“What do machines really do? They increase the number of things we can do without thinking. Things we do without thinking - there's the real danger.”
Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune

Four Parts of Breath


This series of articles is a preparation for a series on Pranayama – Yoga’s breathing practices. Before we delve into Pranayama we need to get acquainted with a few general qualities of breathing and a few personal qualities – things that are unique to every individual. This article assumes you are familiar and capable of breathing using Ujjayi technique.

Your Breath

Let’s start with a short practice to determine your breath capacity. This will give the ideas in this article a personal context – something that is unique for you. The practice is to sit comfortably and count the number of Ujjayi breaths you take over a period of 5 minutes. To do this practice you will need a timer to time 5 minutes with some kind of audio signal when the time is up (or use this – do a test to make sure your speakers are working and the volume is set).

Welcome back 🙂 Now we will do a little basic math:

  • The duration of the practice as 5 minutes = 300 seconds.
  • Divide the 300 seconds by the number of breaths you counted.
    For example – if you counted 28 breaths – then 300 divided by 28 = 10.7. This is the average length of your breath – almost 11 seconds.
  • Then divide that number by 2.5.
    For example: 10.7 divided by 2.5 = 4.3.
  • Round that number down to the closest even number.
    For example: 4.3 seconds is rounded down to 4 seconds.
  • This will be your base breathing duration (which we will soon explain further and put to good use).

There are two numbers to take away from this practice:

  • The length of your breath – in this case ~ 11 seconds.
  • Your base breathing duration – in this case 4 seconds.

Structure of Breath

Two parts of breath are fairly obvious – inhaling (taking air in) and exhaling (pushing air out). The two others are always there but we are not used to acknowledging them – these are the holds or stops that come in between the inhale and exhale. In Sanskrit they are called Kumbhaka. The hold after the inhale is called Antah Kumbhaka (or A.K. for short) and the hold after the exhale is called Bahya Kumbhaka (or B.K. for short).


We will use this structure to communicate breathing practices. For example: inhale 4 seconds, hold 2 seconds, exhale 7 seconds, hold 2 seconds. A shorter way to communicate this would be to simply say breathe 4 – 2 – 6 – 2.


The limitation of this notation is that it indicates a specific length of breath. What if we wanted to communicate the same idea – but in a way that you can apply the practice to your breathing capacity. Fortunately there is a way to do this. We communicate the breathing practice in multipliers instead of numbers. Like this:

breathpractice_mulThe base duration in this example is 4 seconds. The inhale is “1” meaning [ 1 x 4 seconds = 4 seconds]. The A.K. hold is 0.5 meaning [ 0.5 x 4 seconds = 2 seconds] and so on. So the same breathing formula, in this example “1 – 0.5 – 1.5 – 0.5” will result in different durations – depending on your base breathing duration. You can try to apply this formula to your breathing duration.

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