“One of my goals in life is to do the slowest Primary Series anywhere… rather than the quickest”. Richard Freeman

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

UPDATED: Kumbhaka (retain the breath in or out) in Zen practice, it's effects on stilling the mind, re Krishnamacharya

I looked at the possible health benefits of Kumbhaka (retaining the breath in or aout after the inhalation or exhalation) in this post


Sekida's book 'Zen training' seems to have something akin to kumbhaka in his presentation of zazen practice aimed at stilling the mind, was this also what Krishnmacharya was after or experiencing in the kumbhaka he presents in his asana instruction in Yoga Makaranda (1934). Look too at the relationship between the belly and the breath, in Zen the focus on the tanden, in ashtanga uddiyana. The approach seem to be almost opposite and yet perhaps the attention to that area has similar effects.

I'm not suggesting for one moment that this is all the same thing, that the methodology is the same but that perhaps both traditions are noticing something interesting and of value to explore in the same areas of breath and belly, body and mind, it's a compare and contrast exercise . For me it comes out of the question, what was Krishnamacharya up to in his employment of kumbhaka in asana and in giving it up are we missing out on something of value, some training of the breath and mind.

the same butt different or rather different action, same result.

I'm reminded of Richard Freeman's focus on the tandem in his presentation of pranayama.

Sekida goes into a lot of detail on practice, whereas Krihnamacharya tends to merely indicate the appropriate kumbhak, it's going to be interesting exploring this more subtle approach to kumbhaka practice in my Ashtanga practice and seeing what happens.

There are sections on technique for example where Sekida talks about exhaling more fully and holding the breath and then making the next couple of breaths shorter, more regular before another longer exhalation. Think perhaps of the rhythmical aspect of our Ashtanga practice. In Krishnamacharya we have the indication of kumbhaka as well as the long slow breath. But we also have the vinyasa in and out of postures, to and from the states in which we explore kumbhaka. What if we shorten the breath a little during the vinyasa to contemporary Ashtanga rates and then breath longer and more fully with the appropriate kumbhaka in those indicated states....curious.

Watch this space, it has legs, I will be adding more quotes from Sekida. I'm off to explore it in my practice right now in fact.

I've included a couple of the key pages but paragraphs concerning this pop up throughout the text, kind of along the lines of ' remember in one minute Zen I suggested holding the breath, well it has this effect too and this and this'.

For Sekida, the kumbhaka technique in tandem  with tanden seem almost key for attaining samadhi(s).


this really is an excellent book on the nuts and bolts of meditation practice in the zen tradition but useful perhaps for any tradition. I highly recommend it



This next section goes into a little more detail but there are references to the effects of holding the breath in Zen and breath control in general that for me shine a light on something krishnamacharya might have been experiencing with his use of kumbhaka (retaining the breath in or out) in Yoga Makaranda.




Zen practice focus on breath(holding) and tandem  possible insights for Kumbhaka and uddiyana practice.

NOTES: All quotes taken from Katsuki Sekida' Zen training (highlights my own)

How can we learn to focus our attention on one thing? The answer is that we cannot do it with our brain alone; the brain cannot control its thoughts by itself. The power to control the activity of our mind comes from the body, and it depends criti­cally (as we shall show in later chapters, in detail) on posture and breathing. p31

In the previous chapter we described the experiment of "one­ minute zazen"  and found we could control thoughts occurring in the brain by dint of holding our breath. That control and inhibition of thought came from this opposed tension in the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. From the experience of zazen we are bound to conclude that by maintaining a state of tension in the abdominal respiratory muscles we can control what is happening in the brain. Even those who know nothing about Zen will throw strength into the abdomen, by stopping their breath, when they try to put up with biting cold, bear pain, or suppress sorrow or anger. They use this method to generate what may be called spiritual power. Furthermore, the ab­dominal muscles can be regarded as a kind of general manager of the muscular movements of the entire body. When doing heavy manual work, such as weight lifting or wielding a sledgehammer, you cannot bring the muscles of the rest of the body into play without contract­ ing these muscles. Even in raising a hand or moving a leg you are straining the abdominal muscles. Scribble with your pen or thread a needle and you will find tension developing in the diaphragm. Without cooperation of the respiratory muscles you cannot move any part of the body, pay close attention to anything, or, indeed, call forth any sort of mental action. We cannot repeat this fact too often: it is of the greatest importance but has been rather ignored up to now. 56-57

