I posted yesterday here for my first time and received many very helpful answers. I'm so grateful for having found this site because I always have questions.

In continuing with yesterday's question regarding the Buddha's path to enlightenment, during his 6 years of searching he practiced extreme fasting, which I've heard of. But there's one mention that I've come across that states the following:

"Another way of torturing his body was to hold his breath for a long time until he felt violent pains in his ears, head and whole body. He would then fall senseless to the ground." (http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/lifebuddha/14lbud.htm)

Does anyone have any thoughts on the holding of the breath practice? Not that I'm interested in trying it myself or anything, that is, I'm aware that the Buddha eventually found these extremes to be unskillful, thus the middle way became his goal. I'm just curious as to its roots and the thought behind it.




6 Answers 6


Like most ascetic practices, there actually is some value to this kind of breath practice. The problem is that the concept behind it is often misunderstood and the mechanization that make it work get turned into something unskillful or even dangerous.

In Katsuki Sekida's book Zen Training, the relationship between blankness, mu (e.g. shunyata) and the breath is explored at length. If you are interested in this sort of thing (especially in relation to Zen practice) I'd strongly encourage you to check out the book in full. For now, we can do a little experiment. Watch your breathing for a minute. Once you've calmed your mind some - we'll say five minutes of anapansati practice - focus on fully exhaling all of the breath from your lungs. As you do that, watch your mind. You will notice that as your lungs empty, mental chatter subsides and is replaced by a sense of space or blankness. This is mu, albeit a very conditioned, superficial version of it.

Meditation practice, at least from a Zen perspective seeks to deepen this experience of voidness. The means for arriving there is to lightly watch the breath through one's inhalation, exhalations, and, most significantly, the space between the two. Eventually, this blankness will disconnect from the breath and become an object of meditation all on its own.

I suspect that the kind of breath practice undertaken by the striving Buddha was aimed at accessing this sort of blankness. Obviously, there are gentler and more effective ways of accomplishing this; that's why he left it behind!


In the ancient Hindu tradition, Tapasya or severe asceticism was the practice that was thought to give one special spiritual superhuman powers. There is some truth to that, if you think about it - it all boils down to developing will power.

What Buddha has realized, is that self-mortification and infliction of physical and psychological pain is counterproductive to the goal - however, development of will power - especially as it comes to one's ability to control one's thoughts, emotions, and the state of mind - is confirmed to be as valid as ever.

Holding one's breath is not especially more useful than any other physical exercise involving application of will power, otherwise Buddha would have taught it post-bodhi, but I'm sure there are other physical and mental exercises that can help one develop will power and control over one's attention, emotions, associations, mood, and energy - without risking health issues.


I'm just curious as to its roots and the thought behind it.

Self mortification is done with the intention that it will end the past store of bad Kamma through experiencing all negative karmic results through mortification. When all the past Karma is exhausted, it is expected that you reach enlightenment, i.e., you do not experience any more pain. This is the reasoning behind the Bodhisattva's mortification practice including breathless mediation, which was also based on widely held contemporary beliefs and practices.

Nirgranthas, you have done bad deeds before. Exhaust them through sharp painful austerities. And restraining your body, speech and mind right here and now, you would not be committing further karma. Thus, by the destruction of old karma through asceticism and by doing no fresh karma, there will be no more flow of karma through its being destroyed. With the destruction of karma, there is the destruction of suffering; with the destruction of suffering there is the destruction of feeling; with the destruction of feeling, all suffering will be exhausted.

Cūla Dukkha-k,khandha Sutta

‘Whatever this person feels—whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—all that is caused by past action.

Thus, by eliminating past action by asceticism, and by doing no new action, there

will be no further flood of karma.

Without further flood of karma, there is the destruction of karma.

With the destruction of karma, there is the destruction of suffering.

With the destruction of suffering, there is the destruction of feeling.

With the destruction of feeling, all suffering will be exhausted.’

Deva,daha Sutta - it is best you read the whole sutta as it is about self-mortification and too long to quote in full

during his 6 years of searching he practiced extreme ...

