How to Practice Breath Retention

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holding breath underwater“There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then, there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.” ~Rumi

Kumbhaka is the Sanskrit word for this powerful type of breathing exercise, where you focus your attention on the pause at the top of the inhale and/or at the bottom of the exhale.

Most people think of the breath as two parts: the inhalation and the exhalation. But there are actually four parts to the breath, including of course, the inhalation and exhalation, but also the space between the inhale and the exhale, and the space at the bottom of the exhale before a new breath begins. Normally, this space is minimal and even unnoticeable. With a breath retention practice, you consciously extend the pauses at the top of the inhale and at the bottom of the exhale to create a holding pattern where you’re ceasing to breathe in or out.

Breath retention is an incredibly effective tool to regulate mental chatter and improve concentration. When you are yearning for a new breath during a hold, you are devoting all concentration to this activity—training the mind to focus intensely on one thing at a time.

Plus, it feels amazing. It’s like that feeling you get when you hold your breath for a while—like when you’re swimming or in a porta potty avoiding a smell—and then you take another breath. Anytime you hold your breath at the top for some time, then release it; and anytime you hold your breath at the bottom, and then take a new breath, it gives you a surge of energy and a feeling of relief.

Simple Practice

The pattern is simple: inhale, hold, exhale, hold, repeat.

  • Exhale everything out through your mouth.
  • Seal the lips and inhale slowly (on a count of five) through your nose until your lungs are completely full.
  • Hold at the top for a count of five, keeping lips sealed.
  • Exhale through the nose for five—taking all five counts to release the breath. Think of air slowly being released from a balloon, that’s the controlled pace of the release.
  • When lungs are completely empty (you can release a little extra air at the bottom if there is still air left,) then hold for a count of five.
  • Focus on creating space with every inhale and releasing with every exhale.

*If a five-count seems easy, you can start increasing the counts as you breathe and hold.

This exercise is a great practice just before you start your seated meditation, as a way to center yourself before stillness.

*This post was adapted from the book, The Type A’s Guide to Mindfulness: Meditation for Busy Minds and Busy People.

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Melissa is a yoga and meditation teacher, as well as a content strategist and writer. She created Mindful Minutes to bridge her two worlds, and offer practical, relatable anecdotes and tips on how to bring mindfulness into the busy lives of the digital age. Her intention is to share what she’s learned, and continues to learn, about overcoming her own challenges with meditation, mindfulness, and life balance while maintaining a challenging schedule and career. Learn more about Melissa’s intention of Mindful Minutes here.

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