Introduction to Holding Your Breath

Holding your Breath within a breathing practice

Pranayama includes all types of breath work, as one progresses through the practices of pranayama we quickly realize that it becomes about not breathing …

Why do we want to hold our breath? I go into great detail about the latest science in this blog on Pranayama, I will keep the science short and sweet here for more detail please see the blog. Pranayama is good for our heart, respiratory system, and nervous system (and actually all 10 systems of the body in one way or another).

Holding our breath improves our cardio-vascular system (improved fitness) by several different physiological mechanisms, boosts stem cell production, enhances neuro-plasticity, increases our production of nitric oxide, repairs damaged DNA, and lowers our blood sugar, just to name a few.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about the latest research on pranayama and breath holding. I want to revisit what yoga philosophy says, now that I understand the science better, it is helping me understand the yoga philosophy better.

Pranayama and breath holding effect our subtle body. In yoga philosophy we have 2 bodies, a physical body and a subtle body. Your subtle body can leave your body, and many living people have experienced that without dying. 

  • For example near death experiences where people witness being outside of their body looking down on themselves
  • During some altered states of consciousness this can happen too.
  • However when you do die your subtle body leaves completely

Pranayama is exercise for your subtle body, your subtle body is what shines your eyes and grows your hair, and flows the blood through your veins and arteries. When all your nadis or channels in the body are open and flowing and not blocked by knots known as granthis in yoga philosophy you have more vitality. Pranayama gives you vitality. Imagination, sound, and breathing all effect your subtle body and pranayama uses all these tools through visualizations, chanting, and breathing consciously.

Learning how to safely hold your breath:

Breath holding is never uncomfortable and does not have to be long. 30-40 seconds is ideal while up to 1 minute is considered safe. Beyond breath holding for 90 seconds, risk does not outweigh benefit.

We place our hands in our lap in jnana mudra, which is thumb and index finger touching, hands laying relaxed on inner knees palms up or palms down. This hand position keeps your prana or energy circulating in your body.

  • Palms up is actually called chin mudra, it is equated with a light feeling — lifting you up, and receptivity. Chin is derived from the word chit or chitta which means consciousness, so this hand position raises our consciousness.
  • Palms down is jnana mudra and is grounding effect. Jnana means knowledge or wisdom and refers to improving your intuitive knowledge.

Each finger in yoga philosophy represent something:

  • Our index finger represents our individual consciousness
  • Thumb represents supreme consciousness.

When we touch our index finger and thumb it represents the union that means yoga — the ultimate unity of individual and the Divinity or universal consciousness.

  • The pinky, ring, and middle fingers represent yoga’s gunas; Tamas or inertia, activity which is called rajas, and sattwa which is balance or harmony and luminosity. In yoga philosophy we have to pass through these states of being finding balance and then rise above to reach a higher consciousness.

There has been some talk of how far down your thumb to place your index finger, strictly hearsay. Placing your finger at the base of the thumb could represent going deeper into the Universal Consciousness. When I reference some of the yoga text books I have, all I can find is that beginners may have an easier time holding the mudra if your index finger is more tucked. I personally just like to touch the tips of my fingers together, after all that is the circuit — fingertip to fingertip (or thumb tip in this case).

These hand positions while simple, can make our mediation more powerful. The palms and fingers of our hands have many nerve endings (why we feel with our hands) which constantly are emitting energy. When we touch our index finger to our thumb this energy is circulated back into the body instead of dissipating into thin air.

When the fingers and hands are placed on the knees it creates another pranic or energetic circuit that redirects our energy back into our body. It stimulates a nadi that runs from the inner knees, up the inner thighs, and goes into our perineum, known as the gupta or hidden nadi. Sensitizing this nadi is believed to energize our first chakra.

Assuming the hand position, sit tall with your ribs far away from your hips, chin parallel to the floor, tongue on the roof of your mouth, lips closed, back teeth gently touching, smiling, eyes softly out of focus gazing downward.

Let’s start with simple breath holding within a breathing practice. Sitting comfortably, preferably on the floor on a cushion, but in a chair with good posture sitting up straight is ok too.

We begin breath holding by taking several deep slow breaths. How long we can hold our breath comfortably is not determined by the amount of air in our lungs, it is determined by the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream. Begin by taking 1-2 minutes to sit and breathe deeply and slowly saturating your blood with oxygen. If you breathe at a 5 second inhale and a 7 second exhale, 5 breaths is 1 minutes. 

  • Take your breath slow and deep, about a 5 second inhale and 7 second exhale.
  • Inhale expand from your abdomen to your chest as your diaphragm draws in the air
  • Exhale from your chest down to your abdomen, following your diaphragm with your mind and your abs.

Breathe this way for 5-10 breaths (1-2 minutes)

Now let’s start with a natural brief hold after both the inhale and exhale this is known as Four Square Breathing:

  • Inhale slowly, hold briefly — maybe 4 or 5 seconds
  • Exhale even slower, hold briefly again. You will find it harder to hold your breath after the exhale than the inhale. This is normal.

Practice this for 5-10 rounds

Let’s practice holding the inhale longer, as you release to the exhale save enough air that you can exhale slowly and steadily. The air should not gush out at the beginning of the exhale, if the air has to gush out-you held your breath too long:

  • Inhale slowly and fill your lungs to the tippy top
  • HOLD your breath for about 30 seconds (bandhas optional for now)
  • Exhale very slowly — take about 7 seconds to exhale.

Practice this for 5-10 rounds

You can repeat this holding your breath for 45 seconds if you like.

This is a nice way to start or end your yoga practice — which is a question I get frequently — what order to practice? Yoga philosophy states after asana, however it is individual.

My answer, what makes you feel most prepared for your day — practice that first, or if you are practicing in the evening, which makes you most relaxed and destressed? Practice that first.

If you are younger or practicing earlier in the day you may want asana first to limber the body and improve circulation — and you may even want a little more time in asana. Most yogis recommend asana first, and when you are younger you have a lot of energy to burn up.

If you are older or practicing in the evening pranayama might be better first as we tend to give more time and energy to what we practice first. As we get older we have less energy to expend and have to be more considerate of our joints, older yogis need more pranayama. Thanks to the science we now know that pranayama keeps older yogis fit just like running or more intense yoga practice makes younger yogis fit. Pranayama is exercise that does not strain your joints 🙂

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