tool also provides many health benefits, which are listed below.
Kumbhaka: An Ancient Tool for Everyone
Kumbhaka is described in many traditional yogic texts. We find it in the popular Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It’s also outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Kumbhaka is a form of pranayama—breath control. The practice aims at retention of the breath within the breath cycle. Generally, pranayama should be practiced under the guidance of a qualified teacher. However, the technique I offer here is quite gentle. Anyone can practice this form of breath work.
The Many Benefits of Kumbhaka
Kumbhaka, and other yogic breathing techniques, have entered the mainstream of health practices. Following is a partial list of recognized benefits.
- Controlled breathing has a calming effect. This is especially helpful when we hear bad news, like the spread of coronavirus. Athletes are trained to use breath control before competition or a big game.
- Deep inhalations increase circulation and blood oxygen levels that promote healing.
- Deep exhales release carbon dioxide, which helps to reduce anxiety.
- Breath awareness turns our mind within and helps us set aside external annoyances. Relaxation and meditation become effortless.
- Cortisol is the main stress hormone released in the body. Excess cortisol contributes to many physical diseases. Controlled breathing reduces its release.
- Deep breathing activates the body’s lymphatic system, releasing toxins from the bloodstream. This also helps to soothe pain, both acute and chronic.
- Deep breathing brings oxygen into the digestive organs when practiced before eating. This assists with all parts of the digestive process.
How to Practice Kumbhaka
Please note: This practice should only produce positive results. Stop immediately if you feel disquieted in any way. Let your breath return to a natural rhythm. You may try again after a few moments of relaxation.
Practice kumbhaka at any convenient time. If you’re using the technique for a specific purpose, consider using it at the right time for that purpose. For example, if you want to enjoy a deeper and more focused meditation, start kumbhaka a few minutes before your meditation practice.
The actual technique is very simple: inhale for a few counts, hold your breath for the same number of counts, and exhale for double the amount of counts. For example, inhale and count to four. Then hold your breath and count to four again; then exhale and count to eight.
Use a timer to control the period of your practice. Start with just a few minutes. Gradually increase the time as your body and mind adjust.
Some people feel uncomfortable in their initial practice of kumbhaka. There’s no reason to rush this practice. Be gentle with yourself. Again, breathe normally whenever breath control causes discomfort or anxiety.
Modern Help for an Ancient Technique
Many meditation apps include instruction, timers, and rhythmic sound to guide a breathing practice. I often use the app Calm. It offers three speeds of its feature Sleep Rhythm: Kumbhaka. These include voice guidance and a drum beat. Calm offers a free introductory week in which you can try its many features. The sections on breathing are my favorites, and I use them often.
Do you have previous experience with breath work that you can share with other readers? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.
And, above all—just keep breathing!
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
Svami thank you for this breathing exercise. I am going to add it to my practice. Sometimes I become a bit anxious, and it’s hard to get into meditation right away.
This is good exercise I can use to help me go deeper.
You’re welcome, Nakisa. I hope you’ll return and tell us how it worked out for you. Namaste.
Thank you for your comment, Josh. Your cold shower practice makes me wonder: Is it the deep breathing or the cold shower that boosts your immunity? Whatever it is—if it’s working, keep it up! Namaste.
Thank you for the blog post! I take about ten deep breaths each morning right before I get into a cold shower. It helps ease the shock. I’m taking cold showers five days a week for increased immunity, and have been for a few years.
I use forms of breath work often. I always take some some slow breaths at the start of meditation. I relax my breathing while I set expensive gemstones, especially if they are soft like opals, peridot, etc. In music, I’m very aware of breath, not only because I play a wind instrument but also it prepares me to dive into my improvised solos.
I notice that weight lifters and all athletes use rhythmic breathing during exercise. Becoming aware of breath is essential in many areas of life. Thank you for reminding us to breathe with awareness.
(Note to readers: Modesto is a professional jazz musician; he is a jeweler by day.)
Thank you for sharing examples of how you use your breath, Modesto. It always strikes me as odd that we started life with a breath; and we have not stopped since then. Yet, we so rarely give it any quality attention. These days, with the COVID-19 attacking the patient’s respiratory system, it’s especially important to strengthen the lungs. Namaste.
Great advice, Svāmī C. Thank you. Many years ago, I went on a few yoga retreats. One of the useful things I learned was kumbhaka. They taught the 1-3-2 rhythm (or derivation thereof). I often use it. I think I’ll switch to your 1-1-2 rhythm as it’s easier on the breath hold phase.
Thank you for your comment, James. Pranayama techniques must be approached very carefully. If you find 1-1-2 rhythm to be more comfortable, then by all means use it. Try to deepen your breaths over time. Your lungs will thank you for that! Namaste.