Kumbhaka, a breathing practice.

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!

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