I choose that technique born of the ripening of the practice of the three locks, with which the exhalation and inhalation having been discarded first, then causes the torrent of sensory input to dry up— her essence is Kevala-Kumbha [spontaneous, effortless suspension]
This śloka encapsulates the process of Yoga in a nutshell. It is also an expression of the tristhana method which is the bedrock of Ashtanga Yoga. Discipline is applied from the bottom up, if you will, to the three main aspects of one’s being and this results in a transcendent state. First, the body is disciplined by means of engaging the bandhas. In the tristhana method bandha and āsana are interchangeable notions. Second, the breath is controlled. This is the second leg of the tripod of tristhana. With the body in a sort of stasis brought on by the discipline of the bandhas, the breath becomes not exactly unnecessary, but superfluous. Thus the inhalation and exhalation are set aside. The breath and the mind move in tandem like Blue Angels or X-Wing fighters in attack formation. If you think you’re too cool for airshow and Star Wars references (which you aren’t by the way, so stop thinking you’re so cool), then you can use Richard Freeman’s visual of a school of fish. Where one turns, the other follows. If the one settles, so will the other. Third, when the mind is settled it stops seeking stimuli and so stimuli ceases to come in. In the tristhana method this is known as Drishti. Although at face value drishti is about controlling the eyes, I believe it applies to the other senses as well. Of Patañjali’s eight limbs this is the fifth, pratiyahāra. Commonly translated as “sense withdrawal,” the literal meaning is “going forth without carrying.”
After the body and the breath and the mind are brought to heel, you get the good stuff. Kevala-kumbha. This is a term like some others which is typically left translated. It’s something like a tautology. Or rather, perhaps better said that even in Sanskrit it’s pretty poetic and so translators choose to use it as a proper name instead of two words to translate. For the record, though— kevala means, and I quote from Monier-Williams: “exclusively one’s own; alone; only; mere; sole; one; excluding others; not connected with anything else; abstract; absolute; simple; pure….” There are about twenty five more meanings and senses. It is related to the word kaivalya (supreme, ultimate aloneness) which you may have encountered while studying Patañjali. Kumbha means: “a jar; pitcher; water-pot; ewer; small water jar.” Ok. How can these two words possibly be linked into something meaningful? Well, another word frequently, or rather interchangeably used with kumbha is kumbhaka. Some definitions for kumbhaka are: “a pot; a measure (of grain); stopping the breath by shutting the mouth and closing the nostrils with the fingers of the right hand (a religious exercise).” Bingo. If you think of the lungs as a pot which can be sealed either full (puraka) or empty (rechaka) then you have fresh insight into your pranayama terminology.
To sum up: through long-term diligent practice of āsana, pranayama, and meditation you may discipline your body, breath, and mind such that you find yourself in Kevala-kumbha, a deeply mediative state in which you spontaneously stops breathing. It is profound, powerful. But like even samadhi itself it is not the goal. It is a means to the end of liberation. If you find yourself in Kevala-kumbha you are well on your way.
In the upcoming ślokas we will see more expounding and waxing poetic on the wonders of this elusive occurrence. Stay tuned!