With regard to other references about Buddha's path to enlightenment and also self mortification see:

  • The first quote is a description of Nigaṇṭha i.e. Jain doctrine (which might be similar to the doctrine which the Bodhisattva was exploring).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 14:42

From personal experience breath stops when you reach a certain mental calmness or cessation of thought. I experienced it prior to knowing what it was all about, I just thought it was cool to continue living and not breath. I've just learned recently, this is a meditative state of Jnana. Everything turns off, sight, hearing and even the body is in a state of running on kamma energy. Years ago, I did try to hold my breath, thinking a near death experience would bring about enlightenment...it just hurt. This state is what many are intending to attain, but it comes from skills built up from past lives.

Prior to learning Buddha Dhamma I experienced the non-permanent or Anariya jhanas as compared to the Ariya jhanas. Ultimately what is most important is the purification of one’s own mind and the true meaning of anicca, dukkha and anatta (Tilakkhana) as it's impossible to maintain anything to our satisfaction in the longterm (anicca) and this causes suffering (dukkha) which leaves one helpless in the rebirth process in this world of 31 realms (anatta) of sansara governed by the laws of cause and effect (paticca samuppada). The following are links to references:

With metta, Donna :)

  • If you want to post a link, please specific link to a specific page (not a link to the top-level page of a whole web site), and only when that page is relevant to the specific questions which the OP asked (for example, in this case, about stopping breath).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 9:59
  • 1
    Ok, thank you! :) Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 13:26

Self-mortification was an accepted way of achieving elevated states of being in the Buddha's time and that is why He pursued them on his path of seeking liberation. In many of his teachings, post-enlightenment, as recorded in the suttas he specifically speaks about self-mortification to the ascetics of his day that were practicing them. His message to all of them was consistent and in my understanding could be oversimplified as saying something like, "You can practice any type of mortification you like, however it will not, in itself, move you forward on the path towards liberation." I am getting this specifically from sutta 25 from the Digha Nikaya but there are many other sutras where this can be found.

The Buddha taught that it is not practice of mortification that purifies the mind and heart but rather it is from refraining from unwholesome actions that cause unwholesome states to arise and unwholesome states to persist that will purify. Whether or not you practice holding your breath if you restrain yourself from being "pleased and satisfied at having attained your end" then you are purified. Whether you succeed at holding your breath or not, it is your restraint in not "elevating yourself and disparaging others" that purifies. If you practice self-mortification it is whether or not you harm living beings that counts. If you practice self-mortification it is whether you take what is not given that counts. If you practice self-mortification it is whether or not you lie that counts. If you practice self-mortification it is whether or not you crave for sense pleasures that counts. "And through this restraint, through making THIS austerity, he takes an upward course and does not fall back into lower things."


He tried both extremes. Kamasukhalyukanuyogaya was one extreme where as a prince he lived a life of luxury. Attakilamatanuyogaya was the other extreme of self torture.

What is important to note here is he gave up both extremes. It does not mean the solution is somewhere in the middle. Both the extremes as well as any moderation all remain in the mundane path (Loukika).

The only solution is not the middle path as popularly considered. The soulution is a total escape with Nibbana i.e. breaking the shackles that ties one to the mundane path.

This is becoming Lokottara i.e. super-mundane or escaping the mundane.

  • buddha-vacana.org/gloss.html#majjhimapatipada
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 23:08
  • The 2 syllables majjhi (intoxication) -mā (escape). People are intoxicated with the mundane life thus do not see an incentive to renunciate. majjhima means escaping this mindset. Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 23:12
  • Perhaps I see why you say that, i.e. the dictionary says that majjati means "intoxicated", and its past participle e.g. "Majjita" and its aorist e.g. "majji" almost sound like what you're saying. Anyway, the dictionary also says that Majjhima ("middle") is like the Vedic "madhyama". And perhaps you're right, i.e. it is the "middle" in the sense that it is neither extreme. SN 56.11 also says that the "middle way" is the noble eightfold path, so.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 1:55
  • Sura-meraya-majja-pamadatthana veramani <- that "majja" (intoxicate) Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 1:59
  • Yes that's Majja (a noun, an intoxicating drink). I think the Majjhima Nikaya for example is translated as the "Middle-length" discourses.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 2:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .