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Criticality of ‘Retaining’ vs ‘Holding’ of Breath in Pranayama

‘No physical exercise can even have one hundredth of the efficacy of Pranayama’- state the traditional yogic scriptures. I believed the statement in its complete entirety yet failed to reach even close to that enthrallment with my own practice of Pranayama. It turned out more of a ‘stress’ than a ‘stress relieving tool’ for me.  The more I tried to submerge myself into this breathing practice, the more distracted I became. Finally, after much analysis, I figured out that the ‘meaning of Pranayama, in my subconscious was rooted on a completely wrong foundation (at least my interpretation)’ which would take my practice in almost opposite direction than intended.

The genesis of this ‘Vital Energy’ is your breathing. So, working on your ‘inhalation’ and ‘exhalation’ is the most vital factor. The first level of analysis is to understand our ‘current state of respiration’ and then train ourselves to inhale and exhale in the ratio of 1:2, respectively. With some mastery over this ratio, one can gradually proceed towards Pranayama specifically working on that ‘pause’ between the inhalation and the exhalation. Ideally that ‘Pause’ should be four times the inhalation or two times the exhalation, as the exhalation is double the inhalation (as per yogic texts).  This transition should be slow in graduation, keeping in mind that any kind of ‘forceful respiration’ may lead to lungs damage. This ‘Pause’ which is the central theme of Pranayama is usually described as ‘Holding of Breath’ or ‘Retaining of Breath’ in most of the yogic scriptures. As a Yoga novice, the repeated usage of the phrase, ‘hold your breath’ was the basis of my pranayama conceptualization. Absolute belief (at least my comprehension of it) kept me from enjoying the oceanic benefits of Pranayama for years. ‘Hold’ always meant ‘exerting some pressure’. As a result, working on ‘Holding the breath’ created a clenching effect at the back of my ‘throat region’. The result was – ‘interruption instead of assimilation’.

‘Holding of the Breath’, perhaps brought conscious intervention wherein I would lose that distinction between the self and the breathing during my past Pranayama practice. 

According to the dictionary, ‘hold’ means ‘clench, clinch, control, dominance etc.  whereas its antonym is ‘release’ – very much in alignment with the theme of Pranayama. In direct contrast, ‘retain’ means to ‘absorb’, ‘enjoy’, ‘maintain’, ‘preserve’ etc. As I started merging my practice of pranayama with the meaning of ‘retain’, my overall practice took a different turn. It was no more a ‘stress’ but a ‘release of the stress’ as ‘retaining’ the breath in between an inhalation and exhalation was like a ‘floating flow’ of energy which was ‘Fluid’, ‘Beginingle,‘Endless’, devoid of ‘Past and Future’ and kept me so much in the ‘moment’ that I was not even aware of my existence at least for some time during that engagement. The ‘pause’ was no more getting stuck to the back of the throat but was merging in some sublime space after inhalation, reaching its pinnacle of flow from Mooldhara chakra to the sahasrara chakra and then, that pause would softly flow into exhalation without any interruption.

I have just stepped onto a path of ‘oxygenated journey’ with Pranayama and still have a long way to go but I am sure every step taken now will open me to a blissful experience. While trying to think how to explain the ‘flow’, I came across this definition by Dr. Abdul Kalam in his book, ‘Wings of Fire’ which seems so apt for the topic.

“Flow is a sensation we experience when we act with total involvement. During flow, action follows action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention on the part of the worker. There is no hurry, there are no distracting demands on one’s attention. The past and the future disappear. So, does the distinction between the self and the activity.”

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Shammi Gupta, founder of Shammi’s Yogalaya holds an MA in Yoga Shastra, is a certified Yogic Therapist and Naturopath, has completed an Advanced Yoga Course and holds a Diploma in Yoga Education from Mumbai University. She is a certified trainer from American College of Sports Medicine and holds an MBA in HR & MBA in Finance from The University of Akron, Ohio, USA. She conducts Health Awareness Workshops for Corporate, Yogasana Workshops for Athletes and Yoga Therapy Workshops on different medical issues for patients. Among the celebrities Shammi trains are eminent personalities from the film and television industry and corporate world.

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