In normal respiration, when the lung volume reaches 2800 milliliters, inspiration automatically turns into expira­ tion; the inspiratory muscles relax, the volume comes down to 2300 milliliters, and all the tension returns to zero. Normally, inspiration then automatically starts to take place again. In zazen, however, you do not stop expiration at 2300 milliliters but continue to expire, and this calls for effort. In general, then, we may say that above the hori­ zon of breathing it is inspiration that requires effort, while below this it is expiration. Normal respiration is performed above the horizon, using the tidal volume alone, and expiration comes about by the re­laxation of the inspiratory muscles. In zazen, expiration goes down below the horizon, and it is in this phase that most effort is exerted. It is this expiration below the horizon that is principally effective in bringing about samadhi, because it is here that the diaphragm and ab­dominal muscles are brought most strongly into opposition. 57

With regard to the method of inspiration to be used in zazen, we suggest that this can be divided into two phases. In the first, during inspiration below the horizon, breath is taken in naturally and easily by relaxing the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, at the same time allowing the lower abdomen to inflate (that is, performing abdominal inspiration). In the second phase, above the horizon, inspiration is performed by contracting the diaphragm. In this second phase it is desirable to begin once more tensing the abdominal muscles so as to inflate the abdomen (that is, perform active abdominal inspiration). This will prevent the occurrence of chest breathing. Otherwise, there may be a tendency to gasp and the abdomen may cave in. The method may sound somewhat complicated, but in practice it is done very naturally and easily if you only take care not to gasp (that is, not to do chest breathing).
With regard to expiration above the horizon, this is done naturally, avoiding negative strain. At around the horizon and below it you may start to contract the diaphragm, to make it work in opposition to the contraction of the abdominal muscles, which pushes the viscera up­ ward.
The material in this chapter constitutes what we regard as the es­sential general principles of breathing in zazen. In the following chap­ters we shall describe in more detail how these principles are applied in the various methods of zazen practice. What is described in this chapter is not found elsewhere in Zen literature. It is a new proposal. Of course, if you are experienced in zazen and do not like the method proposed here, you may ignore it. However, as your practice develops you may come to see the value of it. 58-59

After you have gone through this procedure two or three times, you will find your lower abdomen in­ flated and equipped with a strength such as you have never experienced in your ordinary respiration. In other words, a strong pressure is generated in the tanden. It gives you the feeling, we might say, that you are sitting on the throne of existence. When you are mature, two .or three repetitions of this practice will be sufficient, but if you choose you can repeat it a number of times. 67


When we say "wavelike" this refers to a continuous but repeatedly stressed way of exhaling. "Intermittent," on the other hand, implies rather long intervals between exhalations. When one's samadhi be­ comes deeper, exhalation may seem almost stopped for a long while,  with only an occasional faint escape of breath and almost imperceptible inhalation. Such variations of breathing appear spontaneously, accord­ ing to the degree of development of one's samadhi. With any of these patterns of breathing, however, we generally go down deep into the reserve volume. 71-72

Why do we practice this kind of breathing ? Once more, the answer is: (1) in order to make the tanden replete with power; and (2) to send repeated stimulation from the tanden to the wakefulness center of the brain, by which means, as we have already discussed (pages 50- 51), we inhibit the occurrence of thoughts and so bring about abso­lute samadhi. Consciousness is by nature constituted so as to be always thinking something, and if left to itself it starts daydreaming. These wandering thoughts are quite a natural thing, but one cannot get into samadhi if one's mind is occupied with them. The bamboo method of exhaling is nothing more than a device for controlling wandering thoughts. Anyone who has practiced zazen will know how difficult it is to control wandering thoughts. We suggest that if you use the method just described you will find it somewhat easier to bring them under control. 72

