In this interview I talk a lot about the benefits of breathing less than normal (hypoventilation) as opposed to what many people do in exercise and modern yoga which is to breathe more than normal (hyperventilation):"
ANTHONY: Does it make sense to you that Kumbhaka (holding the breath) can have a healing effect?
SIMON: Yes definitely, there are many benefits that can be attributed to various types of breath retention or Kumbhaka. There are several different ways you can do a kumbhaka and each of them will have a different effect. You can hold the breath in, you can hold the breath out, and you could hold the breath partly in, you could also get a similar effect to kumbhaka just by not breathing very much at all. You could also get a similar physiological effect from kumbhaka by breathing very very very slowly, for example by continually inhaling for 2 minutes. Breathing very very slowly would look to someone else like you are not breathing at all. It is important to note that deep breathing and all breathing in fact is moderated by how much air comes in and out of you every minute. This is called your minute ventilation. All of these factors have physical and physiological effects.
Depending on how much air you breathe per minute and which muscles you keep active or relaxed the benefits can be positive or negative. perhaps surprisingly for most people the most positive effects are seen when we breathe as little as possible, which is the essence of pranayama.
ANTHONY: When you say breathing very slowly do you mean long slow inhalations or do you mean just breathing regularly but very softly?
SIMON: You can do either. If I had to do a graphical analysis, say you put time in the horizontal axis, and amount of breath on the vertical axis.
For example, If I do what many people consider deep full breathing while sitting quietly at rest I could take a deep full breath in (inhalation) for 3 seconds and deep full breath out (exhalation) for 3 seconds and that is ten full breaths per minute. On a graph this will look like the graph goes up and down a lot, most people will get a a bit dizzy because this will bring less blood to the brain and the will seem to be many ‘fluctuations’ in the breath. But if you read most hatha yoga texts they say you need to still the fluctuations in the breath to get yoga.
So, if I do a kumbhaka after each part of the breath - inhale, hold the breath in, exhale, hold the breath out - the holding the breath will look like a straight line on the graph and there is then no ‘fluctuations’ in the breath. I can hold my breath in for about 6 minutes, which is average in world terms and the world record is about 10 minutes i recall.
But I could simulate that straight line, where there are minimal fluctuations in the breath, by just doing a very little breath in little breath out. On my graph, from a distance, a little breath in and a little breath out would look like a straight line. Physiologically, it has the same effect as kumbhaka.
In Sanskrit, in Yoga terms, that’s really what is Kevala Kumbhaka is. It’s what happens when you’re meditating. You feel like you’re not breathing at all, but actually if you study if you study a meditating person with a machine you find they feel like they are not breathing at sometimes but they are actually making very small breaths in and out that mostly are invisible and inaudible breath.
ANTHONY: Why does kumbhaka and meditation have a similar physiological effect as a very large inhalation and/or a very large exhalation?
SIMON: Holding the breath in or out for a long time and meditation have similar physiological effects because they both will build up carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is one of the main effectors in the physiological effects of kumbhaka. You can also get high levels of carbon dioxide, not just from holding the breath in or holding the breath out, but also by not breathing very much. So when we meditate we don’t breath very much, it’s a very little in breath, a very little out breath. So because the air is not exchanging much, you’ll actually start building up carbon dioxide. Therefore, on a physiological (energetic) level, one of the best ways of getting the positive effects of carbon dioxide build up is by doing meditation. You often hear of people who have cured themselves of cancer, by doing meditation. On a physiological level one can speculate that the increases in health from someone, say who has had cancer, may be because of the increases in carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is necessary to be present for oxygen to be deposited into cells via the Bohr effect.
ANTHONY: Can you explain the Bohr effect in simple terms’ and how it implies that when you exercise for many reasons it is essentially best to breathe as little as possible.
SIMON: The Bohr effect very simply would say that if you have oxygen which is carried on Haemoglobin, the red pigment in blood, and it’s travelling through your blood, it might come to say, your big toe, and would say "I’ve got oxygen, does anyone here in the big toe want oxygen?" And all the cells in the big toe will say, "yes I want oxygen", and before it releases its oxygen to the big toe’s cells, the Haemoglobin will say … “show me your carbon dioxide”. And if the big toe cells have no carbon dioxide then the Haemoglobin (in fact it is oxy-haemoglobin) will not release it’s oxygen. It will just travel off somewhere else. You need the local presence of carbon dioxide for oxyhaemoglobin to be able to release it’s oxygen and make it accessible to cells. This is the Bohr effect.
So, when there are high levels of carbon dioxide there’s a lot more deposition of oxygen into cells, and if there are low levels of carbon dioxide, you might get increased blood flow, but you might not get entry of oxygen into cells. When oxygen enters cells, you get much better healing, and also, you get much more energy. So for example a cell can run off glucose, glucose is a simple sugar, and glucose is used as the fuel to be ‘burnt' (or metabolised) for that particular cell, will get two molecules of ATP, the energy source of the cell, for every one glucose ‘ urnt'. But, if you burn glucose in the presence of oxygen you get 38 molecules of ATP, so it’s 19 times more energy can be generated in the presence of oxygen. Funnily enough cancer cells don’t function with this oxygen method, they don’t work on the aerobic pathway, they only have anaerobic metabolism happening (burning sugar without oxygen). So it’s not to say that the presence of oxygen will kill cancer cells, or the absence of oxygen causes cancer, but rather healthy cells, will not do very well, and cancer cells will do very well, in low levels of oxygen. Whereas with high levels of oxygen, healthy cells do very well, and cancer cells don’t necessarily do very much better than normal. So cancer, sometimes, is said to be helped if you can get more oxygen into your cells, and one of the ways of doing that is by putting it in a high CO2 environment, and one of the ways of generating high carbon dioxide is using either kumbhaka or minimal breathing which is Sanskrit terms is Kevalya kumbhaka, which is the type of breathing that happens when you sit in meditation. On a graphical level that’s a little breath in a little breath out little breath in little breath out, which looks like a straight line. Same as if you inhaled, held the breath in, looks like a straight line. But to simulate a straight line also, you could do a very slow breath in. If I inhale fast, the line goes up dramatically, but if I inhale slower, the line goes up slower still. If I inhale and I take one minute to inhale, the line goes up so slowly, that from a distance it looks like a parallel line and so very slow inhales, of say one minute for an inhalation would simulate kumbhaka on a physiological level.
And the corresponding page
See also perhaps, some of my earlier post on Simon's work.
The breath: Simon Borg-Olivier made me fall in love with asana all over again.
Interview with Simon Borg-Olivier: Breath, Kumbhaka, Bandhas in Ashtanga and vinyasa Yoga. Yoga Rainbow Festival 2014
Just enrolled on Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss' Essentials of Teacher Training Yoga Fundamentals Online course
The nine bandhas (yes Nine) in the APPLIED ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY OF YOGA of Simon Borg-oliver and Bianca machliss