The inner retention of breath is called many names in Sanskrit: it is known as antar, antaranga, abhyantara or poorna kumbhaka. We will adopt the name antar kumbhaka, where the word antar means ‘inner’ and kumbhaka means ‘breath retention’. In other words, antar kumbhaka is the practice where the breath is held inside the lungs.
Antar kumbhaka has a marked influence on the flow of prana throughout the pranic body. Since there is a close relationship between the pranic body and mind, antar kumbhaka in turn allows one to gain some control over the mind. Unfortunately, most people have a mind that is in a continual state of disturbance and fluctuation. Antar kumbhaka slows down the tumultuous mind and transforms it into a state of peaceful one-pointedness, a prerequisite for the state of meditation.
Kumbhaka is widely mentioned in the ancient yogic texts for it is a very important practice. The ancient text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in particular, discusses it at great length.
The following are a few extracted quotations: “He who can do kumbhaka for some time will increase digestive fire and hear the internal cosmic sound (nada). The body will become purified and free of disease.”
“During kumbhaka the mind becomes steady and one experiences timelessness. One is able to concentrate intensely on the trikuti (the eyebrow centre).”
The last statement especially indicates the importance of kumbhaka as a premeditational technique. By doing kumbhaka one’s concentration is automatically intensified.
The text emphasizes and warns people who practise kumbhaka to be careful: “A ringmaster tames a wild animal slowly and systematically. In the same way, one should gradually tame the prana in the body through the practice of kumbhaka. If one tries to break in and master a wild tiger or elephant too quickly without sufficient care, one can easily be injured. Similarly, if you try to control the prana in the body too rapidly and forcefully then this will also cause harm.”
We also endorse the warning and will discuss this point subsequently.
There are many other ancient texts that give useful information on the subject of kumbhaka. However, since we will fully discuss the subject ourselves and in our own words we see little point in quoting them for this will only lead to needless repetition. One point worth noting, however, is that the classical raja yoga scripture called the Yoga Sutras defines pranayama as no more than kumbhaka. It says: “.. . pranayama is the cessation of inhalation and exhalation.”
This is a very limited definition of pranayama and disagrees with the definition given by various other texts; for example the Gherand Samhita gives various different practices of pranayama, including kumbhaka as one of them. However, the limited definition of pranayama as kumbhaka by the author of Yoga Sutras, Rishi Patanjali, does show the great importance of this seemingly simple technique.