Yet another analogy may be taken from painting. When a Japanese artist draws a bamboo trunk, he places his brush at the bottom of the paper and pushes it upward for a few inches. Then he stops, lifts the brush slightly from the paper, and begins again a bit higher, pushing the brush upward again for a few inches. The tiny space between the strokes represents the bamboo joint. This process of pushing, stopping, and again pushing the brush upward is repeated until the full length of the bamboo is drawn. The artist carries out this operation in one exhalation. With each pause his breath also stops; with each new stroke his breath is allowed to escape slightly. Thus the painting illustrates not only the bamboo trunk but every phase of his exhalation. Such a picture allows no retouching; it represents the spiritual power of the artist at the moment of his painting. This pattern of exhaling while painting bamboo is an excel­ lent analogy to the intermittent or wavelike exhalation that we have advocated for zazen. 72-73

There really comes a stage as your samadhi develops when you may even call out to the stray thoughts to come-and they do not. After repeatedly going through such an experience I tried to discover what I was doing to reach such a stage. And at last I realized that, directly before the appearance of that stage, I was attuning myself to my intermittent exhalation, to push ahead, as it were, inch by inch, just as a wounded soldier crawls along, scratching at the earth, and I cried out, "Oh, this scratching along inch by inch I" From that time I made a point of using this way of breathing, and found to my wonderment that the effect was immediate and profound. It saved me from the old struggle with wandering thoughts, and I found I could rather easily approach absolute samadhi. Of course, there were many ups and downs, but the way was secured. Now I can see clearly the route I took on the climb, just as if I were looking at an aerial photograph of the Alps. How can I help telling you of it? 73-4

Finally, we may end this chapter with a few further remarks on in­ halation. Most of the important points in connection with inhalation have been described already in connection with the first and second stages of working on Mu. We will merely note one or two points not touched upon. First, the shorter breaths that follow a deep and long exhalation are also very useful in promoting samadhi. They should be inhaled in two phases and exhaled in two or more phases. You may feel impelled to recover the breath quickly and start to gasp (chest breath­ ing). Have patience for a moment if this happens and inhale in two phases, using the lowest part of the abdomen first. Keep the tension as low as possible and gasping will be avoided. Secondly, in addition to this short breathing, you will occasionally find that, almost involun­tarily, you perform a very natural and deep inhalation, which is done with the chest. This has come from physical necessity and does not interfere with your samadhi. There is no need to worry about it. 81-2

In practice, we stop wandering thoughts through breath control, and by this method we succeed in entering samadhi.The brain first orders the body to take up a certain posture and to breathe in a certain way .However, the role played by the head ends there, and thereafterthe action of the respiratory muscles controls the amount of thought going on in the brain. The head knows, or comes to learn, that it cannot govern by itself, so it circumvents the problem and resorts to contracting the respiratory muscles, and thus contrives to control itself. I do not know what the psychology and physiology of our day have to say about this topic, but my own experience in zazen tells me that it is absolutely impossible for an ordinary person to control his thoughts without taking up a good posture and giving an appropriate tension to the respiratory muscles of the abdomen. The art of breath­ ing in zazen is to maintain this tension. Further, when the respiratory muscles are contracted, the muscles of the entire body are put under tension, so that the tanden is the leader of the muscles of the whole body. In crucial moments, breathing involuntarily comes to a stop. The circus performer knows this, the athlete knows it, the potter throwing a bowl on the wheel knows it, and so does the cartographer, who un­ consciously holds his breath when he wants to draw a fine and accurate line. In the tea ceremony, in Noh acting, in judo, and in kendo, the tanden takes the lead in the movements of the body. We have already described how the artist or the calligrapher almost stops breathing when he draws a series of lines and gives new tension to the respiratory muscles every time he comes to an important point. He actually prac­tices what we have called intermittent, or bamboo, exhalation. An ele­vated type of spiritual activity is manifested in his breathing.
Our contention, then, is that controlled respiration generates spiritual power, and that attention, which is actually spiritual power, can never be exercised without tension in the tanden. Some detailed examples may serve to explain this idea further. 84-5

