This is part of my column One-Eyed Mama where I share the everyday miracles I encountered in my life while dealing with vision loss and an empty nest – both at the same time
I’d never been comfortable holding my breath for very long. Which is why, even as a prize-winning swimmer in my school team in Abu Dhabi, I was better at backstroke than freestyle, simply because I didn’t have to hold my breath underwater.
It was perhaps related to the asthma I developed in adolescence. Even though modern science came up with very effective inhalers to help people like me, I resisted holding my breath for exercise or games. The sense of suffocation was too intense and paranoia-inducing to handle.
So, when the pandemic hit in 2020, and I took up the practice of daily pranayama to strengthen my lungs and keep my mental health intact, one of the most difficult exercises for me was kumbhaka or breath retention.
According to health experts, a person with decent lung capacity should be able to hold their breath voluntarily for about 25 to 30 seconds. Those with good lung capacity go up to 60 or 90 seconds. Of course, underwater divers develop the capacity to go many minutes without air (the world record is almost 27 minutes!), but I had to start with my own lungs first.
There are two types of kumbhaka – the one where you hold your breath inside, which is called antara kumbhaka, and the one you exhale and hold still, empty of air, called bahya kumbhaka. There are certain ideal counts for inhalation, retention and exhalation, and lots of benefits for the brain and body (you can read more here).
The idea is to retain the breath with ease and comfort, and then exhale (or inhale) softly, silently, with control.
There should be no crazy urge to puff and pant after the breath retention; and the next breath should come with equal ease and comfort.
I could manage antara kumbhaka for about 25 seconds at first, though it always made me want to explode towards the end. Bahya kumbhaka was a lowly 12 seconds for me – my brain would start throbbing and I would gasp for breath as if I was dying on my yoga mat.
But – like many other practices worth doing daily – I stuck to it and counted the seconds, trying to increase one at a time each day. Listening to the yoga teacher – whether on YouTube or in person – I learnt to do the kumbhaka along with the three bandhas, when you hold in other bits of your body to activate your chakras (there’s a good description of them here).
Very soon, I realised that my capacity to retain my breath depended more on my state of mind rather than the fitness level of my body. On days when my yoga practice was vigorous and my mind was calm, focused and free of distractions, I managed to reach a minute of kumbhaka.
But as the pandemic wore on, taking its emotional toll, and I simultaneously lost vision in my left eye – which began to view the world like a Claude Monet painting – my mind became distracted once again, and my holding capacity slipped.
Around the same time, my daughters grew up and moved away to different time zones, and I developed the empty-nest syndrome. I’d break into tears, anxiously check my phone at unearthly hours of the night, and do all sorts of ridiculous things.
(Have you noticed how, after the kids leave home, you begin to long for them as if they were a high-school crush – not in a pervy way, but the way you jump when the phone rings, the way your face lights up when you see theirs on a video call, the way your heart races in concern when they share their troubles with you, the gratification you feel that they called you before anyone else, the joy that they thought of you at all.)
Pranayama stills me every morning after those restless nights. Even as I struggled with kumbhaka, I began observing the quality of the stillness and the way my mind works.
Slowly, as gradually and quietly as a fruit coming of age on the branch of a tree, I learn to be still and let go.
Focusing on my ajna chakra (the space between the eyebrows), I learn to dissolve thought and take a break from the frenzy of the mind.
Eventually, I stop counting the seconds, and begin to just wait.
The darkness behind the eyes and the tautness of the body holding the three bandhas gradually become a safe space, a space of retreat and centredness.
I realise that the worst feeling is not the stoppage of breath, or death.
It is the ignorance that the next inhalation, or life, is around the corner.
I practise deep, deliberate inhalations, and slow, silent exhalations. After that, there is no urgent need to inhale again. Sometimes, I forget, and become rapt in immobility and the awe-inspiring sensation of life pulsing through me.
The remaining breaths are so small and infrequent as to be almost negligible.
I develop a relationship of respect and trust with my breath, and an awareness of the vital life energy in my body. I feel utter gratitude to be alive.
When nothing exists but thee, o God,Mirza Ghalib
Then what is this commotion?
When I re-enter the commotion of life, the noise is muted, the colours sharper. There is no urgency to respond, no desire to do or act unnecessarily. My otherwise heightened emotions find a neutral equilibrium.
From the fruit, I become the tree.
Eventually the day will consume me, and the phone calls and the computer monitor and the ringing doorbell and the flow of humanity through my home and heart will divert my mind and attention in a million directions.
But the best feeling is knowing that the next inhalation is around the corner.