Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Perfectly Peaceful Pause
Copyright Lance Kinseth, What Is The Meaning Of Bodhidharma’s Coming To The West, 19”x19, 1996
BAHYA KUMBHAKA describes a pause in breathing after exhalation—a point where even the enduring motion of breath is momentarily suspended.
Bahya Kumbhaka is a component of a penultimate pranayama practice, Kevala Kumbhaka, wherein breath is intentionally ceased [more than “held”]. Breath approaches “kumbhaka” when a person is deeply relaxed so that cessation is sensed to be a natural consequence of deep relaxation rather than forced. Kevala Kumbhaka can be an intense ascetic practice wherein an accomplished yogi can cease breath for long periods of time, as well as limit breath volume and frequency of breathing. The austere practice may involve isolation and a very restricted diet such as ghee [milk product].
Breath can be stopped after inhalation, as well as exhalation [Both: Sahita Kumbhaka].
Whether momentary [perhaps for two or four heartbeats and gradually more] or for longer duration as an intensely ascetic practice, NOT inhaling or exhaling, when accompanied by intentional stilling of body, may produce an experience that can easily be described as a “perfectly peaceful pause.”
In restorative practice, it is possible to experience this “perfectly peaceful pause” with new participants as well as with seasoned participants [who are able to more easily self-modify physiology to activate the parasympathetic nervous system as well as alter brain waves to provoke alpha and possibly theta wave trains].
In restorative practice, the intentional cessation of breath can be guided in both the beginning and end of the practice session in either seated or supine postures. Generally, the cessation of breath is more momentary than sustained, due to an emphasis upon relaxation and opening/expanding more than on focus.
In relaxed seated and supine poses, a “perfectly peaceful pause” sequence is offered.
1. A suggestion is made for participants to allow their bodies to become as still as possible.
2. Having developed body awareness of increased stillness], attention is then directed to a major continuing movement—breath. Breath is first observed as-it-is [i.e., “natural”]. A suggestion is offered for participants to soften or lengthen the breath cycle [gradually reducing the frequency of the breath cycle by increasing the length of the breath cycle].
3. Attention is then refined, directing awareness more intentionally to exhalation—allowing the breath to completely empty, and for inhalation to occur when it is naturally needed rather than being directed by participants.
4. Having stilled body movement, attention may be directed to another autonomic movement that continues to be present—the heartbeat. With increasing physiological relaxation, less conscious internal stimuli such as the heartbeat comes more easily into awareness.
5. Finally, when each breath is completely emptied, participants are encouraged to cease breath (rather than hold their breath) for perhaps two to four heartbeats (and to gradually increase the number of heartbeats if sensing a state of ongoing comfort in so doing).
In restorative practice, exhalation may be the primary place for this practice. In exhalation, the chest muscles and ribs/connective tissue are released and “softened.” [Less relaxed, a “chin lock”/Jalandhara Banda may be simultaneously practiced, on both the cessation of inhalation and exhalation, but this increased focus is not suggested for the above sequence.]
Utilizing the above sequence, even novice participants may report momentarily experiences of an authentic “perfectly peaceful pause.” Due to the preparatory stilling of the body and coming to awareness of the breath cycle, there should be no sense of holding one’s breath. Further, the incoming breath following cessation may be experienced as “sweet and rich” [as will be every inhalation when we fully bring our awareness to it]. Perhaps it might be likened to that first breath taken as a child when coming up from underwater (but in this case, having generated a deeply relaxed and still state, is not a “breath-holding gasp,” but rather, something akin to a soft wave or wash of energy).
Such attention to the breath brings one fully into the present moment. And these “moments” can be repeated again and again.
In the moments of this very brief practice of bahya kumbhaka, a very deep relaxation is “tasted,” perhaps more than sustained. And yet, now, one experiences a deepened sense of relaxation. While being a “gentle, gentle yoga practice,” restorative practice is a high-end yoga practice that aspires to offer “uber-relaxation” training that can extend into everyday life, rather than be only a beginner’s point of entry into yoga. Cessation of the breath is not producing either hypoxia from a lack of oxygen or oxygen saturation from hyperventilation, either of which may affect one’s psychological reaction. In this gentle cessation of breath following exhalation breath remains rather normal. In fact, the practice generally stabilizes the breath cycle rather than alters it toward one extreme or the other. From a Western perspective, a positive reaction may be explained as having been provoked by triggering various physiological changes. From an Eastern perspective, a positive reaction may be explained both as a practice that “cools the body” as well as encourages the soft ascent of energy through the chakras toward the crown, (with the positive reactions varying from minor changes in more time-limited/relaxation practice to major changes in austere ascetic practice).
Whether intense and enduring or momentary, an everyday sense of urgency, or motives for practice, or more generalized desires may fully disappear momentarily in the practice of kumbhaka. By incorporating this practice, efforts to “relax” may feel implicitly more “restful.” Regular momentary practices may provoke sensations found in more intense practices, such as “a perfect quiescence,” “a perfect peacefulness,” or “bliss.” From an Eastern perspective, because prana ultimately involves access to cosmic energy, intense kumbhaka practices are posited to offer even more elusive benefits such as “longevity,” and “cure for oneself and even others”—through projection of such strong energy across physical distance.
Simply, bayha kumbhaka as a brief emphasis in breath work in a restorative practice session may offer most participants a deeper experience of relaxation. Through repetition, such changes might be introduced more fully into everyday life. And such practice may offer preparation for varieties of breath work of longer duration/intensity.