Now seat younelf in zazen posture and imagine that you are a foot­ball player making vigorous dashing movements. You will find younelf tensing your entire body, and especially the abdominal muscles. But the tension is of only momentary duration, and if you want to continue the practice you will have to give the abdomen repeated contractions. In imagination, then, you are repeating the dashing movement on the cushion. After four or five repetitions of this you will find you have to stop to inhale. If you inhale in one movement, the tension developed will be largely relaxed, but if you first make a short inhalation by in­ flating the lower part of the abdomen and then continue to inhale by expanding the upper region of the abdomen (inhaling in two phases, as we have previously described), you will be able to maintain much of the tension. It is quite an ascetic practice to continue such a strenuous effort for twenty or thirty minutes. But when you have gone through such self-imposed torture to the end, you will emerge to find in your abdomen a kind of strength, both physical and spiritual, such as you may never have experienced before. You will find yourself sitting on the cushion with the spirit of a sovereign. It is simply because your tanden has been filled with vitality. 88


The following long quote is almost a summery

Much later I came to understand that the delightful feeling and the purity of the body were, in fact, the product of the intuitive action of the first nen. How pure it was 1 You should simply experience it! However, while I was pushed about in the waves, its purity and fresh­ ness were dissipated. I returned to the temple full of repentance. There, after the roshi's lecture and supper, the evening meditation began. Waiting impatiently for it to begin, I tried to recall the mem­ ory of the morning's delightful feeling and to restore myself to the same condition.
It was eventually nothing more than a matter of dealing with breath, skin, and guts. Once experienced, you can find the route to return to it rather easily. An initial slight inhalation, and then gentle, soft ex­halation, full of pure emotion: this sort of breathing appears naturally when you express something inspiring. I have already dealt with these procedures at length, but perhaps I may be forgiven for repeating cer­ tain points here. If, sitting in zazen posture, you hold your breath around the horizon of breathing and almost stop all movements of the respiratory muscles, your body will be reduced to motionlessness. And when you thrust your belly forward and your buttocks back­ ward, the shoulders will be lowered and their tension relieved. If the shoulders are relaxed, all the muscles of the upper body will follow suit. They will be in a state of moderate or quiet tension. Just as there is an optimum cruising speed for a car or airplane, so muscles can also take up a preferred condition of equilibrated strain, and it is this that we call a quiet tension.
The feeling of our bodily existence is maintained by various stimuli arising from the skin and muscles. If this stimulation is lacking, the body will no longer be felt to exist. To put it another way: if you try to fix your body, immobile, in zazen, your breath will spontaneously become bated. Then a certain peaceful and pacifying sensation will appear, first around the most sensitive parts of the body-the fore­ head, cheeks, ears, hands, and arms-and then spread to the chest or back. With a little practice you will soon notice a delicate, musical, thrill-like vibration, accompanied by a pacifying sensation. This lull­abies the skin, and off-sensation will follow naturally. The pacifying sensation and off-sensation are closely interrelated; they are separated by only a hairsbreadth. The skin has its own emotion. It acts as the lips of the soul (if the guts are the site of the spirit), and it reflects emo­tionally the internal condition of the muscles and viscera. At the time I write of, of course, I knew none of this at all clearly. I could only vaguely guess at it. I concentrated on my experience of that morning and tried to revive the condition once again. And at length I was able to recover that delightful feeling.
Zen literature tells us that the delightful feeling that accompanies kensho lasts as long as three days. To tell the truth, I wished to con­form to the traditional pattern. When I felt that the delightful feeling was diminishing a little, I used my breathing trick to reactivate it. For about three days things went well, as I had hoped, but gradually during this time the strong internal pressure began to exhaust itself, and I sensed that I was cooking up the feeling artificially. I felt an extra burden imposed on my heart, as happens when we try to arouse a forced emotion. So much for petty tricks, I thought, and I decided to take a new step and make a frontal attack on absolute samadhi. So my hard training in zazen began anew. Sometimes I found I seemed to be approaching absolute samadhi; sometimes I found myself blocked by wandering thoughts. It was not an easy matter. The world I had inhabited in my childhood proved difficult to recapture now that I was a youth with an intensely active consciousness.
If only in those days I had known how to conduct my body and mind, I should have been spared the hardships I underwent. It took thirty years before I began to feel as if I had attained a tiny understanding of Zen. Why was this? Simply because of the lack of organized method and theory. 217-8

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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